Best estimates are that two thirds to three quarters of the more than 80,000 who will be attending Saturday’s Cowboy’s Classic will be wearing the purple & gold of the Louisiana State Bayou Tigers.
As was the case in Oregon’s last high profile outing against an SEC opponent – January’s BCS championship game, the Tigers – though of Auburn and wearing orange and blue –outnumbered Oregon’s traveling contingent by a significant margin.
A decisive factor in either contest? Probably not although this will be the first time Oregon will face LSU somewhere other than in Baton Rouge were the ratio would have been closer to 18-1.
Overall, Oregon is 2-1 against LSU, with the Ducks drawing first blood with a 12-0 win in 1932, then dropping the next two; 14-13 two years later and 56-17 in 1977.
Both sides will be without key players due to off-field incidents.
On paper, the Tigers are taking the biggest hit, losing starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson to suspension after he was charged with assault by the Baton Rouge police after a bar fight. Reserve linebacker Josh Johns was also arrested and suspended indefinitely by head coach Les Miles.
For the Ducks, corner back Cliff Harris is sidelined indefinitely in the wake of his now notorious I-5 traffic stop. Also missing for at least the opener is linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Other question marks exist beyond the banished for both teams.
“We’re going to be young,” said head coach Chip Kelly. “We’ve known that since January 10th.”
Offensively the Ducks will be replacing key members of the offensive line and at wide receiver. Hroniss Grasu has won the starting nod at center and will have Darrian Weems and Carson York on his left and Ramsen Golpashin and Mark Asper on the right when the Ducks take the field. But Nick Cody, Karrington Armstrong and Ryan Clanton remain variables in the mix.
As is who will line up where after Lavaier Tuinei, David Paulson and Josh Huff fill three of the outside spots. Justin Hoffman opens at the top of the week one depth chart but a number of others will be given an opportunity to earn playing time.
Harris’ absence in the secondary not withstanding, Oregon’s defensive concerns lie not in the secondary where John Boyett, Eddie Pleasant and Anthony Guildon return, but at linebacker and on the defensive line.
For game one at least it is red-shirt freshman Terrance Mitchell who will take Harris’ spot in the secondary, so expect LSU’s Jarret Lee – who has been tabbed for the start while Jefferson is suspended – to look to that side of the field early and often.
During fall camp linebacker Michael Clay was frequently singled out for his grasp of coordinator Nick Aliotti’s defensive schemes and his leadership skills. The 5’-11”, 225 pounder will start on the weak side with Dewitt Stuckey in the middle and Josh Kaddu on the strong side. And as was the case last year, Boseko Lokombo see plenty of snaps and that mix will get deeper when Alonso suspension ends.
The front line defense will see Terrell Turner, Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli, Brandon Jordan and Dion Jordan continue the revolving door substitution pattern seen last year.
Oregon’s clear advantage over the Tigers then is returning stars Darron Thomas at quarterback and running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. That’s a LOT of offensive firepower no matter how vigorously SEC partisans may point to the difficulty the Ducks had running the ball against Auburn.
While Louisiana State won’t have a Nick Fairly to throw at the Oregon running game, they will have plenty of athleticism chasing a Duck with the ball.
Both James and Barner added 15 pounds of muscle over the off season to give Oregon’s running game a more physical dimension and another year of experience is wearing well for quarterback Darron Thomas.
Oregon’s #3 pre-season ranking is mostly due to that talented trio and another shot at an SEC team on a national stage to open the season is a powerful motivation for each. Thomas spoke of a “Christmas morning” quality to the opening of fall camp – an excitement and anticipation to the opening of a new season. He was right, and now it is here.
— Rick Morgan for EDN