It’s time for the Oregon Ducks to get off the fence. Are they going to step up and join the true elite of college football or are they going to remain a highly ranked team that piles on more doubters as the years progress?
In spite of beginning and ending consecutive seasons ranked in the top 5 in BCS polls, the Oregon Ducks are consistently a target for college football pundits who point out the weakness of their schedule. I’ve got to say, the haters have a point.
To say the Ducks play a weak schedule is an understatement. They began the season ranked 113th in difficulty of schedule. That’s below Bowling Green (107th),Central Michigan (87th) and Pac-12 rival Stanford (27th). For a team currently ranked third in the nation, this seems a bit incongruous.
The major contributing factor in the Ducks’ easy schedule remains out of their control. They are required to play nine conference games against Pac-12 teams. Other than the recent emergence of Stanford as a powerhouse, this leaves few reliable challenging games. The remainder of the Pac-12 flirts with the bottom half of the AP top 25 (like Oregon State and Washington), but none provide the sort of fearsome opponent that can be found in the typical SEC conference schedule.
So, in effect, the Ducks really only have control over three games in their schedule. Instead of taking advantage of those three matchups to really test the team, they have chosen to follow the usual routine of Division I schools and schedule two lukewarm challengers (Tennessee and Virginia) and one “cream-puff” matchup. Although the cream-puff challenger (this year little known Nicholls State) gets a nice payday and a little national recognition, and the obvious favorite gets a chance to add an easy win, these games play out more like exhibition or preseason games. With such a ridiculously easy schedule to begin with, the Ducks can’t afford such trivial luxuries.
A lopsided game like Nicholls State can build confidence and reputation, but it can actually hurt in the long run. When national rankings are largely determined by computer-generated algorithms, anomalies like Nicholls State can matter when determining who gets to play for a national championship. Beyond the somewhat artificial matter of national ranking, though, there is also the matter of how the Ducks can expect to perform if they do make it to a national title game. More often than not, we can expect Oregon to get beat by SEC teams like Auburn or Alabama who have had to grind out tight games against conference opponents. This season Oregon could reach the title game without having to face a defense capable of keeping up with them. That means they’ll never have to adjust their game plan, they’ll never have to play from behind, they won’t have the kind of gut-wrenching wins that build a team’s confidence and momentum. As it stands, Oregon’s schedule is a recipe for an overconfident team and overconfident fans, begging for disappointment. Oregon is perennially a team great at running up the score against defenses that can’t handle their high-paced attack, but they aren’t a team that can eke out victories against aggressive, smothering squads like Alabama.
The solution to this problem is hard to swallow: Oregon must court challenge. They’ve got to be realistic. They are in the Pac-12, not the SEC, and as such, they must adjust their schedule accordingly. Teams who are able to build a reputation by winning a difficult conference can afford to choose a few lighter weight opponents when they play out of conference. Right now, Oregon is the equivalent to the most expensive house in the neighborhood. If they want any respect, they’ll have to wait for their neighbors to improve, or, more realistically, start visiting other teams in more prosperous parts of town.