Embrace the Uncertainty

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What will the 2014 season look like? After eight months of speculating, the first part of that question will be answered this Saturday.

Those outside of the Oregon program seem certain everything will be just resemble the Ducks we’ve seen much of the past five seasons; the favorite in the Pac-12, and a contender for a playoff spot come January.

Yet for all confidence of Oregon’s success outside the fanbase, there are concerns about how Oregon will fare this season and beyond, inside that fanbase. Every conversation I had this offseason about the Ducks seemed a blend of cautious optimism and despondent trepidation. In terms of the offseason waiting experience, the past few years had been like a long drive on the way to a resort; this year’s felt like being in a clinic lobby waiting on test results.

Some might roll their eyes at presenting the uncertainty of this season from that perspective (one anonymous opposing coach in Sports Illustrated referred to Oregon’s fans as being “so jaded and so spoiled”), but I can’t think of a single fan base in the country that would have handled the end of Oregon’s 2013 season any better.

When a program goes from the highest-scoring and winningest program in the country since 2010, from one who had lost five games this decade to one who suffered a loss to an Arizona team (the worst team to beat Oregon since 2007) by 26 with the Rose Bowl bid on the line, defeats by a single point an Oregon State team that went 66 days between victories last year (which, given the standard three-point advantage of a home game, means the Civil War would have theoretically been a loss for the Ducks had it been played on a neutral field), and then scored one offensive touchdown on Texas, the nation’s 57th-ranked scoring defense. The sudden nature of that decline, however temporary, would make any group of fans nervous. To become anxious isn’t a product of being spoiled or jaded, it’s human nature.

It’s also human nature to feel discomfort in the face of uncertainty, but often the fear is more painful and unsettling than the actual experience of any given outcome. This is the week that uncertainty ends, and the answer begins. Since we can’t know for a few days, let’s instead cover how to embrace the elements within that uncertainty:

Embrace the Known

Hroniss Grasu against UCLA in 2013

Craig Strobeck

Hroniss Grasu against UCLA in 2013

All the talent coming back: Offseason topics that are commonly written and discussed center on “what positions are question marks?” but those topics are uncertainties, and uncertainties make us anxious. We read to better understand that problem, hoping to form an opinion that will relieve our anxiety. The only problem with this philosophy is it causes people to worry about specific positions that may be thin at this point instead of celebrating the certainties. In this case, it’s the fact that Oregon has three preseason All-Americans on virtually every list: Hroniss Grasu, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and Marcus Mariota. To put it another way, 14% of the Oregon’s starting lineup is the best in the country at their position.

Mariota is a particular example of realizing what Oregon has rather than worrying about it doesn’t: Oregon has the best quarterback in the country, a particularly amazing distinction given that a) last year’s Heisman winner was a quarterback who led his team to a national championship, and b) that quarterback is still playing college football this season — despite said quarterback’s best efforts off the field to ruin his ability to do so.

When asked by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit about whether he cared about winning the Heisman Trophy, Mariota referenced team goals as far more significant than individual honors. This is why it has to absolutely eat at him at that a division title, much less a national one, has eluded him while under center at Oregon. He is as experienced as any quarterback in the conference, and as good a bet as any to lead his team to a conference title this year.

Marcus Mariota

Kevin Cline

Marcus Mariota

Speaking of …

Oregon is the conference favorite in Vegas: Part of understanding the uncertainty of Oregon fans is knowing that the Ducks have been the conference preseason favorite the past two years yet did not win the conference in either. However, odds are odds for a reason, and casinos didn’t build the flashy “Strip” by being wrong a lot. We’ll address this more at the end.

It has a favorable schedule: By now, everyone’s familiar with Oregon’s schedule, but barring any surprises, everything about Oregon’s schedule breaks right for them. All the key matchups are at home except for UCLA, which … well, let’s put it this way: I feel very confident about the Bruins being overrated this season by the many people on their bandwagon.

Embrace the Unknown

The Duck

Kevin Cline

The Duck, thinking.

My two favorite Oregon seasons of the last decade were 2007 and 2009 (ok, favorite one and ¾ seasons), for the same reason: those were teams who Duck fans were hopeful, but not expecting a conference or national title from, going into the season.

I must confess, I haven’t enjoyed the past four seasons, even 2010, as much I did those aforementioned seasons. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed those years, but not to the degree I did as the expectations climbed. There’s nothing that will reduce the joy of rooting for a team like shifting a win from a pleasant outcome to a met expectation. As Oregon got better and better, a collective din began to emerge of fans expecting Oregon to succeed on the highest levels.

Embrace That It All Comes Down to Luck

Josh Huff in the 2013 Civil War

Craig Strobeck

Josh Huff in the 2013 Civil War

The surest way to be unhappy is to expect a national championship, or to be disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Look at this list from SBNation’s Bill Connelly of the 20 best teams of the past nine years:

List of the Top 20 teams from the past nine seasons, according to SBNation's Bill Connelly

SBNation.com screenshot

List of the Top 20 teams from the past nine seasons, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly

Only six of the teams on that list won a title, of the remaining fourteen, nine of them didn’t even play for one. College football is a fickle game, and luck, both from injuries and from bounces of the ball, can determine entire seasons.

Just look at last year’s national championship teams: Florida State and Auburn. Florida State just a year prior failed to play for a national title because it couldn’t keep NC State from ruining its undefeated season. Yet in 2013, the Seminoles managed to get every break possible, from a favorable schedule in a down conference, to having its starting tight end not only survive a horrifying motorcycle crash but be ready for Week 1, to having its local legal problems find a way to keep its starting quarterback on the field.

Meanwhile, for Auburn, I’ll point you to exhibits A & B of the difference between a 9-3 season and playing for a national title:

Back to the odds: There is the concept known as gambler’s fallacy, where the idea that because something has happened before, it will affect a future outcome. We try to look for evidence that something in the past will tip off an outcome in the future. We want Oregon’s recent success to indicate it will win games, but we worry the finishes of the past couple seasons will fulfill our worst fears. Yet neither has any bearing on this season. The past is gone, and the only indicator of Oregon’s success will be its performance in its first 12 games. Before Saturday, the season is uncertain, by the end of the year, it’ll just be record.

Embrace the uncertainty and its infinite possibilities; we’ll get our first glimpse at the outcome on Saturday night.

Top image by Kevin Cline

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