“The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
This year is one of the most important years in the history of Oregon football. During the years of Mike Bellotti, the football program was solid – very successful, but never quite reaching the heights that would come after the ascension of Chip Kelly. Now, however, fans, players, the media and the nation have watched as the program has rocketed to a place among the elite of college football. It has become the de facto expectation that Oregon will continue to win 11 or 12 games each year and end up in a BCS game or in the four-team playoff that is coming for the 2014 season and beyond. No longer is the goal the Rose Bowl. Now it is the “Natty” or bust. Anything less will be a disappointment.
Oregon football has become synonymous with success.
Kelly is gone. Mark Helfrich has stepped into the spotlight. Few first-year coaches have had so much pressure placed upon them, and it remains to be seen whether Helfrich can continue the run of tremendous success Kelly established. Will he continue in that vein, or do the Ducks slip back into the good-but-not-great category of college teams?
There is some irony in the fact that if Helfrich does well — especially if Kelly bombs in Philadelphia — the naysayers will continue to insist that Oregon is a system-based school that relies on schemes and cleverness, and neither coach will get the credit they deserve.
There is no way to honestly predict what will come this year. The minor weaknesses (linebacker, running back depth) could very well turn out to be strengths or could end up being major holes in the program, causing the Ducks to lose games they were expected to win. Marcus Mariota could take a step back, or he could win the Heisman Trophy. De’Anthony Thomas may find that being the every-down back is beyond his capabilities, and the backs behind him on the depth chart are simply not ready for prime time. Yet, with all of this is speculation, no one will really know the answers until the games get played.
Those answers are of extreme importance to the program. A step back will call into question all the expansion, the new facilities and the direction of Oregon football. A regression will give ammunition to rival recruiters just at a time when Oregon is starting to consistently lure the type of players that normally flock to USC and Alabama. A down season – eight or nine wins – could be a turn of events that sends the U of O back to the standards of the Bellotti era, back to being good but not great.
Oregon is playing big-boy football now. The pressure is intense, the expectations unfair, but everyone in the program, from the equipment managers all the way up to the athletic director, accepts and embraces the new reality of Duck football. The National Championship is the yearly goal now, and nothing else will do.
So what will it be? Did Kelly install a culture of winning that will stretch into the foreseeable future, or was Chip’s time at Oregon a rare, magical moment in the athletic history of the University of Oregon? Will the Ducks continue to Win the Day, or will they slip back to a lower standard?
The program has come a long way from the days of Brooks and Bellotti, but there is still some unfinished business. National championships are waiting to be claimed. Can Oregon grab the prize, and establish themselves as one of the greatest programs ever, or will they falter and watch their quest for the National Championship fail?
A new era begins this year. Whether the quest succeeds or fails remains to be seen.
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