Top-ranked Oregon will play barely ranked USC this Saturday.
Had you said this 30 years ago, you would have been thought delusional. Then, the Trojans won national championships and the Ducks struggled to win more games than they lost.
This week, undefeated Oregon heads into its Oct. 30 game at USC atop the national polls, though it’s still No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series (which also takes into account computer polls). USC is ranked 24th.
The Ducks are averaging nearly a point a minute—55.1 points per game, almost 40 points more than they’re surrendering.
Skeptics will tell you—correctly—that so far Oregon has played only one solid team, Stanford, and trailed in each of its three road games. They also will note that Oregon has folded after strong starts before. In 2001, Oregon began the season 6-0 before blowing a two-touchdown lead to Stanford and losing at home. In 2007, the second-ranked Ducks collapsed in mid-November at Arizona after quarterback Dennis Dixon crumpled on the field with a knee injury.
So with five regular-season games remaining this year against the toughest part of their schedule, is there reason to believe this season will be any different?
Maybe. At least, here’s what we Ducks fans tell ourselves at pregame tailgaters after the shots of Jagermeister and pulls of Widmer kick in:
1.Mike Bellotti, who got the Ducks to this same point in 2001 and 2007, was a very good coach. Chip Kelly is a great coach. Bellotti was a publicly modest guy who elevated Oregon football into a regular contender for the conference title after taking over in 1995. But he lacked the “we’ll dictate this game” aggressiveness of Kelly, who replaced Bellotti in 2009. Kelly has Oregon’s offense play at a blistering pace that confuses defenses, who don’t have time to substitute. And his willingness to take risks—like going for it on fourth down, harks back to Steve Spurrier in his heyday at Florida. On defense, Kelly has defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti blitz the undersized Ducks defenders more often and force the other team into turnovers (a nation-leading plus-12 in seven games). In short, Kelly is Phil Knight’s wet dream, a coach who is as competitive and innovative as the Nike founder and Duck booster. Here’s a killer stat for you: No team in Division 1 football scores as many points as the Oregon Ducks, and no major-college team has finished the season with that high a scoring average since Army averaged 56 points per game in 1944.
2.Quarterback Darron Thomas is more well-rounded than Jeremiah Masoli. There are few better signs of Oregon’s depth than the fact that Thomas, a sophomore, has already made the disgraced Masoli (a senior now playing for Ole Miss after his multiple run-ins with cops) an afterthought. Thomas is not the physical runner Masoli was, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s a much better passer—already throwing more TD passes than Masoli did all last year and averaging more yards per attempt, as well as having a much higher overall QB rating.
3.Cliff Harris. The sophomore cornerback and kick returner is indicative of the kind of athletes Oregon now recruits. Fond of referring to himself in the third person, Harris recently styled himself in a Fresno Bee interview as “the cheese on top of the nachos.” Oh yeah, he’s also already returned one interception and three punts for TDs. He is a lockdown pass defender with the flair of Deion “Prime Time” Sanders.
So what happens this Saturday when Oregon plays USC?
The Trojans will be rested after a bye week. And given that NCAA violations mean USC can’t play in a bowl game this year, Oregon is the Trojans’ bowl game. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who has 20 TD passes and just four interceptions so far, will have a big day. But don’t expect the Trojans to win. Though the Ducks have played a cupcake schedule so far, USC’s has been just as pastry-heavy. The five teams USC has beaten have a combined record of only 15-18 other than their games against the Trojans.
And here’s a more significant matchup than Barkley vs. Oregon’s defense: Trojans coach Lane Kiffin vs. Oregon coach Chip Kelly. Both have 17 wins all-time as head coaches, including Kiffin’s stint with the Oakland Raiders. Kelly, however, has just three losses. Kiffin has 23.
Oregon whipped USC at home last year 47-20, but many national pundits considered that an aberration in what’s been USC’s traditional dominance of the conference. This year will be no aberration when Kelly leads Oregon to a 49-38 victory that proves—at least for this week—that the Ducks are the power in the Pac-10.