The Official End of an Era, The Hope For What Yet May Come

Josh Schlichter FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

When Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson’s last-second effort to stop the clock failed, his attempted spike coming a moment after time had expired in Pasadena this past January, one era of University of Oregon football officially ended, to great fanfare and jubilation.

This was an era of dazzling numbers, of ESPN specials and weekday bouts. It was an epoch containing three consecutive BCS berths, three consecutive conference titles, and to show for it all finally a Rose Bowl Trophy. No longer simply just participants, now they were truly champions.So what comes next for the Ducks of Oregon? Could Chip Kelly’s squad succumb to the wounds of early departures, the pressure of great expectations, or a lack of experience at key positions? Or will the Ducks build on their already unrivaled success out west to even higher heights? Is it even possible to improve on the near perfection that fans of Oregon have witnessed in the last three years? No other can team in the country can claim what Oregon has done.

Chip & co. are Rose Bowl champions...what now?

The PAC-12 is already primed to more or less mimic last season’s results: Oregon, the returning champion, is on a collision course for a potentially undefeated, national-championship caliber team in Stanford from 2011, and now Southern Cal in 2012. The elite teams of PAC-12 football have emerged, with Oregon and Stanford claiming the forces up North, and USC as the lone star in the South, awaiting a valid competitive foe with so many teams rebuilding and/or replacing head coaches. Funny, since all three contenders have radically different styles, personnel plot-lines, and drastically different coaches in both philosophy and personality.Oregon’s speed is obvious, countered by Stanford’s size and power, then threatened by the dynamic pro-offense and top-tier starting talent showcased year after year by the Trojans. Oregon and Stanford lost their best players, potentially, in each respective schools’ history to early NFL departure; while USC is returning a blue-chip lineup the envy of the country lacking only in depth, full of future NFL stars and a Heisman frontrunner.

The obvious marquee matchup in the conference, if not the entire country this year, will be on November 3rd, 2012, when the Ducks and the Trojans battle it out in Los Angeles at the Coliseum. Circle it on the calendar now if it hasn’t already been done, and start lining up for tickets as this will surely be determined to be this year’s “Game of the Century,” which just like last year’s version of the Game of the Century will more than likely result in a post-season rematch…though don’t expect a 9-6 final outcome between these two probable offensive juggernauts.

Yeah...last year's version of "The Game of the Century" was THAT entertaining.

The gimmicky, flashy, perceived to be over-hyped and Nike-coddled speedsters from Eugene competing head-to-head with the history, prestige, and talent of the most dominant football program in the new millennium. Brain vs. brawn, beauty vs. beast, modern perennial powerhouse vs. the old guard tradition. Regardless of the outcome that day, the whole nation will be watching with keen interest. It is quite likely that both teams will be undefeated, the victor with a clear path towards BCS glory, though destined to have to face them once more for the conference championship before striving for the ultimate prize.
The path to this clash of the titans doesn’t include a top-5 team, or a particularly difficult road matchup in the way for the Ducks. The out-of-conference schedule contains no national-interest ranked matchup like in previous years against LSU, Michigan, or Oklahoma. Even the early conference schedule could be perceived as a tune-up at first glance with all roads leading to that one day at the Coliseum. However, potential traps against Mike Leach’s Cougars in Seattle, followed by a visit from Keith Price and Washington could deter the Ducks from their meeting with the nation’s preseason top team.

"Ok Matt, here's the plan...throw lots and lots of touchdown passes."

USC, on the other hand, has to travel to Palo Alto, Salt Lake, Seattle, and Tucson before meeting Oregon in the Coliseum; a much more difficult, perhaps testing path. Whether being battle-tested like USC or tuned-up and performing at their peak like Oregon (barring injuries, shocking upset, or unforeseen circumstance of course) may prove telling in how teams choose to schedule going forward…though SEC teams giving themselves a bye week in mid-November playing patsies for an automatic win will assuredly remain standard operating procedure.

Yet in the perhaps relaxed schedule for Oregon there is danger too, for such a young team that may not be truly tested until the USC game when matched against equal if not greater talent how will this very young Oregon team respond? Last year when filled with experience, and playing in front of a friendly home crowd, they buckled. Will the lessons of last year be taken to heart or will history repeat itself? These questions can only be speculated on until the clock hits zeroes.

Should Oregon overcome matchups with offensive gurus leading a new team for the first time in Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State), Mike Leach (WSU), and Rich Rodriguez (Arizona)–while Southern Cal survives their rigorous early conference schedule–both teams will be undefeated on the first Saturday of November.

Coaches will say to take it one day at a time, a mantra burned into the cerebral cortex of every player to be repeated at a moment’s notice when the slightest urging to look ahead is implied, perfectly stated in Oregon’s own ‘Win The Day’ motto. Players may face punishment if a coach overhears them publicly look beyond the tasks for that day to prepare for the next game, and face ridicule from teammates for not having the proper mindset to achieve greatness.

Yet the ultimate luxury we fans and media have that the players do not is being afforded the opportunity to look ahead, to analyze the schedules and predict what may occur. The inevitable clash of titans matchup between these two juggernauts is still six months away, and already it is almost too exciting to discuss. Like a kid staring at the clock on the last day of school, it almost feels like time is standing still, painfully dragging out every second until that final bell rings, or in this case that first whistle signaling the opening kickoff is set to begin.

The answer to the question regarding Oregon’s future is as of now murky, still very much up in the air. A little over a month ago Duck fans appeared to almost be in mourning of the great era they had witnessed, perhaps becoming somewhat complacent in the expectation that Oregon would always win every game (though a 34-6 career record under Kelly is about as close to perfection as anybody can get in the modern BCS era of college football). amidst steep expectations suddenly shattered when rumors spread that Chip Kelly might bolt for the pros, only to be proven ultimately false.For one very long night though the rumors flew, and many that had felt so confident in Oregon’s strength and proven durability instantly flipped into grasping the dread of the potential fragility of the Oregon program. No institution is permanently indestructible, and the Titanic proved not to be unsinkable. Just ask Penn State, Ohio State, and now Arkansas about how quickly things can fall apart.

Many Oregon fans believe that the post-LaMichael James/Darron Thomas era is necessary to prove the program’s stability, but the incoming quarterback will have unbelievable expectations placed upon them immediately. Last year Thomas set nearly every passing record in existence at the University of Oregon, while leading the Ducks to new team records as well showcasing unprecedented offensive prowess, and still many Oregon fans called for him to be benched in favor of a freshman.

The time when patience was given for young athletes to grow is over. It took Danny O’neil and company three years to return to prominence and exceed their predecessors in the mid-90s when the 1994 Ducks won the Pac-10 title reaching the Rose Bowl, something that Oregon never accomplished under the ballyhooed Bill Musgrave era immediately preceding that became the benchmark for other Oregon teams to be measured against. No such patience for growth over time will be afforded whoever is selected to lead these Ducks; be it Bryan Bennett, Marcus Mariota, or Jake Rodrigues.

They are all going to be expected to not only play for the PAC-12 Championship immediately, but beat USC twice, and then win, not just play in, a national championship.

If one thing is for sure, it is that the 2012-13 PAC 12 season will not fail to excite.

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