Buckle Up: Time To Ride the Oregon Football Roller Coaster

David Miller Editorials

It used to be that Oregon fans made light of the other teams in the Pac-12 for their roller coaster seasons. You know the ones I’m talking about. Where they have pre-season hopes, maybe some hype around a returning quarterback or running back, maybe even a pre-season ranking, then fall flat on their face against some middling competition. Only they don’t keep losing, they beat some other over-hyped team in the Pac-12 once again raising the specter of hope. Only to watch it evaporate soon after when they once again play down to the competition.

After two straight losses and some very obvious issues on defense, it’s time for Oregon fans to put their big boy boots on, make sure they meet the height requirements, and step onto the roller coaster, because this season is shaping up to be an interesting ride.

Before we look ahead to the rest of the season and what it might hold, we need some context. Let’s travel back in time to early in this century when the Ducks, led by Joey Harrington, won three straight bowls games of increasing notoriety: the 1999 Sun Bowl (24-20 over Minnesota), the 2000 Holiday Bowl (35-30 over Texas), and the 2001 Fiesta Bowl (38-16 over Colorado). Harrington left for the NFL after the 2001 season and during four of the next five season the Ducks rode the roller coaster.

We were at the top of the roller coaster ride for three years with Harrington

The Ducks were at the top of the roller coaster ride for three years with Harrington.

The 2002 season started well, with six straight wins actually, but over generally weak competition, and with close victories over Fresno State (4 points) and UCLA (1 point). Ranked 7th in the nation the Ducks then lost to unranked Arizona State at home in a nail biter, 42-45, and fell the following week to 15th-ranked USC (while ranked 14th). The Ducks rebounded the next week against weakling Stanford, but then lost again the following week to 5th-ranked Washington State.

This was the beginning of a four-game slide during which the Ducks also lost to Washington, Oregon State, and Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl. An ignoble ending to a disappointing season. It was unfortunately a sign of things to come. The 2002 season was a long upward hill to glory followed by a steep dive into obscurity. The roller coaster was especially harsh that season, coming off the Fiesta Bowl victory.

The 2003 roller coaster was much more intriguing, but that doesn’t mean Duck fans enjoyed it anymore. Once again the Ducks quickly rose to great heights with four straight wins, the fourth over 3rd-ranked Michigan at home. This charge to being 10th-ranked in the nation was swiftly cut off by three straight losses to 21st-ranked WSU, unranked Utah, and unranked Arizona State. Oregon still had a winning record at 4-3, but the roller coaster had dropped low quickly, leaving a sick feeling in Duck fans’ stomachs.

Victory formation in 2003 verses Michigan

Victory formation in 2003 verses Michigan.

Oregon rebounded for a week against lowly Stanford, crushing them, 35-0 (remember when they were terrible every year?), before getting crushed themselves by the Huskies in Seattle.

Duck fans might have been hoping the roller coaster would just have mechanical failure at this point, but hillocks rose above the horizon, as the Ducks reeled off three straight wins against Cal, UCLA, and OSU. The path back to the exit required one last downhill, a dispiriting loss to Minnesota by 1 point, 30-31, in the Sun Bowl.

If you ask Duck fans what one of their worst memories is, in terms of seasons, most will point to 2004. It started with the Ducks ranked 24th and losing, at home, to the unranked Indiana “they play football?” Hoosiers (24-30). As I recall the Ducks went through something like five quarterbacks during that game and turnovers . The Ducks then got destroyed by powerhouse Oklahoma 7-31 on the road before rebounding against Idaho at home. 21st ranked Arizona State then came to Eugene, the Ducks lost 13-28, and their record stood at 1-4. The prospect of a losing season loomed large, but the Ducks weren’t done yet.

They managed to win four straight against WSU, Arizona, Stanford, and Washington. The latter was a 31-6 pasting in Eugene, yes, the victory that started the current 12-year win streak against the Huskies. I’m sure Duck fans enjoyed the view for a bit at the top of the parabola, before crashing down again with three straight losses to 4th-ranked Cal (by a point), UCLA, and Oregon State. This marked the end of their last losing season (5-6), the only losing season they’d had since 1993.

Rich Brooks was coach during our last losing season of the 90's

Rich Brooks was coach during our last losing season of the 90s.

2005 was a bit of an anomaly behind the arm of Kellen Clemens, with their only loss coming to No. 1-ranked USC. The Ducks finished the season 10-1 and lost (minus Clemens) to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl, 17-14, after getting snubbed by the BCS with Ohio State and Notre Dame getting picked ahead of the Ducks, despite their 10-2 records.

Looking at the decade as a roller coaster: it started high with Harrington, dipped low without him, and the 2005 seasons was a brief loop of joy in the middle, before a slow climb back to the top.

2006 was the last true roller coaster year. It started with the Ducks ranked 21st and wins over Stanford, Fresno State, 11th-ranked Oklahoma at home (thanks refs!), and Arizona State. The roller coaster then went on a sinusoidal adventure with a loss at 20th-ranked Cal, a win against UCLA, a loss at Washington State, wins against Portland State and the Huskies, followed by four straight losses (7th-ranked USC, Arizona, Oregon State, and BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl). It was enough up and down to make any fan queasy. It was a 7-6 season that didn’t feel like a winning season, and we’re all glad it’s but a faint memory in the rear-view mirror.

In this decade there are precisely two Pac-12 teams that have been consistently good, Oregon and Stanford. Other Pac-12 teams had good individual seasons this decade, but were not consistent in their success. These teams have been riding the roller coaster of joy and disappointment for many years while either Oregon or Stanford have won the Pac-10/12 the last six years (both teams three times).

Only Oregon and Stanford have hoisted this trophy this century

Only Oregon and Stanford have hoisted this trophy this century.

This year will be different. The Ducks won their first two games over weak teams and lost the last two versus good teams, by a combined six points, both tough losses for Ducks’ fans to stomach. Up, down, grab the Dramamine. Lying in wait are the offenses of Washington State, California, and Arizona State. Teams that have shown they can put up mad points. Also waiting are 10th-ranked Washington, 7th-ranked Stanford, and 18th-ranked Utah.

Given the current standings, and what we know of each team based on their wins/losses, let’s take a shot at predicting this season’s roller coaster ride for Oregon Duck football.

Washington State has been abysmal so despite the Ducks playing on the road, I’m calling the win: up we go. The following week is at home versus Washington, and, given who they’ve played, we can’t really tell if they are as good as their ranking suggests (this was written before the Washington-Stanford game). They’ve only beaten Arizona, although Arizona isn’t very good. But let’s give them the benefit of the ranking and call that a loss: down we go.

The following week is at Cal, who is averaging 45.5 points per game, and the defense simply doesn’t get enough stops, further down we dip. The following week Arizona State comes to town. They are currently 4-0 and are averaging just a hair under 49 points per game. But their defense is really shoddy, so the Ducks get the win at home: clack-clack-clack and up climbs the roller coaster.

The Ducks then travel to USC and despite playing on the road – and mostly because I hate them and they are terrible this year – the Ducks get the win: clack-clack-clack up further goes the coaster.

Oregon ranks 116th in total defense so far in 2016

Oregon ranks 116th in total defense so far in 2016.

Only to crash down with sudden fury, with two straight losses to 7th-ranked Stanford and 18th-ranked Utah. The Ducks finish out the season with a win against Oregon State in the Civil War in the thriving metropolis of Beaver Town.

Where does that leave the Ducks? With six loses and six wins, just enough to squeak into a bowl game and attempt to build something positive for next year. A year in which the offensive line will no longer be completely green. A year in which the linebackers will no longer so often seem lost. A year in which they’ll still have a panoply of speedy skill at both running back and receiver. But, a year in which they don’t yet know who will be the quarterback.

Hopefully all of that adds up to something that Oregon fans are more accustomed to. Something that isn’t like a jolting ride of ups and downs on a cheap state fair roller coaster. Something more like what the Ducks experienced from 2007 through 2015 when they had 98 wins against only 22 losses (82 percent of all games were wins!). Where they had 9 straight seasons of 9 wins or more. Where they had four bowl game wins in a row (Rose, Fiesta, Alamo, Rose).

Yes, this year I have prepared myself mentally to ride the up-down roller coaster, but next year I hope it’s just a boring ride, back to the top.

Top photo from Pixabay.com

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