The Oregon Ducks enter the post-season meat grinder as butcher’s choice Châteaubriand, kings of the Pac-12 and a football behemoth with firepower in every position group. Somewhere in the hallowed halls of the Len Casanova center, big plans were drawn up for the Ducks, dreams so big they would take more than two decades to realize. Now, the Oregon Ducks are knocking on destiny’s door, again, primed and ready for college football’s Palme d’Or.
Spectacular as it all is, the national stage isn’t “terra incognita” for the Ducks. What is new, however, is the very real possibility of having the best player in college football playing for the best team in the nation. Once the underdog of decades past, the Oregon Ducks are now nine and a half point favorites over Florida State in the Rose Bowl, according to Odds Shark.
This championship run isn’t for the bookies or odds-makers, nor is it for the fair weather fans or bandwagon jumpers. This time, it’s for the history books. The Ducks have an opportunity to shake off the asterisks and step out of the footnotes, creating their own open-ended chapter in college football history. As many know, sports historians and fans are notoriously materialistic, and this year it’s okay for Oregon to be greedy when it comes to its legacy.
The Heisman Trophy
It seemed Oregon was doomed to be the bridesmaid but never the bride when it came to winning the Heisman. In 2001, Joey Harrington was Oregon’s first real shot at winning the prestigious award. The University of Oregon and Nike put forth an advertising blitzkrieg in the middle of New York City with a gigantic billboard of Harrington, introducing Times Square to “Joey Heisman.” The first team All-American had compiled 2,764 passing yards and 27 touchdowns that year as the Ducks rocketed to unprecedented heights.
But Harrington finished fourth in votes, losing to Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch. The media campaign didn’t sway voters, despite Harrington leading the Ducks to a victory over Colorado in the 2002 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns.
Next in the running for the Heisman was Oregon’s first unanimous All-American and Doak Walker Award winner LaMichael James, who led the Ducks to their first BCS National Championship game. If there were ever an Oregon player to take home the coveted bronze cast of Ed Smith, fans were sure it would be James. But 2010’s leading rusher finished third in the Heisman, won by Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Close, but again, no belvedere.
Flash forward to present day. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of three finalists for the Heisman. In fact, Mariota is favored to win by a far piece and there is talk among the media that this year’s decision might even be a unanimous one. The 2014 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year has earned national merits such as the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and was named the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year.
Wait, there’s more.
Oregon’s potential break maiden for the Heisman Trophy was also named the winner of the Maxwell Award as well as the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award. And despite not putting forth a Heisman campaign for Mariota, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich believes it’s Mariota’s award as well.
“If this guy isn’t what the Heisman Trophy is all about, then I’m in the wrong profession,” said Helfrich.
While the Heisman recognizes unparalleled individual achievement, for Oregon it also signifies arrival as an elite football program, demonstrating an ability to recruit, mentor, and cultivate the best player in the nation.
The National Championship
The Ducks have only flirted with this elusive and near impossibility since the dawn of the 21st century. For Oregon fans, the national championship discussion often includes the desperate plea, “Please, just once before I die.”
At the end of the 2001 season, the BCS got things wrong (surprised?) and put the #2 Ducks in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against the #3 Colorado Buffaloes. This controversial matchup left Oregon out of the title bout, denying the 11-1 Ducks a chance for le grand prix.
Almost a decade later in 2010, an undefeated Oregon finally got its shot for a national title, facing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. It was heartbreakingly close and the Ducks came up short, losing an otherwise excellent football game by a field goal as time expired, 22-19.
The next morning, Eugene was an empty husk, fans grief stricken and silent in disbelief. Oregon had come so close to showing the country what fans believed all along: that the Ducks were the best team in the country.
Now the stage is set for Oregon again. The 2014 Pac-12 Champions are in the College Football Playoff. This team got there the hard way, the right way. The Ducks’ 2014 curriculum vitae is impressive, winning a tough non-conference game early in the season against Michigan State, solving their “Stanford problem” and avenging their sole loss to Arizona by winning the Pac-12 Championship game. Years of sweat equity and consistently being in the national discussion have positioned Oregon on the verge of becoming a national football powerhouse.
As Oregon fans eagerly postulate over the next few weeks, they must acknowledge the road that Oregon took to get here. Fans can be proud of how far this program has come.
Oregon’s trophy case is nothing to scoff at, either, boasting two Rose Bowl wins (yes, the Webfoots, led by Shy and Hollis Huntington, defeated the Penn Quakers 14-0 in the 3rd Rose Bowl in 1917), a couple of Fiesta Bowls, a Sun Bowl here and a Holiday Bowl there, and a handful of Pac-10/12 Championships.
And perhaps fans and media have jumped the shark, unable to look at anything less than a national championship as a great accomplishment. But the Ducks have achieved so much and they have done it honorably, remaining true to themselves, their university, their city, their state — and considering the breadth of where these guys have come from, even their country, for if there is an “America’s Team” in college football, it is the Oregon Ducks.
There is a dusty spot in the war room, a space representing both what could have been and what is yet to come. And as materialistic as it sounds, the Oregon football “bride” needs some flashy things to commemorate this very special time.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove