The future in Eugene, Oregon, looks bright.
After a 95-year Rose Bowl drought, the Oregon Ducks amassed 621 total yards in a compelling 45-38 win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Chip Kelly earned vindication with his first BCS bowl win as the Oregon Ducks head coach. Finally, after falling to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl and Auburn in the 2011 National Championship, as well as losing the season opener to number-one ranked LSU last September, Kelly was able to silence the naysayers, the critics, and the haters of the Oregon Ducks football program.
They said the Oregon Ducks could never beat an elite team. They said strength would always outdo speed, and when faced with an offensive line that benches an average of over 300 pounds, blocking for a Heisman finalist running back paired with one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football, the Ducks had no chance.
Boy does it feel good to prove them wrong.
Many Duck players stepped it up on the national stage. Lavasier Tuinei, the Duck wide receiver who had a subpar season, finished with 158 yards on 8 for 9 pass completions from quarterback Darron Thomas and two touchdowns. LaMichael James, who had never scored a touchdown in the postseason with Oregon, finally got a rushing touchdown with 159 yards on 25 carries. And who could forget the black mamba, De’Anthony Thomas, who despite only touching the ball twice, scored each time on runs of 64 and 91 yards. He averaged an unbelievable 77 yards per carry in the Rose Bowl, and he’s only a freshman.
In my previous article, I predicted that the Oregon Ducks’ young cornerbacks would be the difference in a close game. And while I underestimated the final score, my overall prediction proved correct. With nearly four minutes to go and Wisconsin having a chance to tie the game after an Oregon field goal, a Wisconsin pass from Russell Wilson to Jared Abbrederis was punched out by cornerback Terrance Mitchell for a fumble, and then recovered by Michael Clay. The Ducks all but sealed the game, leading by seven at that point. The late Badger turnover was what the Ducks needed to earn their first postseason win under Kelly’s tenure.
But Kelly’s program is always looking to the future, treating every individual game like the Super Bowl. And although star running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas will be leaving for the NFL Draft next season, the Oregon offense will still feature prolific players, including returning senior running back Kenjon Barner, playmaking sophomore option back De’Anthony Thomas and sophomore quarterback Bryan Bennett. Additionally, three-fifths of Oregon’s offensive line will be returning. On the defensive end, the young Oregon Ducks secondary was able to develop quickly this season because of Cliff Harris’s release from the team—experience that will surely help the Ducks in the next season.
The Oregon Ducks also face arguably one of the easiest schedules in the history of the program next fall. They play three subpar nonconference teams in Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech. They follow with unchallenging Pac-12 play: four of the teams they face will undergo coaching changes next season that will play to the advantage of the Ducks program. Stanford has no second Andrew Luck waiting in its wings. Oregon’s only true test next season will be dismantling the now postseason-eligible USC and returning QB Matt Barkley in his own arena. The 2012 Pac-12 Championship game will most likely feature Oregon vs. USC.
The only issue with such an easy schedule is that it will be easy for BCS computers to give the largely untested Ducks a low ranking, but hopefully that will not prove to be an issue as Oregon should start the season ranked in the top five after winning the Rose Bowl. But if an SEC team goes undefeated and another SEC team only has one loss, like LSU and Alabama this year, the computers might take the SEC teams to the Natty, leaving Oregon’s best hope a consecutive Rose Bowl victory. My concern with this outcome lays in the fact that the Rose Bowl might become too boring a postseason destination for the fans of the talented Ducks squad.
My prediction for next season: University of Oregon goes 12-0 and returns to the National Championship.