Oregon football has more to prove than any other program in the country.
The Alabamas and Ohio States of the world rule the college football kingdom. This group consists of the teams that have long sat at the top of the national standings, winning with strength, power and toughness. These are programs that import elite recruits and export NFL talent.
As Oregon built up its new facilities to improve recruiting, this veritable oligarchy became aware that a new team would soon be joining its ranks. However, it would not be like them.
They used speed to win instead of power. They recruited using innovation instead of tradition. Most importantly, they represented the future instead of the past. No other program has reached elite standing by being so different.
Oregon fans are familiar with this narrative. As the proverbial new kid on the block, Oregon fights not just for wins every week, but also for its reputation. Over the past several seasons, the Ducks have not only fought for elite status, but also for both its legitimacy and validity in the eyes of the media and college football’s traditional powers.
In 2014, Oregon did everything right until it fell to Ohio State in the national title game. After a heartbreaking, injury-influenced loss to Arizona, the Ducks dominated their weekly competition behind a quarterback that compiled arguably the greatest individual season in college football history.
However, the anxiety surrounding Oregon’s unique culture has led to quite a bit of disrespect. Many choose to ignore the dominance. It is not Mariota’s countless dazzling plays, the numerous takeaways, or the brilliant goal-line stands against Florida State. Instead, the final loss to the Buckeyes lingers in the minds of both fans and analysts everywhere.
Despite Oregon’s speed and innovation, they are forced to keep their necks craned, looking up at the ruling elites’ power and tradition. This is due more to reputation than poor performance.
The Ducks boast both the best overall winning percentage and the best winning percentage against ranked teams over the past five seasons. Still, as close as the program has come, Oregon still has not claimed a national title. This elusive accolade has defined the program’s reputation more than any on-the-field performance.
However, when comparing the 2014 Oregon team to national champions of the past, the numbers are quite similar.
Oregon and Ohio State had to play one more game this season than any team ever has. Thus, for the sake of comparison, the numbers below will reflect the Ducks’ season prior to their final game before the Buckeyes.
In 2014, Oregon’s average margin of victory was 24.9 points per game. This is in the same ballpark as USC in 2004 (25.15), as well as Alabama in 2011 (26.6) and 2012 (27.8). In fact, the Ducks’ mark is higher than Alabama in 2009 (20.6) or Auburn in 2010 (17.1).
Margin of victory does not tell the whole story. It is also important to look at strength of competition. Auburn’s 2010 squad, which vanquished Oregon in the title game, had a relatively low margin of victory but had to play seven teams that finished in the Top 25.
That Auburn team aside, this season Oregon played more ranked teams (six) than any national champion since 2007. That includes all three of Alabama’s championship teams (a program that always gets extra credit for playing in the SEC), and Miami’s 2001 squad, a team widely considered to be the best ever assembled in college.
The Ducks also had arguably as impressive a win as any championship team in recent memory. In the words of Kirk Herbstreit, Oregon “made Florida State quit.” The Seminoles entered the Rose Bowl undefeated for more than two years, the third-longest winning streak since 1971.
Oregon took the ball away from Florida State five times in the second half, and scored after all five. They ultimately beat the Seminoles by an astonishing 39 points.
Despite how favorably Oregon’s 2014 season stacks up against other championship teams, the Ducks walked away without a national title. To fans and analysts everywhere, that puts a sizable dent in an otherwise fantastic year and, as a result, in national perception of Oregon as an elite program.
While it may not have the final stamp of approval from college football’s oligarchy, Oregon fans, players, and coaches know the program and its dominance. They know that the Ducks have arrived for good.
It is fair to say that programs as innovative as Oregon will take dominion over the college football kingdom. While the ruling elite currently looks down at them, the Ducks are already racing past them. They will eventually look back at the long-sitting traditional powers. This time, however, they will welcome newcomers with open arms because being different is the new name of the game.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck