The Fiesta and The Future

Once again, Oregon football ends its season with a bowl win. And once again, the prospect of big changes loom for the Ducks. But this time, it’s different. This time, it isn’t just personnel changes or a change in the caliber of opposition. After this season, it will be a change in the narrative of the program itself. Let me explain.

Let’s go back in time to just over two months ago. It’s November 10, 2012, Week 11 of college football. Oregon and Kansas State have each just soundly defeated their opponents, as has Notre Dame. Alabama, on the other hand, had done the unthinkable and lost to Texas A&M; the Tide’s thought-to-be-invincible defense had been bested by Johnny Football. The world was on it’s head. Surely the Ducks and KSU would be squaring off in the National Championship Game. The Tide were finished, and Notre Dame was not on the same level as these clubs. It was inevitable. There was just one flaw in that logic.

Any given Saturday.

We know the rest of the tale. Notre Dame didn’t lose when the others did, and ‘Bama found it’s way back, cloaked in the armor of it’s overbearingly tough SEC schedule and conference championship win.  Not only could Oregon not go undefeated, the Ducks couldn’t even win their division. Thus, K-State and Oregon got their heralded matchup, a contest of high-power offenses and respectable defenses. In a twist of irony, the game was held at the site of Oregon’s national championship heartbreak two years ago at the hands of Cam Newton and Auburn. This time however, the Ducks were victorious. DeAnthony Thomas returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score and the rest is mostly details. After some clutch defense, a couple of picks by Colin Klein, and a weird play on an extra point attempt that introduced America to an obscure rule of football, Oregon won it’s fourth consecutive BCS appearance by a final score of 35-17.

In case you were wondering, a blog called Quirky Research states that this was the fourth one-point safety in college football since the rule was introduced in 1988, the second ever in FBS, and the first in a bowl game. Also, the NFL also uses this rule. In case it comes up.

Kenyon Barner ended his college career within 21 yards of Oregon’s career AP yards record, currently held my LaMichael James, his predecessor as the Duck’s featured back. This achievement should be noted as a testament to the increasing efficiency and skill of Oregon’s offense, because Barner spent so much of his career as James’ backup.

No matter the stakes, the results probably would have been similar whatever circumstances this game was played under, save for perhaps the location and the slippery turf at University of Phoenix Stadium, another reminder of the 2010 NCG. But the ramifications of this win were different than what they could have been. Two years from now, this would probably have been one of the national semi-final games, with the Ducks taking on some other team such as ‘Bama, ND, or even Florida in the title game next week. If Oregon and K-State had managed to go undefeated, Coach Chip would end his tenure in Eugene by hoisting the Waterford Crystal. These were not to be. Instead, the victory is a capstone on a monumental ride and the transformation of a program. It’s a fitting bookend and a point of transition for the program.

I speak of Chip Kelly’s departure from Oregon as a sure thing because I don’t see a lot of alternative, with pending NCAA hearings, potential sanctions, a graduating senior running back who was the type of player around whom the offense was essentially built and who will be difficult to replace. This doesn’t even include the fact that Kelly has taken Oregon from solid Pac-12 team to elite program, national powerhouse and habitual title contender in four short years. The only thing left for Chip to do at Oregon would be to actually bring home a national championship, and one’s ability to do that is so dependent on factors beyond one’s control that to wait around until one has done so before moving on invites the possibility of waiting forever. You can be the best coach in the country, you can have the most talented team in the country, you can plan and prepare and do everything you possibly can to win and yet not do so. It goes back to a theme I mentioned earlier.

Any given Saturday.

The presentation of the Fiesta Bowl trophy, the almost assuredly imminent departure of Kelly, and the changes in store for Oregon spell a new era for Duck football. This is no longer the program that is wowing the crowds and stunning defenses with it’s flashy uniforms and frightening speed. Even without a national championship to their name, the Ducks have now officially arrived, right up there with the big names in college football. The Ducks are an elite program.

Now comes the part where that elite level has to be maintained. It can never be done forever; the pantheon of college football changes constantly with new programs entering the vaunted heights while others, for whatever reason, slip away into mediocrity or worse. That preeminent status will be difficult to maintain without it’s architect, for as much as Kelly wants to give all the credit to his players, they do what he taught them to do. Now, someone else will be teaching them, and it won’t be the same. Not because of any deficiency in Kelly’s successor, but because Kelly is unique, a singular figure in the world of football.

So the future remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t count this team out of anything for awhile. If whoever comes to the helm of the program next is able to instill the team with the same work ethic, the same motivation to “win the day,” and the same expectation of performance as Kelly has in these four years, as well as pull some good recruits and beat the NCAA rap, the Ducks will be in good shape. And if Oregon every does bring home the Waterford Crystal, Chip Kelly should hoist it, because he began the process by which it was obtained. A process which moves forward now, and can be brought to that ultimate fruition with skill, hard work, and quite a bit of luck.

When those first two elements are in place, its a matter of “any given Saturday.”

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