When did it happen? When was it that we stopped hoping to win and started expecting to win? Was it the pick in ’94? Nah, too early. Was it our #2 ranking after 2001? Nope, but we’re getting closer. Expecting wins is a more recent trend, but it’s not unreasonable. Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past seven years, you probably number among the Oregon Duck faithful that expect the team to win every battle, to best every foe, and to bring home that national championship.
Every year. Oregon is 80-14 (.851 winning percentage) in the past seven seasons, claiming 10 wins or more each time. They have won the Rose Bowl twice, the Fiesta and Alamo Bowls once each, and twice have competed for a national championship (5-3 in the postseason over that span).
So about those expectations – are they unreasonable? Probably. Unrealistic? Most assuredly. Is it normal? Absolutely. If you’ve watched the Oregon Ducks for more than one out of the last seven seasons, you know this is the new norm. Once you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain, taken in the view, soaked in the majestic snow-capped peaks, you can’t forget it.
Each peak represents another 10+ win season and let’s face it, when you’ve seen that, there is no going back. A normal hike of Spencer Butte just won’t do. A drive along the Mackenzie River? Snooze-fest! A trip to the northern Oregon Coast? Close, but nothing can match the grandeur of the snow-capped peaks. See their awe and inspiration at dawn or dusk and you have no words. You’re speechless, you have no speech. That’s where Oregon Duck fans are. We’ve been to the top of the mountain and we’ve stayed there. We’ve seen the view, we like it, and we’re not coming down.
But it wasn’t always so. Our trip to the top started with Chip Kelly. Sure, Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti got us to base camp. There were even a few unsuccessful summit attempts along the way, such as the 1994 Rose Bowl and, of course, the agony of 2001 (the “bitter-pill” year where a Nebraska team, that had just lost their conference championship 62-36 to a Colorado team we would handily beat 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl, was selected, over the Ducks, to compete for a National title with an undefeated Miami team, only to lose 37-14, which was merciful considering they were down 34-0 at halftime. *Deep breath, deep breath. Let it go*), but it was Kelly who led the final push.
Let’s not mince words. The 2009 season started as an unmitigated disaster. The O-line was abhorrent, star running back LeGarrette Blount was suspended, starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was short – the list goes on. But, I’ve always said that the Blount punch was the best thing that could have happened to Oregon that year. Why? Because waiting in the wings were LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, two small, fleet-of-foot runners, that could mitigate some of the inexperience on the line. Without “the punch,” we may well have lost the next two games (Oregon squeaked by Purdue 38-36 and beat Utah late 31-24).
Instead we won both, destroyed 6th-ranked Cal (42-3), marched all the way to the Rose Bowl (through Oregon State, see video clip below), and perched ourselves on those snow-covered peaks at the top of the mountain for good.
But are we alone? Are our expectations unprecedented? Hardly. To know that, we need only look at a few other top contenders of our time: Ohio State, Notre Dame, TCU, Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, LSU. They’ve all played in top bowl games, if not for a National Championship, and they’ve all enjoyed a revolving door of consistent Top 5 rankings since 2008. Their fan bases expect them to compete for the national championship every year, and will accept nothing less than a top-tier bowl victory. This is normal among the elite.
So it’s OK, Duck fan, look yourself in the mirror today and say out loud, “I’m normal.” You expect your Ducks to play for the national championship this year, the year après-Mariota, the year after losing two stud offensive lineman and most of the starting secondary. Yes, this year, with a starting QB not from the system, nay, a transfer, who won the job after two weeks of practice.
These great expectations are not just limited to elite programs, however. “Oh, hey there USC, didn’t see you from all the way up here. What’s that? You expect a title run this year?”. Expectations like those are not normal. Chalk it up to tradition, or maybe it’s the unusually strong hangover from the 2001 – 2007 stretch when they were 76-13 (wining percentage .854). From 2008 – 2014, however, they’ve gone 65-26 (wining percentage .714).
The man at the helm now, Coach Steve Sarkisian, once left USC for the University of Washington and went 5-7, 6-6, 7-6, 7-6, and 8-4. He then returned to USC and went 9-4 last season, losing to Boston College 37-31 and narrowly winning versus Arizona, Cal, and Nebraska. Somehow, Phil Steele has them winning the PAC-12 and making the playoffs. So now, this coach with a mediocre track record and a QB whose performance against good teams can only be described as subpar (in the four games against Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA, he totaled 807 yards, with only 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.), is expected by many to play for the national championship?
“It’s hard to get too worked up over an ostentatious stat line once it becomes clear how much of it was racked up against the likes of Fresno State, Colorado, Washington State, and California,” Grantland’s Matt Hinton wrote of USC’s Cody Kessler in his article on the weak links for both USC and Oregon. Many have projected them to win a very tough PAC-12 South and beat Oregon in the PAC-12 championship game on the way to the playoffs. Clearly the fan base in LA has seen the mountaintop, has suffered from cerebral hypoxia, and is now drinking Sark’s very special “kool-aid”. Given USC’s good but not great record since 2008, it’s not clear where these expectations come from, but I expect to see them unfulfilled.
In Grantland’s College Football Preview three writers predict Oregon will make the playoffs, while only one predicts USC will make the playoffs. Between the two teams, there is only one prediction of a national championship win, and that goes to Oregon. That’s the difference then. The Ducks now have permanently high expectations. Let’s face it, it’s better to root for a team with high expectations every year and be a little disappointed along the way, than it is to root for a team with low expectations that are frequently realized. Or worse: false expectations that are never realized. *Alright, you can go now USC.*
So I will set my expectations high for the Oregon Ducks this season. Yes, Duck faithful, we’re returning to the playoffs, ideally undefeated. Most likely with a loss. The direction our path will take hinges on the outcome of a certain September 12th match-up. We can beat Michigan State if we play a near-perfect game, but our players will only have one warm-up game under their belts before traveling to East Lansing, and MSU has earned their accolades.
In the event it’s our only loss, we’re still in the playoffs. If we do beat Sparty, a regular season PAC-12 loss becomes affordable if we win the PAC-12 championship. So, are my expectations high for a team with a new QB and few returning starters? Yes. Unreasonable and unrealistic? Maybe. But I’ve seen the snow-capped peaks, I’ve gazed at their grandeur, I’ve tasted that sweet mountain air, and I’m not coming down.
Top photo from Flickr.com