The future isn’t written: that’s why college football is so compelling

Every season has its rhythm and plot lines, its unexpected twists and turns, moments of glory and disbelief. There’s the seemingly overwhelming adversity and miracles of belief. There is triumph, pleasure and disappointment. Few seasons are perfect, but perfection is always an elusive possibility. The Ducks came damn close a couple of times. And they’ve shot themselves in the foot more than once.

If you follow a team closely enough and lovingly enough, you’ll experience the lows of a disaster in grello helmets, losing by 30 to Brigham Young in a lackluster bowl game, an underachieving team dogging it the desert after an underachieving and injury-riddled season, leaving their games in the casinos and gentlemen’s clubs a few days before kickoff. Coach made embarrassing excuses, questioned how poorly the opponent would have played in the PAC-10. He vacillated between one quarterback and another. Johnathan Stewart was bottled up, hemmed in on the ground, just 7 carries for paltry 21 yards. After beating Oklahoma and starting 4-0, the Ducks finished 7-6. 2006 was a bad, crazy year.

2007 had its own agonies. In the beginning there was uncertainty. How good can Dennis Dixon be? He was cool and fast, but so quiet. Since Clemens went down against Arizona in the late stages of 2005, he’d battled with Brady Leaf for the job and never completely taken hold of it, brilliant at times and lost in others. Mostly the starter in 2006 as a junior, he’d tossed 12 touchdowns and 14 picks. People forget that now, choosing only to remember the brilliance of his senior year. But his first year starting full time he’d thrown for 2143 yards and rushed for 442. Good but not great. That summer he’d gone to play baseball, and some folks questioned his maturity and leadership, including his head coach in a sideways way. Maybe Brady Leaf was more of a leader, sweating with his teammates in summer drills. New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, a stubby, fast-talking little guy from New Hampshire, flew across country to pay him a visit and size him up, review some of the details of the new playbook and what he expected of him. Somehow they clicked. In fall camp and the first games of ’07 Dennis Dixon was a new man, clearly in charge. He busted loose for an 80-yard run against Houston. He dazzled Michigan in The Big House with precision passing and wizardry handling the ball. Dixon was the man, and the Ducks started 4-0.

Then an awful temporary stumble in a home loss to Cal. A batted ball wound up in a Bear’s lap. Cameron Colvin fumbled into the end zone, reaching for the pylon with time running out. Stone silence in Autzen Stadium as the referees huddled. Touchback, Cal ball. Perfect season in ruins.

The Ducks weren’t done. Behind Dixon and Stewart and a hard-hitting defense, they rattled off masterful victories over Washington State, Washington, USC and a Top Ten Sun Devil team, coached by first-year head man Dennis Erickson, the wily fox resurfacing in the desert with an 8-0 start. Dixon threw four td passes and the Ducks climbed to 8-1 and the top of the polls. NUMBER TWO IN THE COUNTRY, with a senior quarterback who’d rocketed to the top of the Heisman conversation. Late in the game, though, he landed funny tackled on a scramble, twisting his knee as he was tackled. No big deal, he jogged off the field. Just a sprain, Bellotti told the press.

He practiced that week in secret, neither him or his coach saying much. Rob Moseley noted there was a brace on his knee. They went to Tucson for nighttime showdown with an unranked Wildcat team, a Thursday night showdown on ESPN. It started okay. Dixon kept on a zone read and cruised 39 yards for a score. He looks fine. Still has the speed, we tried to tell ourselves, listening to Craig James rattle on. But things weren’t right that night. The crowd, all in red, was crazy and too loud. Jamere Holland let a perfect pass bounce off his pads in the end zone, and instead of leading 15-0 Oregon was in a dogfight. Then next series, Dixon went down for good. Nobody touched him. He tried to juke an unblocked defender and just went down in a heap. The Ducks, seemingly headed for a dream season and a trip to the National Championship, with DD putting the Stiff Arm Trophy in the Mo Center case, lost three in a row, including an ugly Civil War where they couldn’t get the field goal team on the field.

Every year is different. Sometimes a fifth-string quarterback emerges as a star. Sometimes a star tailback punches his way out of the lineup, the season begins with an embarrassing loss on hideous blue turf and two shaky victories, and winds up in the Rose Bowl, where it comes to a bittersweet end. Sometimes you get within a half yard of perfect, within a forearm of redemption, within a wrist of out of bounds or incomplete.

Then this year, the Ducks start miserable and outmanned, get expose in Cowboys Stadium as the soft team with the fancy offense that isn’t ready to compete with the elite. But they right themselves and reel off five victories, taking down the Sun Devils with the number two quarterback, a redshirt freshman, and a couple of skinny tailbacks who supposedly can’t run inside. Darron Thomas gets tackled awkwardly and twists his knee. No big deal, he jogged off the field. Coach isn’t saying much. He’ll probably be ready in a week or two.

Every year is different. The future isn’t written and it isn’t predestined by the past. There are conflicting rumors and murmurs, and at least for a little while the Ducks may continue to be without LaMichael James and Darron Thomas. The schedule’s handed them a breather, a perfect confluence of circumstance, and the next two games are against the low end of the conference. Colorado, not very good to begin with, is without their best tackler at middle linebacker, their starting tailback and leading wide receiver. Washington State is halfway through a challenging rebuilding project, and they have to come to Autzen.

The Ducks can win those games with Bryan Bennett and Kenjon Barner if they have to, which doesn’t mean they will. But then comes the Murderer’s Row. Three games against talented teams, 5-1 Washington and 6-0 Stanford, both on the road, and the dangerous Trojans in Eugene. Then the Civil War, which rarely follows the script.

The Ducks could triumph or collapse. No one really knows. They say Darron Thomas is okay, and James is flexing his elbow. A lot could happen between now and The Rose Bowl. It always does.

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