The first game for any new coach is bound to be challenging, but for the head football coach at Oregon, it has been historically very difficult. In fact, only one head coach in the last 65 years, Mike Bellotti in 1995, had won his debut game. On Saturday, Mark Helfrich would try to match Mike Bellotti and do something that neither Chip Kelly, Rich Brooks nor even Len Casanova could: Start 1-0.
While expectations have never been higher for a new Oregon head coach, the degree of difficulty for Helfrich’s premiere was dramatically lower than that of his predecessors. It was assumed that Helfrich’s greatest challenge would not be pulling off the victory over Nicholls State but in how to avoid humiliating an FCS school who had won just two games over the previous two seasons.
The Colonels were playing their second consecutive game in the state of Oregon, and the last time they visited this part of the country, they found themselves on the wrong end of a 77-3 pasting at the hands of Oregon State. The Beavers have a quality offense, but given the famed proficiency of Oregon’s offense, many wondered if the Autzen Stadium scoring record would be threatened.
Yet such an expectation shows the folly of using the previous season to predict the next, assuming one has anything to do with the other. True, some aspects may remain constant over multiple seasons: Oregon’s offense, with many of the same coaches, will likely remain prolific for the indefinite future. But embarrassing Nicholls, as some might have expected, would require the Colonels to remain at the same nadir where they ended last season. We would be applying 2012 to 2013.
The 59-point spread floated by Vegas bookmakers might have seemed low, yet as usual, the folks in the desert showed us why they are better than everyone else at predicting what will happen in sports. It is a prediction that would have been exact, if not for a holding call that wiped out Nicholls’ only touchdown.
Those oddmakers were smart enough to know that, despite having many players (22 starters, 57 lettermen) from the Nicholls team who lost by 74 to Oregon State, the Colonels are now a much better team than that one. It’s a group hungry to build up a program that has had nine losing seasons since 2000. In the post-game interviews, the Colonels remained upbeat about their ability to move the ball against a defense that by some metrics, was the nation’s second best last year.
Sure, Oregon still won by nine touchdowns and set a school record with 772 yards of offense; teams don’t change overnight. But Nicholls looked competitive, or as competitive as an FCS squad can, against the nation’s third-ranked football team, and demonstrated that what happened last year has little to do with this year.
Think of what we thought we knew to be true at the end of last year: Washington couldn’t compete with Boise State, Oregon State could beat FCS teams, Alabama was only a few yards better than Georgia, Johnny Manziel always played the first half and Cal was in favor of faking injuries. All that changed in one weekend. As Tommy Lee Jones says:
This is what makes everything we saw at Autzen Stadium on Saturday so fitting. The football operations building is new. The stadium’s grounds have been upgraded. Oregon’s facilities have everything anyone could want; the only missing amenity appeared to be the device Mr. Burns used to block out the sun.
Yet for all these changes, the “Win The Day” mantra remains ever-present throughout the stadium. Those displays, new and previous, dovetail perfectly. Everything changes, the challenges are on-going and unpredictable, but all anyone can control is the preparation they put in.
How good will Oregon be this year? We will start getting a better idea this coming Saturday in Charlottesville.
Next game: September 7th, Oregon at Virginia, 12:30 PM PT, ABC/ESPN2
 There was some confusion this weekend as to whether it is Nicholls State or simply “Nicholls”, as it appears there is a rebranding attempt by the school, although the university’s proper name is still “Nicholls State University.”
 A reference to the famed episode of The Simpsons, it would’ve been a useful device on Saturday. Many of those in attendance Saturday struggled to cope with the intense heat that seemingly is becoming an early season tradition (see: Nevada, 2011). Many fans may not like the late finish of night games, but it is hard to argue that there might not be a more practical solution for future September games with comparable weather.
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