Steve Dykes, Getty Images
Oregon running back LaMichael James was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season as a sophomore.

Editor's note: This is the first of a 12-part series breaking down the 12 teams in the Pac-12 Conference, beginning with the conference favorite Oregon Ducks.

LOS ANGELES — Despite speculation to the contrary, the Oregon Ducks aren't quacking up. The preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 championship are determined not to dwell on the NCAA inquiry concerning their use of recruiting services. They issued a statement on the matter at media day and made it clear the preferred topic of choice was football.

"We're excited about the 2011 season," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "I'd like to commend the media that covers this conference, because I think you're the smartest ones out there. You picked us to win the league."

The Ducks, he insists, are in a good place.

"We're coming off back-to-back Pac-10 championships as we move into a brand-new league with a brand-new television contract," Kelly said. "It's a bright future for us."

After reaching the Rose Bowl and then the BCS Championship Game over the past two seasons, Oregon is certainly on a roll.

"It's nice to be picked to win. It's nice to be picked top five in the country," Kelly said. "But it doesn't mean anything until you go out and play the game."

Fortunately for the Ducks, they'll continue to do so with talented running back LaMichael James. The junior won the Doak Walker Award last season and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

Quarterback Darron Thomas is another skilled junior. So, too, are defensive backs John Boyett and Cliff Harris (who has been suspended by Kelly for at least the opener against LSU after being cited for driving 118 mph with a suspended license in June).

They're expected to lead the way in Oregon's bid to remain among the nation's elite.

"I think the vision that we have for this football program exceeds any expectations that anybody could write down on a piece of paper," Kelly said.

OFFENSE: The Ducks averaged 44.8 points per game in conference play a year ago, netting 513 yards per outing. While a majority of the starters return, they do need to find three new starters on the offensive line and a replacement for top receiver Jeff Maehl (77 catches).

DEFENSE: A majority of last season's starters have moved on. Overall depth has taken a hit. Last season's 25-man defensive rotation may be reduced to 18 this time around. Three starting spots on the line and two at linebacker need to be filled. The secondary, though, is experienced.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A strong suit for Oregon. Harris led the Pac-10 in punt returns in 2010, averaging a whopping 18.8 yards over 29 opportunities with four scores. Other players to watch include kicker Rob Beard, punter Jackson Rice and kickoff returner Josh Huff.

PLAYMAKERS: James ran for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns last season as a sophomore, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. ... Thomas is a quarterback of note with 2,881 passing yards and 30 touchdown tosses. ... Harris and Boyett combined for 11 interceptions last season.

TOUGH STRETCH: A season-opening date with LSU in Arlington, Texas, isn't the easiest way to start things off. The Ducks, however, may be most challenged by a November slate featuring trips to Washington and Stanford before home dates against USC and Oregon State.

EXTRA POINTS: Oregon is 13-0 at Autzen Stadium under Kelly. ... The Ducks were ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for seven weeks in 2010 before losing to Auburn 22-19 in the BCS National Championship Game. ... Oregon has scored 1,080 points over the past two seasons, averaging 41.5 per game.

Ducks at a glance

2011 media poll: 1st, North

2010 record: 12-1, 9-0

Head coach: Chip Kelly (22-4, third season)

2011 schedule

Sept. 3 vs. LSU

(at Arlington, Texas)

Sept. 10 NEVADA


Sept. 24 at Arizona



Oct. 22 at Colorado


Nov. 5 at Washington

Nov. 12 at Stanford

Nov. 19 USC