Oregon Football: Marcus Mariota’s return has Ducks poised for Pac-12 North crown

In a shocking decision to forgo being a top-10 NFL draft pick, Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota is returning for his redshirt junior season in 2014. By temporarily leaving millions of dollars on the table, the Hawaiian gunslinger looks to settle unfinished business with the Ducks before taking his talents to the next level.

Joining Mariota in returning for another season to Oregon is three-year starting center Hroniss Grasu and another potential first round pick in defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu were all named to the first team Pac-12 all-conference team.

On offense Oregon is returning 10 starters, but losing talented halfback De’Anthony Thomas and senior wide receiver Josh Huff. Thomas was replaced by the larger Byron Marshall following an early season injury during the opening kickoff against Cal. The offense looks to return to form following a late season undermining in head coach Mark Helfrich’s rookie season.

The biggest obstacle for Oregon’s offense in 2014 hopes of the Pac-12 North title is the dominant Stanford Cardinal defense. Stanford, the reigning back-to-back Pac-12 champion, has dominated the Ducks’ offense the past two years. The two teams have won the past four Pac-12 championships, but Oregon has mustered only 34 points against the stingy Cardinal D in their last two meetings.

Despite ruining Oregon’s BCS title chances the previous two seasons, Stanford now must rebuild one of the nation’s best defenses with the loss of Duck-killer Trent Murphy. The Ducks should be able to finally squeak past the Cardinal in 2014 with plenty of motivation to avenge two failed Pac-12 season campaigns.

Defensively, the Ducks lucked out with the return of Ekpre-Olomu, but suffered a giant loss with the retirement of long-time defensive coordinator Nick Alioti. Alioti guided the Oregon defense since 1999, enjoying three BCS bowl victories and one appearance in the BCS title game.

Coupled with the loss of shutdown corner Terrance Mitchell, the Oregon defense will depend on a talented blend of upperclassmen and new arrivals. Two top defensive recruits from 2013, the Robinson twins, Tyree and Tyrell, will look to make an immediate impact on the field. Both brothers have the skill to play numerous positions on the field.

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If Oregon can navigate an early season landmine against potential preseason top-10 Michigan State their Pac-12 schedule has the potential to land the Ducks in position for the first College Football Playoff.  The Ducks face the only two teams to defeat them in 2013, Stanford and Arizona, in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.

With a plethora of returning talent paired with an easier Pac-12 schedule than 2013 and a returning Heisman favorite. The Ducks look to be the favorite to win the Pac-12 North as well as the Pac-12. Look for the Ducks to finish their season with a run into the inaugural College Football Playoff.