“So be true to your school now,
Just like you would to your girl or guy.”
This off-season, there have been a lot of Duck fans taking the Beach Boys’ advice and being “true to their school,” many predicting a Natty in 2021 or the near future.
Not so fast, my feathered friends.
Can the Ducks Beat the Best?
I love the optimism. I love the enthusiasm. I love that a number of passionate Ducks fans who believe Mario Cristobal will be hoisting the college football (CFB) National Championship trophy after the 2021 season’s 15th game. No offense, but I cannot add my “Bill Hancock” to this prediction — not yet. And possibly, with the current Playoff format requiring back-to-back wins against two of the top four teams in America, never?
OK, I can hear you from mile away: “Come on, Jon, you pontificator of pessimism, are you having a senior moment recalling 2011? But for a Big Ten ref swallowing his whistle, Oregon takes SEC champ Auburn into OT. With the way the D was playing, who knows?”
You cannot come any closer than a walk-off field goal loss, can you?
No, my good friends, you cannot. However, this emphasizes my point about the current four-team field and having to defeat two, and not one, excellent teams. In 2014, the Ducks’ second Natty go round, Oregon mugged FSU (perhaps the worst undefeated P5 CFB team ever?) in the Rose Bowl. Arguably, the greatest win in Ducks history.
The reward for winning the Rose Bowl? A game against the Ohio State University. A Natty game that concluded with Oregon remaining O for Ohio. The discrepancy of talent on the field that evening was readily apparent. 17 of the 22 guys who started for Ohio State that evening were drafted by NFL teams, including ‘Zeke Elliott and Joey Bosa.
It’s (Mostly) All About the Players
“True that, you Ducks downer, but look how Mario is recruiting. Where’s the beef, you ask? Mario is bringing it to Eugene.”
Again, friends, hats off to the talent that Mario is bringing through the Ducks doors. It is amazing accomplishment, especially considering Oregon high schools annually produce fewer than a handful of 4- and 5-star recruits.
But when it comes to the Natty, the Pac-12 is far from Oregon’s only competition. Over the last couple of seasons, Mario has not out-recruited, or at least not significantly out-recruited, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A+M and, for that matter, Washington. And even in the midst of an uncertain head coaching situation in 2021, the hated Trojans appear to be getting their act together.
Yes, the Ducks did have four players added to the shopping cart in the latest version of the NFL meat market shopping spree. However, LSU came in with 14, Alabama, 13, Ohio State and Michigan with 10 apiece and Utah (Utah!) with 7. CFB is not 100% about the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s (the players), but probably 90%.
What About Xs and Os?
Coaching can overcome a lack of talent. In both 2011 and 2014, Oregon took a page out of Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War. Namely, “All warfare is based on deception.” Chip Kelly‘s revolutionary hurry-up no-huddle O revolutionized CFB.
But the revolution has been quelled by defenses that have caught up in scheme and personnel and new offenses like those of Coaches Saban and Orgeron. The best D talent these days is not going to stop the best Os.
“There you go again, Jon. Maybe the Pony Express hasn’t made it out your way, so this just in: Mario hired Joe Moorhead as his coordinator on O, planning to open things up. Pay attention, will you please?”
On paper, I could not be happier with the hire of Joe. But is Mario truly ready to move aside? And even if he does, do the Ducks have the wide receiver and running back talent of Alabama, Clemson and LSU to capitalize on a more wide open system? The recruiting on the defense and the O line has been spot on. But at the skill positions?
Before you lob another “but” in my direction, let’s talk twos, fours, sixes and eights. Everyone who has had to suffer through a class in statistics (I took my C grade and ran) knows that six of anything is a very small sample size. Nevertheless, in the six Nattys played to date, two defeats means you are not in the final four; four schools have won the six titles; and all of these four schools played eight-game conference schedules.
I have a better sample size for the number nine (10 with the champ game). Since the Pac-12 conference went to nine conference games, no school, not one, has gone in-conference 9-0, let alone 10-0. Seeing as how two losses means your Natty dreams are done, adding Auburn, Ohio State and Georgia to a nine-game P5 conference schedule is Playoff nuts. In 2015, the season Christian McCaffery should have won the Heisman trophy, had Stanford opened with UC Davis instead of opening at Northwestern, they would likely have made the Playoff. The last Pac-12 team to make the Playoff, UW in 2016, played Larry, Moe and Curly out of conference. Larry was dressed as Rutgers.
And the Ducks are not getting Playoff Committee props for playing in the Pac-12. Last season, three Pac-12 teams won eight or more games, and two of the three were embarrassed in their bowl games.
Steel may sharpen steel but the Playoff Committee gives next to no credit for playing top-drawer opponents out of conference unless, of course, you win the game. By the way, at the end of rubbing two steel bars together, is there a scoreboard noting which piece of steel won and which lost? Unless, and until, the Natty goes to an eight-team field with all P5 conference champs in, there are million$ of reasons not to schedule the best teams in CFB out of conference. And BTW, if you are going to play an FCS cupcake out of conference, make it a Portland State and not a North Dakota State munchie.
My Ducky friends, I do not see the Pac-12 returning to an eight-game slate. But notwithstanding the above dark view of things, I do see a sliver of light at the end of the Natty tunnel in 2024, when our out-of-conference match-up will find us lunching in Lubbock instead of chomping in Columbus or dining in Dixie.
In the meantime, I’ll wish you all the best and return to my cup of Natty hemlock.
Top Photo Credit: From Video
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
Jon Joseph grew up in Boston, Massachusetts but has been blessed to have lived long enough in the west to have exorcised all east coast bias. He played football in college and has passionately followed the game for seven decades. A retired corporate attorney Jon has lectured across the country and published numerous articles on banking and gaming law. Now a resident of Aiken South Carolina, Jon follows college football across the nation with a focus on the Conference of Champions and the Ducks.
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