In yesterday’s article, we began the process of ranking Oregon’s 25 greatest teams. Today, we look at the best of the best: the top 10.
Debate online about which Ducks football team is the greatest has been, as one might expect, mixed. In an Oregonian poll last month before the national title game, an overwhelming majority (65 percent) picked 2014 as the greatest year—but losing big to Ohio State might have changed some of those votes. On a Ducks Attack message board both before and after the game, more people picked 2012, but there were a surprising number of votes for 2007. It’s true that it was a rare year in which Oregon could claim, at least during part of the campaign, to be the best in college football. But I can’t call a 9-4 season, or such a tragic one, the Ducks’ greatest. Still, it has earned a spot in the top 10.
One thing this list reinforces is that for all of the glories that Oregon amassed in the 20th century—from great quarterbacks like Norm Van Brocklin, George Shaw, Dan Fouts, Chris Miller and Bill Musgrave to coaches like Shy Huntington, Len Casanova, Jerry Frei and Rich Brooks, from great running backs like Mel Renfro, Ahmad Rashad and Reuben Droughns to defenders like Dave Wilcox and linemen like Gary Zimmerman—by far our greatest days have come in the past decade. Yes, Notre Dame and USC and Texas have the history, but Oregon’s glory days are happening right now.
#10 – 2007
Few seasons have come with such a blend of agony and ecstasy. Before Dennis Dixon’s fateful injury, the Ducks had risen to a #2 ranking behind landmark wins at Michigan and at home against Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans. “Dennis Dixon is in the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy. It’s his to lose,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said before that fateful night against Arizona. It ended badly, very badly (an encouraging Sun Bowl win notwithstanding), but 2007 deserves our praise for the heights to which this team climbed. This was Chip Kelly’s first season as offensive coordinator, and foreshadowed greatness to come.
#9 – 1989
On paper, an 8-4 season might not look too impressive, but this was the Big Bang that began Oregon’s 25-year (and counting) run of success. Quarterback Bill Musgrave led the Ducks to a come-from-behind win in what was the team’s first bowl appearance in 37 years, beating Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. For one night, unglamorous and frigid Shreveport, Louisiana felt like Pasadena. Without 1989, there would be no 2010, 2012 or 2014.
#8 – 2000
Oregon achieved its first ever Top 10 final ranking, and its only losses were close road losses to a Fiesta Bowl-winning Oregon State squad and the eventual Rose Bowl champion, Wisconsin. The season also included what may have been the most impressive comeback win of quarterback Joey Harrington’s career, which is saying something: a 56-55 double-overtime win at Arizona State. The season was capped by one of Oregon’s most thrilling bowl wins, a back-and-forth affair against Texas in which Harrington became only the team’s second player (after Mel Renfro) to pass, run and catch for touchdowns in the same game.
#7 – 1916
Yes, it was a very long time ago, in an era of leather helmets and games with scarcely a forward pass. But there’s no getting around the fact that this team finished undefeated at 7-0-1 while outscoring opponents 244-17 en route to Oregon’s first Rose Bowl win, a 14-0 shutout of Pennsylvania behind quarterback Shy Huntington, the only Duck to both play in a Rose Bowl and coach his team to one.
#6 – 1994
Sometimes losing the big game can’t diminish how much a season means. Though technically Oregon only finished 9-4, this was easily the most surprising season in team history, and remains, to many fans, the most beloved. After all, from Kenny Wheaton’s pick against Washington to Josh Wilcox’s winning touchdown against highly touted Arizona to Dino Philyaw’s winning touchdown against Oregon State to win the Pac-10 title, this team rose from the ashes of a dismal 1-2 start to become the greatest Cinderella story in college football.
#5 – 2011
For all that our Ducks have achieved in recent years, be it reaching two title games or bringing the Heisman Trophy to Eugene, perhaps no single moment in history was more joyful than winning the team’s first Rose Bowl in 95 years. Against future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson and a talented Wisconsin squad, Chip Kelly’s Ducks were brilliant and resilient. De’Anthony Thomas’s long touchdown runs were the highlights of the game, but the most important plays were defensive ones, be it a key interception or an arguably game-saving fumble recovery. Only losses to LSU and USC keep this great season from being ranked even higher.
#4 – 2001
This thrilling season brought Oregon its first marquee January bowl win of the modern era, and its first since 1917: a Fiesta Bowl thumping of Colorado, a team viewed by many as the best in the country going into the game. Although Mike Bellotti’s team didn’t routinely blow out opponents like Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich’s spread teams have done in recent years, quarterback Joey Harrington led an incredible series of comebacks while under center, en route to becoming Oregon’s first Heisman Trophy finalists. Though the Ducks wound up underachieving (or at least not overachieving) for much of the decade after Harrington’s departure, this was the season that first put Oregon in the rarified air of college football’s greatest programs—as seen in the team’s first ever top five ranking, a #2 finish in the Associated Press final poll.
#3 – 2014
Halfway through this season, few of us would have picked this as the greatest Oregon team, or even close. A rash of offensive line injuries had the Ducks nearly succumb to lowly Washington State, and a week later came a home loss to Arizona. But then came eight straight weeks of brilliance, culminating in an easy Pac-12 championship win against those same Wildcats, and then the Ducks’ greatest ever performance in the Rose Bowl, ending defending national champion Florida State’s 29-game winning streak in one of the only Heisman-versus-Heisman postseason clashes in history. That Oregon lost by more than three touchdowns in the title game certainly ended the campaign on a sour note, but make no mistake: these were glorious days.
#2 — 2010
Just as picking 2012 over either of the natty years was tough, so too was picking 2010 over 2014. If we were talking pure enjoyment, 2014 would win hands down, with the thrill of a Rose Bowl blowout win and the Heisman Trophy. But the fact that Oregon completed its only perfect regular season in the modern era looms very large. And just as the 2012 Stanford game could have very, very easily gone Oregon’s way, so too could the national title against Auburn. And 2010 saw the Ducks earn the #1 ranking for the first time, something the team never reached in 2014.
#1 — 2012
It was a hard decision not to select one of our two seasons national championship game seasons for the top spot, but 2012 was arguably the season in which Oregon could make the most legitimate claim to being the best team in the country. If not for a play here or there against Stanford—a missed kick, a missed block—the Ducks would have been playing in the natty against a Notre Dame team that got blown out by Alabama. Yes, this—not 2010 or 2014—was the closest we came to finishing on top. Marcus Mariota was in his first year as starting quarterback, and probably not yet as skilled as he became by 2014, but boy did he look great from the first spring practice. Even as an untested redshirt freshman Mariota looked immediately better than Darron Thomas, who had quarterbacked Oregon to a 12-0 national championship final in 2010 and a Rose Bowl win in 2011. But Chip Kelly’s final campaign had the Oregon machine firing on all cylinders, en route to a 13-1 campaign and an easy victory in the Fiesta Bowl. This was one of four seasons when Oregon could claim national runner-up status, finishing #2 in both major polls. The 2012 Ducks deserved the immortality they just missed, but we honor them here as the greatest team in 121 years of Oregon football.
Top Photo Courtesy of the Fiesta Bowl
Brian’s book, Tales from the Oregon Ducks Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Ducks Stories Ever Told (Tales from the Team) is available here.