Mario Cristobal is building something special at Oregon. He is taking a school that sits at the physical and metaphorical fringes of the College Football world and elevating it into a football power. Now, none of this would be possible without the prominent coaches who came before him: Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, and Mark Helfrich. All these coaches built the foundation for Cristobal to construct his Oregon empire upon but one thing has become abundantly clear; the old Oregon way is not good enough to compete in this era of College Football and Cristobal needs a modern blueprint.
Though Cristobal was a coach under Nick Saban at Alabama it is unfair to compare him to Saban at this time. Saban came to Alabama having already won a National Championship. The more appropriate comparison is with Dabo Swinney of Clemson. Clemson was a mess when Sweeney took over in the middle of a season with the abrupt firing of their previous head coach Tommy Bowden.
Swinney’s first full season was an improvement over previous seasons for Clemson as they went 9-5. Fans had something to be happy with as that was a major step in the right direction compared to previous years and Clemson finished higher in their division and conference than they had in the last decade. However, in Swinney’s second-year the team regressed as Clemson finished 6-7.
As you would imagine the Clemson’s fan base was not happy with this dud of a season. Though the administration did elect to stick with Swinney and Clemson eventually bounced back in the following years with double-digit wins. Clemson would also continue to rise in the rankings and the fall of Florida State only expedited Clemson’s rise.
Cristobal has had some similar up-and-down success at Oregon in his three years as Oregon’s head coach. He made a moderate improvement over Willie Taggart’s 2017 team in 2018 and then in 2019, Oregon won the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl. The 2020 season hasn’t been so kind for Cristobal despite winning a second Pac-12 Championship. The 2020 season was anything but normal; as Oregon fans, we were left feeling uneasy about Cristobal’s coaching ability. However, Cristobal was given a contract extension as Oregon’s Athletic Director, President, and Board of Trustees all believed in Cristobal’s ability.
Like Clemson’s administration, Oregon’s administration is willing to be patient with their coach.
A weak conference was a key component to Clemson’s rise, as the traditional powers of Miami and Florida State were shells of their former selves, resulting in a power void for Clemson to step into and dominate. The College Football Playoff Committee has proven they value undefeated seasons over the strength of schedule and in that vein the ACC’s weakness has been kind for Clemson’s playoff aspirations. In the past three seasons, Clemson has only lost one conference game.
The Pac-12 is generally considered to be the weakest Power-Five Conference, especially in football. There isn’t a team in the Pac-12 that has a stranglehold on the conference like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, or Oklahoma in their respective conferences. USC used to have that power but they are a far cry from their glory days under Pete Carroll.
With a weakened USC program, Oregon has taken advantage, best exemplified in having won the last two Pac-12 Championships and having secured the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 for three consecutive years. Oregon is also primed to win the Pac-12 again in 2021.
Clemson isn’t the perfect blueprint for Oregon because Oregon is in a significantly different situation. The Pac-12 is currently considered the weakest conference, which is helpful for the Ducks giving Oregon the best chance to go undefeated any given year, but Pac-12 play also comes with a slate of nine conference games which makes the potential of making it out of the season unscathed all the more difficult. Pac-12 membership also comes with significant financial disadvantages which Oregon has been able to overcome by the sheer generosity of Phil Knight and other major donors.
Clemson, located in South Carolina, also has a major geographic advantage over Oregon because they are in the prime recruiting territory in the nation. Coupled with Clemson being a perennial player in the College Football Playoff, Clemson is able to pull some of the best talent from the East Coast while also frequently pulling talent from the West Coast, talent that Oregon desperately needs to come to Eugene.
Oregon, by contrast, sits at the outskirts of the College Football world, and as a result, recruiting to Oregon isn’t easy. Oregon isn’t in the same position as Clemson was when Swinney took over. Oregon does have a national brand but lacks the geography to bring recruits to Oregon; Eugene is still very far away from home for most blue-chip recruits.
2020 was a major bump in Oregon’s road in returning to College Football Playoff, especially with the terrible loss to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. On-field results in 2020 were below fan expectations. Cristobal has a far more difficult job than Swinney had when he built Clemson into the national power it is today. Though there isn’t another team in the country in a better position to challenge the status quo of college football more than Oregon.
In time Oregon may come to mirror Clemson’s dominance but Oregon will do so under far more difficult circumstances. As Duck fans, we have always embraced our adversity as we sit on the outskirts of College Football’s elite, and what could be a better comeback story from a turbulent 2020 season than Oregon overcoming that adversity?
Top Photo By: UO Athletics
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