Chris Petersen

Mario Cristobal shifts Ducks' recruiting into overdrive, but will he win?

Mario Cristobal shifts Ducks' recruiting into overdrive, but will he win?

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal received more questions about one particular subject during Pac-12 media day today in Hollywood, Calif. 

Not about quarterback Justin Herbert, although several were asked. Not about the defense. Not about the tough competition in the Pac-12 North Division. 

No, the topic Cristobal was most asked about revolved around recruiting. 

Maybe that's because if there is one aspect of being a major college coach that everyone knows Cristobal has down it is recruiting. Oregon landed four four-star recruits in the past week to launch its national class ranking up to No. 3 on Rivals.com and to No. 4 on 247sports.com's composite rankings. 

"Talent acquisition is always going to be one of the three parts that make a program what it is," Cristobal told reporters. "So we're very aggressive, but we're aggressive when we identify something that we see that really fits us at Oregon, what we want to be and what we want to become."

What UO wants to become is champions, something that hasn't happened since the Ducks won the Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl playoff game in 2014, two head coaches ago. Cristobal enters his first season at the helm of UO's program facing the daunting task of living up to those expectations. 

We all know former coach Mark Helfrich could win. He led that 2014 team. But Helfrich struggled to recruit at a high level and player discipline lacked under his watch. A 4-8 season in 2016 did him in. His replacement, Willie Taggart, at this time last season had the No. 1-ranked class in the nation according to Scout.com. He has demonstrated that he can coach by turning around three programs. But he left for Florida State after a 7-6 season last year. 

The Ducks turned to Taggart's former co-offensive coordinator, Cristobal, named recruiter of the year in 2015 while an assistant at Alabama. His one prior stint as a head coach resulted in a 27-48 record at Florida International, but that record includes lean years while rebuilding one of the nation's worst programs, one that didn't have an adequate weight room when he arrived.  

Cristobal has the state-of-the-art everything at Oregon. He parlayed that into a No 18 ranked recruiting class in February after salvaging what he could after Taggart's departure. But another thing Cristobal did after Taggart left was lose 38-28 to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. 

That is the only time Cristobal has taken the field as Oregon's coach and it resulted in an ugly mess. Even with Herbert at quarterback, the Ducks managed just one offensive touchdown through 57 minutes of action. The team averaged 51 points in the seven games Herbert started under Taggart. 

The Pac-12 media poll pegged the Ducks to be the third best team in the North Division. That's fair. There is no reason why Oregon should fall behind California or Oregon State. But with Herbert a year older, there is also zero reason why the Ducks can't finish second behind seemingly unbeatable Washington, reach nine victories with an embarrassingly soft non-conference schedule and win a second-tier bowl game. 

Those are realistic expectations for a team that went 7-2 with Herbert healthy last season. 

Oregon's talent won't overwhelm the top teams in the conference. Where Cristobal will be tested is in his ability to out-scheme opposing coaches at this level and steal a win or two against the top teams on the schedule. Cristobal got that done for the most part at FIU and his ability to turn that program around bodes well for his potential to win with the Ducks. Still, this is a different level. The Pac-12 boasts coaches the caliber of Stanford's David Shaw, Washington's Chris Petersen, Arizona's Kevin Sumlin and UCLA's Chip Kelly, to name a handful.

The latter, of course, won three conference titles at Oregon and created the somewhat warped expectations that helped lead to Helfrich losing his job and now hang over Cristobal. 

If Cristobal is going to make a splash, he'd better do it quickly because there is no guarantee that he will ever have a quarterback of Herbert's level on the roster again, even if the team's overall talent level continues to rise thanks to quality recruiting under his watch. 

None of this is to say that Cristobal will fail. The hunch here is that he will not run the program into the ground. But delivering a championship will be a tall order in an era where Washington and USC are humming. We just don't know if Cristobal is ready to guide a winning program in an FBS conference, or how long he will be given to figure things out should he fail to do so right away. 

But we're about to find out. And the journey should prove to be quite entertaining. 

QB change? Ducks were just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

QB change? Ducks were just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

It was a controversial move by Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich last week when he decided to turn the keys to his team's offense over to true freshman Justin Herbert. Was this the right time? Why not wait until after a bye week? Why do it against one of the nation's hungriest, quarterback-gobbling teams?

Well, Helfrich probably knew something we didn't know -- that it didn't matter. Herbert played just fine for a freshman. It was not a special performance but he seemed to get through it without injury, which was one of my concerns. What difference does it make who plays quarterback if you're going to allow 70 points?

Helfrich's move was just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Ducks are sinking fast. Might as well play the young kid if you're going to get your tailfeathers kicked anyway. At this point, Oregon needs to forget about that "Win The Day" stuff and think about "Win A Day." Or "Win A Game."

A bowl game? Seems impossible at this point.

Yes, the Huskies have more talent than Oregon -- the result of apparently out-recruiting everyone in the conference by a wide margin over the last couple of years. But should we be surprised? No -- Coach Chris Petersen beat Pac-12 teams with players he could attract to Boise, Idaho -- he ought to be able to recruit better ones to Seattle. You may remember Petersen, by the way. He'll forever be known as the guy Oregon should have begged to take its head-coaching position when it gift-wrapped the job for Helfrich.

But that's ancient history, as is Oregon's swagger and aura of dominance. The Ducks were never in this game... never made anyone think they had a tiny chance of winning. All the glitz, glitter and glamor of the Oregon program -- the locker rooms, the uniforms, the study center, the medical treatment facility, all of it -- has suddenly been rendered meaningless. The Ducks used to have teams beaten when they strutted out on the field behind that motorcycle. But those days are gone.

All season, Duck apologists have been whistling the same tune: "Fans have been spoiled. Don't panic. Every team goes through times like this. These guys were in the national championship just a couple of seasons ago. It's cyclical and this is just a momentary speed bump."

It doesn't look like that to me. In college football, if the recruiting and coaching slides just a little bit, the dropoff in performance can be steep. It can go fast -- very fast. If you aren't moving forward you are falling behind. Just repeating what's been done before simply doesn't work.

All those things that used to be Oregon advantages are now commonplace, just a couple of years later.

Oregon beat teams with its tempo and an innovative spread offense -- which has little impact now because everyone is doing it. The uniforms were a big recruiting deal -- but a lot of teams are fiddling around with their uniforms. Fancy locker rooms? Just about everybody in the conference has built a new operations center, locker room, practice area, study center and/or training facility.

What's left is coaching, which also means recruiting. And keeping players focused.

Look, I'm not in that locker room or on the sidelines but for all those people who are saying they are worried the Ducks might quit on this season, I must tell you -- it sure appeared they've already quit.

And really, that's the best possible excuse for what happened Saturday night in Autzen.

Because if it's strictly a talent issue... If the Ducks didn't quit, well, it's a sobering thought for this program to come to grips with suddenly being 50 points worse than a team it had beaten 12 seasons in a row.