We're lucky enough to have the self-proclaimed "talking torso" of SBNation, co-host of the wonderful Solid Verbal podcast, and perhaps most importantly–at least for today's purpose–distinguished Oregon alumnus, Dan Rubenstein, with us for a little Oregon-TCU Q&A.
As we said above, Dan is the co-host of The Solid Verbal, which is not only one of the best college football podcasts, but one of the best podcasts in general. If you're a college football fan, which you're reading this so I'm guessing you are, I really recommend you listen if haven't already. The Solid Verbal is now officially a part of SBNation–though, I thought it always was.
You can find Dan just about everywhere on SBNation, but another great place to find him is on Easy Call and Wake Up College Football, which are also some of my favorite college football things. The former mashes up two of my favorite things, college football and good food. And while it's a pipe dream of mine to turn Frogs O'War into a food blog, I'm content if TCU just shows up on Easy Call. Secondly, alongside another great SBNation personality, the brilliant Celebrity Hot Tub-- aka Ryan Nanni--Wake Up College Football is a great way to recap the week of the greatest American sport.
Our purpose today is to talk about the Alamo Bowl, which is pretty much unanimously voted as the best non-playoff game, with many ranking it higher than most of the NY6 games. There's no doubt this is appointment viewing. So in honor of this, we had to get Dan on, and I'm very glad we did.
Thanks for stopping by, Dan. As a proud Oregon alumni, are you, at least in some capacity, content of where the Ducks ended up this year?
No problem, I've always had a soft spot for the Frogs, excited for the Alamo.
I am indeed content, though it's been a weird, winding road getting here.
Finishing 15th in the nation, considering preseason and early season injuries (namely QB Vernon Adams's broken finger, but they lost key offensive skill players before or shortly into the season) some strange coaching decisions early on (pulling offensive starters prematurely vs Washington State and a scaled back defensive scheme badly backfired), isn't the worst thing in the world, especially with losing an all-time talent like Marcus Mariota, but the miscues, outside of injury, were somewhat avoidable.
After winning six in a row (including impressive showings vs Stanford and USC) and seeing Vernon Adams finish as the most efficient QB country, the back half of the season is largely an overwhelming success. That said, Oregon's offense, when operating at the level it did, did a good amount to mask a number of problems with Oregon's defense, namely with the linebackers and defensive backs, who struggled a good portion of the year.
All in all, though, a hundred teams would love to win as much as Oregon has and did in 2015.
There was maybe a little premature concern about the future of Oregon-I mean, it was like the Ducks were actually in Thelma and Louise-going off a cliff. Did you buy into this at all? Were you always #TeamMark?
There was concern, some of it too much, some of it warranted. Since Marcus Mariota, Oregon has struggled to recruit a high school QB capable of successfully running the Duck offense, one that's led the Pac-10/12 in rushing every year for a decade, mind you. Not on a Heisman or top 20 QB-type level, but a functional convert-third-downs-and-be-
On top of this, longtime LB coach Don Pellum was elevated to defensive coordinator before last year, and while the Duck defense was alright last year (largely due to great turnover margin), the Duck defense looked lost most of 2015, reflecting poorly on his schematic and teaching efforts.
Oregon's still in a very good place, and Mark Helfrich's job focusing the team after setbacks has been outstanding, but a program can only look like a top ten team for so long with QB and defensive scheme issues.
Losing Chip is as tough as it gets. What's the fan support of Helfrich been like in the post-Chip era?
For good reason, fan support of Helfrich has been largely positive. He's local, familiar, doesn't say controversial things, has gotten Oregon a Heisman Trophy winner, another trip to the national championship game, and has helped to keep Oregon's offense humming as perhaps the most devastating in the country during his three years at the helm.
This is the part of his career, though, with the Ducks losing offensive coordinator Scott Frost to the head coaching job at UCF, making new hires, playing with his own players as a head coach, and making tough decisions about his staff and their responsibilities, that will be most telling.
The chirping started this year because of the defense and lack of QB depth, but he righted the ship. The expectations are rightfully very high in Eugene, though, and I'm not sure that he'll be given a pass on some of the questionable coaching moves of 2015 forever.
What's the tailgating scene like in Eugene? Has it intensified since you've graduated?
I wish I could speak more to this than I can, as the SBN gig has me largely in NYC during the season. I haven't been to Eugene since 2011, but I imagine the passion and tailgating continues to be strong. There's a cool little path over a river and through a forest that people coming from campus walk down, but other than that, tailgating in Eugene is pretty standard - a good amount of great local food and beer, some creative cars/buses/ambulances, but as someone who's traveled pretty extensively, nothing wildly unique.
New Kids on the Block Question: Oregon has earned the right to be called an elite program; what do you think it'll take a team like TCU, if they haven't already, to be considered elite?
Oregon certainly is a top level program at this point and I think TCU is a rung below, but a program built to take a leap if things continue to fall into place. As frog fans have seen, a marriage between an experienced/talented QB and the right system goes a long way, but even more importantly, (good) coaching continuity, nearby talent, and playing well in big, national games go a long way. It took Oregon, in earnest, about 15 years to go from being a program that could pop up every once in awhile to one considered to be top five year in and year out. Obviously, the Ducks had and have Phil Knight and Nike brand helping with the marketing and facilities, but they still had to win games.
With the Big 12 still looking relatively top-heavy, TCU will need to beat Baylor and OU much more often than not, win some big games early (Arkansas and Ohio State home and homes are a great start), and find themselves in late November playoff and Fiesta Bowl conversations EVERY. DAMN. YEAR. It's still crazy to me that Oregon has reached this point, but with a great head coach and a terrific recruiting base, TCU has what it takes.
I probably know the answer to this, but who's your All-Time favorite Duck? And if it's Mariota, who's No.2?
It's hard for it not to be Marcus Mariota, he was just so... perfect, but beyond him, it's probably LaMichael James. Even with DeAnthony Thomas around, nobody felt more automatic in the open field and I LOVED saying, "Gone" as soon as he got a crease. His time in the NFL hasn't been the best, but he was an absolute warrior for the Ducks during his career and I couldn't have enjoyed watching him more. Played a lot bigger than his listed size.
What's the greatest Oregon team of all time?
See this is a great question and I've gone back and forth on this, but I think the answer is the 2012 Ducks, Chip Kelly's final year, Mariota's first (RS Fr). They went 12-1 with Mariota handing it off to Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas, throwing to Josh Huff, Bralon Addison, and Colt Lyerla, and operated behind a deep line with three starters starting in the NFL now and a fourth about to be. Defensively they were skilled and deep everywhere and it was just one of those years where, at 12-1 with a terribly close and heartbreaking loss to Stanford, being a very dominant 12-1 just wasn't enough. Killer bad luck, it feels like they were clicking on a level higher than they ever have in every facet.
TCU and Oregon nearly met in the 2011 National Championship? Who wins that game?
I'd say probably Oregon because of depth and being tested in better ways because of a better schedule (including dropping 52 on a Harbaugh/Luck Stanford team), but the margin is pretty slim. They beat a better Wisconsin team (with Russell Wilson) the following year in the Rose Bowl, so I'll count that as a similar common opponent.
You've been in the College Football realm for a while, when did the Frogs first appear on your radar?
Great question, I think they first stood out to be with Andy Dalton and their MWC dominance. Then it was all the cheerleader/crowd shots on Fox during the 2010 (?) Fiesta Bowl. Yeah, that didn't hurt. The Frogs squarely have my attention, that's for sure.
I'm sure you're in some Oregon group text with your college friends. Is there a perception of TCU; football or fanbase-wise?
I think the biggest perception is DANGER, at least a healthier TCU team. Early on this year, Oregon fans were (rightfully) terrified of very good QBs with the Ducks' very green secondary, but now I think the mood is more "this is gonna be fun watching two really good offenses in a dome." The Alamo is still a slight disappointment with the Rose being a breath away, but Oregon certainly likes playing well against top teams in states where they recruit.
What should TCU fans worry about other than a healthy Adams? Is losing Scott Frost a huge gash going into the Alamo Bowl?
Vernon Adams throws a VERY nice deep ball and buys himself a good amount of time in the backfield to let a group of very, very fast receivers get open, but Royce Freeman runs the ball on a Heisman level and is happy to take advantage of softer fronts. On the other side, while the back 7-8 guys aren't the most consistent, Oregon may (sort of secretly) have the best down lineman in the country in DeForest Buckner, who I think graded out the highest of any defensive linemen over the course of the season on Pro Football Focus's grading scale. He's a monstrous 6'7" 300 lb future first round 3-4 DE who has basically become unblockable. He alters game plans.
Losing Frost isn't ideal, but I would imagine at this time, Oregon offensive gameplanning has become a known process with Helfrich's familiarity as the former OC and WR coach Matt Lubick being the presumed new OC.
How do the Ducks win? How do they lose?
The Ducks win by keeping the TCU defense on their heels with their balance and by keeping TCU's offensive speed in front of them on defense. They lose if they give Boykin too much time and consistently don't get off the field on obvious passing downs.
What's your favorite place to eat in Texas?
Favorite ATX taco is from the Pueblo Viejo cart in Austin, the taco is called the ‘taco bueno' - it's their breakfast taco with chorizo, potato, egg, and cheese. Always on their fresh corn tortillas (made across the street at a tortilla factory) and always with a squirt or three of salsa verde.
Also love the Micklethwait BBQ/Craft Meats cart in East Austin. Really exceptional BBQ and housemade sausages.
Will you be in San Antonio on January 2nd?
Gah, I wish, but I'll be back home in LA resting up before heading to Arizona to cover the national championship game.
Finally, The Great American Pastime; if you can, give me a score prediction.