October 17th, 2010 5:33 pm | by HANK STERN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Sports, Sports

The Ducks Are #1, Now What?

Oregon Ducks At The Rose Bowl

OK. The unthinkable has happened. Thanks to Wisconsin knocking off top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, Oregon is ranked #1 for the first time.

Before I get into the reasons to believe the Ducks can stay atop the rankings in the second half of the football season-and the reasons to fear they can't-I'd like to take a moment to savor this miracle. The fact that Oregon could ever be the top-ranked team would have been laughable to anyone from my generation who grew up here in the 70s watching those sad-sack Ducks teams go up against USC every season or get crushed out of conference by LSU, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Alright, moment savored. Now here are the top three reasons I fear it won't last and the top three reasons I think it might. First, the negative:

1) As with all things football, injury to key players can devastate a team-which Oregon fans know all too well. And the Ducks have been fortunate this season in their first six games largely to have avoided that problem. Quarterback Darron Thomas looks to be recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered against WSU. The status of backup running back/kick returner Kenjon Barner coming back from his concussion is more uncertain. But it's scary to think about any turn of injury fate that would take out Thomas and backup QB Nate Costa (already worrisome with his long history of knee injuries), or an injury to running back/Heisman contender LaMichael James, if Barner is out for a while. The dropoff to the third-string running back or quarterback, even in this era of greater Ducks depth, is a big one (especially if coach Chip Kelly doesn't take the redshirt off freshman running back Lache Seastrunk. BTW, anybody else think Kelly's comment in this morning's Oregonian on not doing that was a subtle dig at former coach Mike Bellotti for burning Thomas' redshirt in 2008?)

2) Oregon really has just one quality win so far. Yes, the Stanford comeback was huge at home. But the Tennessee win looks less impressive over time as the Vols pile up losses. And conference victories, even on the road, over Arizona State and Washington State, showed enough holes that it's hardly time to make reservations for the national championship game. Looking ahead, Oregon beats UCLA big at home this Thursday and will win closer games against Washington at home on Nov. 6 and at a struggling Cal the following week. But even a weakened USC is a little scary on Oct, 30 with quarterback Matt Barkley. And the Arizona game the day after Thanksgiving certainly has payback potential for the Wildcats after last year's comeback by Oregon.

3) Speaking of payback, here's my largest fear even after Oregon State's brutal loss last night to Washington. Let's say Oregon doesn't get major injuries and is 11-0 heading into Corvallis. The yin and yang of being a sports fan makes that game a heart-stopping prospect after the Ducks have knocked the Beavers out of the Rose Bowl two years running.

Now here are my three reasons an undefeated season just might happen.

1) Coach Chip Kelly has a hurry-up offense that nobody has figured out yet, other than having opposing players feign injuries on defense to slow up Oregon. Yes, teams will eventually devise defenses to stop this, but maybe not this season.

2) Kelly also seemingly has the ability to instill a confidence in his players that they can overcome any problem or deficit. The obvious contrast here is when Dixon got hurt in 2007 and then-Coach Mike Bellotti let the Ducks curl up in the fetal position (one more BTW on Bellotti: Any other Ducks fan hear him talking about "clock management" during last night's OSU-UW broadcast and wonder how he could ever criticize any other coach on that score?)

3) Oregon's defense and special teams, as former player/current broadcaster Anthony Newman often points out, has guys who make big plays at key moments. Watch enough of those plays from Cliff Harris, John Boyett, Brandon Bair, Kenny Rowe, etc. and there's reason to believe this season could be something special.
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