Many Oregon Ducks fans (myself included) were extremely optimistic that this would finally be the year they could break through and win that elusive BCS Championship. Heading into the season we had two potential Heisman Trophy candidates in Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas. Most of the offense from last year’s record-breaking team returned. There were a few questions about a defense that lost 3 starters to the NFL but we’ve bought into the Ducks “next man up” mentality and assumed there would be little drop off (especially given how much playing time Ducks defenders get with their rotating scheme).

Step away from the ledge Duck fans!
Step away from the ledge Duck fans!

Oh, and Chip Kelly left for the NFL but Oregon stayed true to form and promoted homegrown Mark Helfrich from Offensive Coordinator to Head Coach (following the path of Kelly, Mike Bellotti and Rich Brooks). The bulk of the assistant coaching staff – many of whom who have spend literally decades in Eugene – also remained intact. Chip brought the Ducks defensive line coach with him to Philly but left the rest of the staff intact and the cupboards incredibly full of talent.

In fact, surveying this team before the season (and during its early run through September) it was safe to say that this Ducks team was vastly more talented than the Oregon team that ran the table in 2010 on its way to the BCS Championship. There are more weapons and depth on this squad. It looked scary good. Good enough to finally challenge Alabama or any other team that would emerge out of the SEC.

Or so we thought.

Stanford gave the Ducks a cold shower reality check for a second straight year and appeared to dash Oregon’s BCS championship dreams. But a week later USC gave the Ducks new life by upsetting the Cardinal in Los Angeles. For the second time in November, the Ducks were again in control of its own destiny – if not for the BCS title game, then at least for the Pac-12 title game.

Leading up to the Arizona game, much was made (in the media, social media and fan boards alike) about comments made by Ducks Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas regarding the Ducks potential to play in the Rose Bowl. At the time, I didn’t read too much into them as I thought the wounds from the Stanford loss were still a bit raw – and I want the Ducks to be aspiring for the BCS Championship game.

The thing is, sitting at #5 in the BCS rankings at the time, the Ducks still did have an outside chance at reaching the BCS title game. Yes they would need some help by having those undefeated teams ahead of them lose, but they already saw with the Stanford loss to USC that crazy things do happen in November. If Oregon simply took care of business, worst case it would have a chance to win its second Rose Bowl in 3 years – something that seemed unimaginable as recently as 2005 to most Ducks (and fans).

But they didn’t take care of business in the desert and were outplayed from the first snap of the game. They suffered their worst loss since 2008 and fell out of contention for the Pac-12 Championship and most likely, a fifth straight BCS bowl game.

How and why did this happen? I don’t have the answer and remain puzzled how a team with as much to play for as Oregon did could come out so flat and unfocused. One has to look at leadership within the team and coaching ranks – its only fair.

Predictably many fans and pundits are up in arms about the state of the Ducks after this unexpected (and disheartening) defeat. Some have called it the end of an era for Oregon. Others are already calling Helfrich a bust and/or “Chip Kelly” wannabe.

There is no doubt that Oregon is at a critical stage with its program. The Arizona loss was on par with the Ducks disastrous performance in the 2006 Vegas Bowl, where they seemed disinterested and unfocused and got waxed by a BYU team that came ready to play. At that time, I worried that the Ducks may have gotten too soft and were too spoiled by the influx of (then) crazy amenities such as video games in the locker rooms and new uniforms weekly.

To his credit, Mike Bellotti righted the ship and Ducks started rolling again in 2007 with Chip running the offense. Like this year’s team, that Oregon team seemed destined for the BCS Championship until a knee injury to their Heisman candidate QB derailed the season (sound familiar?). Even though that Ducks team went on to lose its final 3 conference games (and what seemed to be a stranglehold on a Rose Bowl berth at least), it rallied for an impressive Sun Bowl win with its 4th string QB.

Oregon is at a totally different point with its program than it was even 3-4 years ago. Instead of coaching up a bunch of 3-star recruits and beating teams with seemingly better talent, its now landing 4 and 5 star recruits who dream of winning national championships. The opening of its football facility this past summer raised more than a few eyebrows with its opulence but most of us simply shrug and acknowledge the football facility “arms race” is simply part of competing at a high level in today’s world.

But what kind of Ducks are playing today compared to 3, 5, 10 or 15 years ago? And is there reason for Oregon fans to fret about the future of the program?

Well, if fretting means worrying about if the Ducks will ever win a BCS Championship then yes, then that is legit. Winning a national football championship is CRAZY HARD and takes a ton of things to go right to even be in the position to potentially win one. As a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan I had my heart broken on countless occasions when they failed time and again in the playoffs (and World Series). I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see them win a title in my lifetime but I’ve seen them win two in the past four years. Crazy.

So if you’re the kind of fan who can only enjoy or appreciate Oregon Ducks football if you think they will win the National Championship, then good luck with that. I’ve been a fan since 1986 and love my Ducks because they are fun, exciting and almost always competitive. Do I get frustrated and disappointed when they lose games I think they should win? Of course. But I’ve also learned over the years that its too myopic to simply view your team’s loss from a one-sided perspective. Sometimes teams do lose…but most of the time the other team simply plays better and wins.

Oregon has a rookie head coach and rookie offensive coordinator. Have they made mistakes this season? No doubt. But as I’ve reminded other Duck fans, Chip Kelly made his share of mistakes as well. His rookie season featured two losses as well – including losing on the road to an unranked Stanford team where the Ducks couldn’t stop the running game of Toby Gearhart and watched the Cardinal score nearly 60 points on them.

The past four years for the Ducks have been amazing and magical – but they also came at an ideal time from a conference standpoint. Overall the Pac-12 was down across the board. USC struggled under Lane Kiffin. Washington is still trying to join the upper echelon. Stanford was really the only serious challenger for the Ducks but that has changed. With the exception of Cal, which is truly atrocious, the Pac-12 is much more competitive. New coaching regimes at UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona are paying dividends. And that sleeping giant at USC will wake up again soon. Getting through the conference unscathed will be nearly impossible for any team (in my opinion). The BCS playoffs come at a good time for both the Ducks and the Pac12.

Time will tell if the Ducks will remain among the national elite or slide towards the middle of the Pac-12 conference. But I like their chances. For now my message to fellow Ducks fans is to “Keep Calm and Duck On.” Enjoy the ride because it could be so much worse.

Here are a few final points of perspective:
* Stanford was also a preseason top 5 team and lost two road conference games to unranked teams. Nobody in Palo Alto is calling for David Shaw to be fired.
* Alabama lost 3 conference games in 2010 and had to settle for a non-BCS bowl. They regained their focus (and haven’t lost it yet).
* Auburn didn’t win a single conference game a year ago – and is one win away from a spot from the SEC championship game. Like Oregon, they promoted their previous offensive coordinator (except in his case he got one year at Arkansas State to learn how to be a head coach).
* Cal just completed its first ever 11 loss season – and barely beat Portland State – only 4 years after being a top 5 BCS team.
* Florida – which was ranked #3 in last year’s BCS heading into the Sugar Bowl – just lost to FCS Georgia Southern and will finish with a losing record and NO bowl
* Oregon’s Fiesta Bowl opponent Kansas State lost to FCS North Dakota State and wasn’t even in the Big 12 hunt
* Mark Helfrich really is in a no-win situation. If he wins its because he’s using Chip’s system and players. And if he loses he’s considered a lousy coach who is failing where Chip wouldn’t.

* Not to rub it into our Friday rivals, but consider the plight of Oregon State fans the past five years. Twice they have simply had to win the Civil War to advance to their first Rose Bowl since the 1960s. Twice they’ve had to watch us celebrate. And this season they lost to FCS Eastern Washington and just gave up a school-record points and rushing performance to a UW team that started its 2nd-string QB. Ouch.

What do I want for the Ducks? Of course I’d love to see them compete for (and win a national championship) on a regular basis. But I know that’s extremely difficult for any program to do consistently – just look at teams that are “supposed” to win regularly (see: Texas, Notre Dame, Michigan, etc). My standards have always been: play hard, be entertaining, represent the University of Oregon well (both players and coaches) and be competitive. If they fulfill those on a consistent basis then I know the program is maintaining the success its built over the past two decades.

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