People have said a lot of things down the years about the Oregon Ducks football team, but no one has ever said this team was boring. For the last 20 years, Oregon has been an exciting team, a flamboyant team, and an inconsistent team that was a wild, wild card every Saturday. Not anymore. The current Oregon football team is so predictably good, they’ve not only sucked the life out of doomed opposition, they’ve sucked the life out of their fans. With no competition, they’re sucking the life out of themselves. It’s not as if there’s nothing to get excited about. If Oregon wins out, they are all but guaranteed to play in the national championship game for only the second time in school history. The uniforms are still awesome, the offense is still a blur, the aura is still intact around Chip Kelly’s program – and everyone is bored.
It’s not just fans who are bored by the same final scores over the same overmatched opponents every week. The team seems tired of this six-week old routine as well. Humans just cannot possibly get up for contests they know they could win with their eyes closed every week. I’m sure Oregon would have loved to spot Washington 20 points last weekend, just to keep things interesting. In reality, Oregon hasn’t played a meaningful snap all season. Even though the games against Washington State and Arizona were close for a time, there was no real threat that the Ducks would lose. Whether Kelly and his staff like it or not, the players knew it. Players, and fans, can sense danger. The Ducks haven’t felt any halfway through this season. There’s no reason to tune in for the players or the fans if you already know what’s going to happen. Why even play the games?
Part of the reason this season has been boring, and often worrying, is that Chip Kelly teams don’t have off-days. In leagues and sports where championships and success aren’t decided in the playoffs – college football and European soccer leagues being the big examples – the good teams that don’t lose to teams they shouldn’t, are the ones that have success. In his three and a half seasons in Eugene, The Ducks have lost more big games – Boise State, LSU, Ohio State, Auburn, USC – then they’ve won. But they’ve been automatic against lesser opposition. That wins conferences. Kelly, with his annoying mantras and attitude, has gotten his teams to totally buy in, every week, and he doesn’t allow his team to switch off. Kelly is undefeated against teams that weren’t ranked at the end of the season. Oregon is a machine. That’s greatness. And that’s boring.
For this Ducks team, and their fans, this year’s schedule could not have worked out worse. It remains to be seen which Arizona State team will show up two Thursdays from now in Tempe, but it’s very possible that the Ducks won’t play a team that will end up being ranked for nine straight weeks before Oregon takes on USC at the LA Coliseum. Oregon’s soft non-conference schedule isn’t their fault, of course. Kansas State, who is ranked #7, pulled out of their trip to Eugene earlier this year, making the Ducks scramble to find someone of the caliber of Tennessee Tech to give them their 12th game. The way the conference schedule was formed is that Oregon’s slate is back-loaded with tough games. In the mean time, we’re bored.
Playing Kansas State earlier this year wouldn’t only have given the Ducks some desperately needed experience under pressure and adverse circumstances; it would have yanked the team out the lull they got into that culminated in the appalling first half at Washington State. If a team has three, four, five, six no-contest games in a row, they’ll get bored, and take their foot off the gas. But if that lull is broken up by a tough, competitive game, then boredom doesn’t set in. There is the build-up to the game, and either the high that comes off a win, or motivation that follows a loss that doesn’t allow for the complacency to set in. K-State was chicken, and while the Ducks didn’t have to play one of the best teams in the country, they’re not better off for it.
In the last three years of unmatched success under Chip, the Ducks haven’t had the chance to be seduced into the lull their in now. In 2009, Kelly’s first year, the Ducks played three ranked teams in the first four weeks, on the way to the massive Halloween game with USC and the hectic end to the season that followed. In 2010, the national championship year, Oregon had a massive non-conference game at Neyland Stadium against Tennessee, before the top-10 game with Stanford, followed by the game at USC, and the run-in to the Natty to keep the team focused. Last year, the Ducks played LSU in Jerry’s World on opening day, and that pushed them through to a big game against Arizona State, and later games against top-5 opponents in Stanford and USC on the way to the Rose Bowl. This Ducks team will play the big conference games in November, but whether they can lurch into high gear will decide if they can win those games and fulfill their promise of another Pac-12 title and national championship game appearance. This Ducks team obviously isn’t playing their best football. They aren’t playing their best football because no one has made them yet.
Why do SEC teams demonstrate year after year that they are on another planet than the rest of college football? Because they are pushed every week, they must focus and play their best every week not to get knocked off Mt. Olympus. For the team that eventually comes out of the bloodbath, there is no greater benefit, hence the last six national championships. A lack of competition every week hurts teams from the Big 12, B1G, ACC, and Pac-12, as we have seen year after year. Kelly’s greatest accomplishment is not letting his team slip up. But this year, that task has gone beyond the brink of difficult.
The Ducks want to be tested, and they won’t start playing their best until they are. But by the time they roll into Southern Cal, it might be too late to kick into harmonious high gear. I hope it’s not. This young bunch of players has the chance to be the best team in Oregon history. The Ducks are better than every team they have on the schedule this year. They shouldn’t lose. But this patsy-induced funk makes it more likely they will. Kelly’s focus and clichés are needed more than ever now. Keep his team focused, and yank them out of their lull, and we’ll have a team we can’t ignore down the line this year. After all, there’s no boredom in a national championship game.