One of the biggest fears any fanbase has going into a season is losing to an inferior opponent. These losses aren’t just unexpected, they’re completely contrary to what fans expect, making them absolutely devastating to the fans of the favored team. There’s a reason they’re called “upsets.”
Luckily for Ducks fans, the past four seasons have basically been upset-free. Sure, Oregon’s had some excruciatingly tough losses, but those came against good teams. In the four years with Chip Kelly as head coach, the Ducks didn’t just beat most of the teams they were favored against, they crushed them.
The only tight games Oregon played last season were the 62-51 win over USC and the 17-14 loss to eventual Rose Bowl champion Stanford. They won every other game by at least 18 points.
In 2011, Oregon lost to LSU and USC, who both finished the season in the Top-10 of the AP poll. Other than those two games and the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, the Ducks won every game by at least 17 points.
Oregon obviously lost a close game to Auburn in the 2010 National Championship, but no one would consider that an upset. The Ducks also played a painfully close game against Cal that season, but no other team came close to “upsetting” Oregon.
2009 featured some close games against teams that played the Ducks tougher than expected, including the 51-42 loss to Stanford. However, the Cardinal were solid that year, and the Ducks still made it to the Rose Bowl.
So, the Ducks have proven over the last four seasons that they have avoided the upsets that seem to plague many top programs over a multi-year span.
But Kelly has moved on to coach another team with a bird mascot, a dual-threat quarterback, and freak athletes at the skill positions. As impressive as Mark Helfrich has looked so far, we don’t know for sure if he can prepare his team as well as Kelly did. For all we know, Oregon’s streak of demolishing inferior teams might come to an end this season.
The term “trap game” is loosely defined as a game against a seemingly inferior opponent, that falls between two higher-profile games — usually on the road. It can be a frightening beast, indeed, when larger plans have been laid. A loss is a loss — but a loss to a team you should handle with relative ease, is a pain in the psyche. That’s what people believe, anyway.
Do the Ducks have any of these games on their schedule? In a word, No.
The Washington State game on October 19th follows the Washington game and comes just before the cataclysmic dual with PAC-12 South favorite UCLA – but the Wazzu game is in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium. And the Cougs are no one’s pushovers any longer — just ask USC.
I can’t imagine the Civil War being a trap game — but, it could happen. Say the Beavs had a rash of injuries and totally tanked the season. By the time the CW rolls around, the Ducks may be looking forward to a rematch with the Bruins. Oregon plays Arizona the week before down in the dersert, so . . .
Now, while there have been plenty of examples of trap games, there are several issues with their criteria.
For one, there’s a lot of confirmation bias. Take Oregon’s loss to USC in 2011. A week earlier, Oregon beat third-ranked Stanford. The Civil War game was a week later. The trap game strikes again! Let’s all go home, right? The problem is, we know the Trojans ended up being better than people initially thought. USC finished with a 10-2 record and ranked No. 6 in the final AP poll. Rankings are obviously subjective, but the Trojans still had an excellent season, especially toward the end. So what looked like a trap game at the time might simply have been a good team narrowly beating another.
That’s just one example. This is where confirmation bias comes in. People see a game like that and their thoughts are verified, but they fail to look at the bigger picture. For every upset that fits the trap game narrative, there are just as many that make zero sense. Sometimes, good teams just don’t play well against bad opponents. That doesn’t mean they were hungover from the week before or looking ahead to the week after.
Another issue with the trap game theory is matchups. Even if a team is clearly better than its opponent, the opponent might have a player or a scheme that completely exposes the good team’s greatest weaknesses. Last season, Kansas State’s defense was stout against the run in basically all of their 11 wins, but none of the teams they beat had elite running games. The two teams they lost to – Baylor and Oregon – had excellent running backs that absolutely destroyed the Wildcats’ defense. The Baylor loss might’ve looked like a classic trap game (K-State played No. 18 Texas the following week) but Seastrunk and Co. might’ve simply been a bad matchup for the Wildcats.
And, as we’ve seen with the Ducks, many teams win games that could potentially be traps, so trying to predict one of these types of upsets is like trying to predict the weather. We simply don’t know.
That said, Oregon has a couple of things going for them that point to another season of upset avoidance.
First, the success from the past three-to-four years shouldn’t be overlooked. Just because the head coach and some of the personnel have changed doesn’t mean the Ducks will start choking. Past dominance doesn’t guarantee future success, but it can point to it.
The biggest factor, though, is Oregon’s talent. While Kelly was a great coach, his teams were almost always more talented than their opponents. They could suffer an off game and still win handily. The 2013 team might be deeper with talent than any Kelly team, so Helfrich doesn’t have to be a wizard to prevent his team from getting upset.
It’s obviously still difficult to know if Oregon can continue to beat teams they’re expected to, but given their past success, their talent and their dominance so far this season, Duck fans shouldn’t worry about their team losing to vastly inferior opponents.
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