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Race for the North: Oregon

It’s way too early to have a good sense of how things will play out next season, but well past the point where it’s OK to start trying anyway. With some teams in the middle of spring practice, some just getting started and others set to begin in a few weeks, it felt like a good time to try to gauge expectations for next season. Over the next two weeks, we’ll take stock of each team in the Pac-12 and see how things are shaping up for 2017. Next up from the North: Oregon.

Ducks’ role in the division race: Thanks to so many returning starters and a very favorable Pac-12 schedule (missing USC during the regular season and getting UCLA, Oregon, Utah and Wazzu at home) Washington has positioned itself as the frontrunner in the North. But the Ducks have a lot going for them -- the momentum of Willie Taggart’s hire, the return of so many starters (including Royce Freeman, who seemed like a sure-thing to declare for the NFL Draft after last season), Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator and the unquantifiable weight of the chip on their shoulders from last season’s disappointments. Though the Huskies might have a bit more going their way, all signs seem to be pointing toward the 2016 season as being a flash in the pan for the Ducks’ serious struggles. This group is built to respond quickly, and the 2017 season could see just that happen. They might not bounce back to win the Pac-12 North title, but expect this group to compete better against top talent, pick up at least one big upset and be better positioned for a happier postseason than last.

What constitutes success: A winning record in conference play. Most Ducks fans want to say that they won’t take fewer than 10 wins, but after going 2-7 in Pac-12 play a season ago (including 0-5 in the Pac-12 North), 5-4 in conference would look pretty nice. With a favorable nonconference schedule, that could put Oregon at 8-4 a season after going 4-8. It’s also important in the games the Ducks don’t win next season that they’re competitive. Oregon lost two Pac-12 games last season by a field goal. But, in the Ducks’ other five losses, their average margin of loss was 25.4 points. If Taggart can double the win total, put the Ducks in a bowl game and avoid any really bad-looking losses, he should be able to chalk up 2017 as a successful season.

Spring priorities: The defense. Oregon’s offense returns quarterback Justin Herbert, Freeman (as well as his two backups), wide receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson, as well as five offensive linemen. They’re in good shape. Very, very good shape. The defense on the other hand? They’ve got some strides to make and improvement next fall begins with improvement this spring. The group returns a lot of depth and experience, but Leavitt needs to use this spring to really mold this group into a more physical, more aggressive, more productive unit that can actually compete with Pac-12 offenses in 2017.