In the words of Oregon senior quarterback Joey Harrington, "Oregon has never been in this position before." But can the Ducks deal with the pressure that comes with the high expectations?
"It brings what we call a sort of positive type pressure which is one that our players and coaches welcome," said Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti. "It's not going to change what we do or how we do it but it's nice that other people care. We earned that last year. Now the challenge is to continue to be the type of program that is a Top-10 program or better and hopefully we're going to meet that challenge."
"I don't feel any pressure," continues Harrington. "I put more pressure on myself week in and week out than anybody else could. So, all the hype, and all the rankings and all the media exposure, I don't worry about it. We're just going out to play football and see what happens."
This is fun stuff. I'm so used to covering the underdog, the overachiever, the greatest kept secret, that covering the Ducks now is almost akin to picking up a new beat. Even Coach Bellotti says regarding his posturing of the Ducks, "I'll have to retool my speeches a little bit." And, after all these years, I can't help but wonder what turned the worm for Oregon. Perhaps it was finishing last year with an unprecedented No. 7 Associated Press national ranking, or winning an unprecedented 10 games, or beating fabled Texas in the Holiday Bowl, the team who has some 40 bowl game appearances and three national championships under its belt. Or, maybe it was just time, after chipping away at this thing since the 1995 Rose Bowl, that last year's performance and the strength of players returning this year was enough to finally break the camel's back.
But it's important to Oregon that this isn't short lived. I suspect that if the Ducks falter this year and not deliver on all the high expectations that they might be dismissed right back to where they were, fighting and clawing for every inch of respect. The good news is that there are many reasons to believe that Oregon is worthy of its lofty praise.
Let's start first with the offense. Eight starters return, but more than that there is excellent depth at every position. "I've absolutely no pressure to go out and throw for 300-400 yards a game," says Harrington. "We have so many weapons top to bottom, at all skill positions, receiver, running back. We're bringing back a 1200-yard rusher, a 2900-yard passer and two guys that caught 50 balls last year. We've got weapons everywhere; so I think defenses are going to have a very tough time preparing for every facet of our offense."
Bellotti indicates that the Oregon offense has the potential this year to "be as good or better" as the 1989 offense that returned 10 starters and had seven players sign pro contracts once their college playing days were through.
On paper the Oregon defense would appear to pose the gravest concern with only four starters from last year returning, senior cornerback Rashad Bauman, senior cornerback Steve Smith, junior free safety Rasuli Webster and junior defensive end Seth McEwen. However, under defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti the Ducks were able to reload on defense last year after only returning four starters, and that group excelled to second in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (19.9 ppg) and third in the conference in total defense (331.1 avg.). Add guys this year such as senior tackle Zack Freiter, junior defensive end Ed Wangler, sophomore linebacker Kevin Mitchell, junior linebacker Garret Graham, senior linebacker Wesly Mallard and safety Keith Lewis, all who have had significant game experience, and the Ducks have more than enough to reload their defense again. The key will be building depth, developing new players and keeping the starters healthy.
Special teams is another matter. "We lost both of our kickers, our punter and long snapper and several key personnel who played a lot on special teams," said Bellotti. "That is an area of concern going in that we need to get better at than we were in the spring. I certainly hope that the intensity and attention to detail in fall camp will remedy some of that (concern).
From my perspective the loss of special teams coach Tom Osborne, who took over the assistant head coaching job at Arizona State might be as critical to the performance of Oregon's special teams as the loss of player personnel. The good news is that Coach Bellotti himself coaches the kickers at Oregon and that is the area that would appear to need the most amount of work.
Another reason why I think Oregon will be deserving of their preseason hype this year is the solid team unity and leadership. Seventy-two players held over in Eugene this summer to practice, a tradition that has increased in player participation every year according to Bellottti. Also, according to Harrington, the team's seniors won't allow the rest of the team to get big heads, slack on their work ethic or forget where they came from. "(Our) core group of senior leaders have been here for four and five years now," said Harrington. "We were here when the Ducks were picked to finish 8th in the conference and we came out and finished 8-4, and we were here when they picked us 6th in the conference and we came out and won the Pac-10 championship last year. We know we have to come out and earn it."
Bellotti remarked that the team had adopted the slogan this year that they used last year for the Holiday Bowl – "one inch out of control." Top Gun pilot and inspirational speaker Bill Driscoll spoke to the team prior to the bowl game about how he would teach his students to fly "one inch out of control" in combat situations in order to prevail over the enemy. Bellotti thought the same logic would apply to how the Ducks should play football.
"The key thing for us is we're not going to become conservative, we're not going to become anything because we might be favored to do this or that," said Bellotti. "We've got to play hard. We've got to take chances and be innovative and be creative both as coaches and players.
"Our players are in this for the long haul. We've talked a lot about the national championship as our goal. It would be tremendously special this year because of the Rose Bowl being (host) to the national championship. But obviously there is a lot of work to be done before that. I think our players are very realistic and yet if we are going to error we are going to error on the side of optimism. We have a belief that we can win every game that we play."
Count me in, Coach.