One thing I've learned over the years is that the "great" football teams generally get the benefit of the doubt and often receive the highest preseason national rankings. In the imperfect world of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), high preseason rankings can sometimes help teams who later factor into the National Championship race. A team that starts its season ranked in the Top-10 may hold an advantage over a team that isn't ranked as high should both teams withstand a single loss during the season and end up contending for a spot in the National Championship game.
In this context, the University of Oregon football program is not considered "great", at least not by most of the national media that follow the sport. Depending on where you look, Oregon is ranked in the preseason this year between 9th and 20th in the nation with most of the rankings placing the Ducks out of the Top 10. This judgment is passed on a team that finished 11-1 and ranked 2nd in the nation last year, a team that not only returns more lettermen (37) than they did last year but also more starters (11) than some teams ranked ahead of them in this year's preseason polls.
Down-playing the impact of preseason national rankings at Oregon's Media Day held August 9 head coach Mike Bellotti said, "I don't worry about it. I think the first couple of games will tell us a lot about what type of team we have and where we should be ranked."
And when asked to respond to recent statements made by Oregon State players that subscribe to the premise that Oregon is overrated, Bellotti deferred, "I think everybody's overrated before the season starts."
No, Bellotti doesn't appear to be concerned with much outside his direct control or the control of his team.
"The thing about last year that probably was the most frustrating was not necessarily that we didn't quite get to that championship game but that we allowed it to get outside of our control," said Bellotti. "I've said for many years 'keep things within your control' and you do that by winning football games and taking those decisions out of other people's hands."
This is quintessential Bellotti. The character and heart of his teams are made with such careful underpinnings. You get nothing for free. Everything is earned.
"Our goal, honestly, is to be competitive and to win our first game and then we'll go from there," said Bellotti. "It's a stair-step approach that we always talk about. We want to win every game one game at a time. We want to win the conference. We want to go to the very best bowl game possible and we want to win the National Championship. We haven't backed off from those goals. We'll never back off from those goals because I think if you do, you give everybody an out. Instead, we want to continue working hard to build the foundation and to get better."
The foundation in the Bellotti house is pretty solid even if the media doesn't rank it among the "great" teams. The Ducks are coming off of back-to-back Pac-10 Conference championships (undisputed champion last year and co-champion in 2000.) During Bellotti's tenure as head coach spanning seven seasons, Oregon also owns the leagues best record in winning percentage.
"It's keeping that edge," says Bellotti. "It's making sure that your players stay hungry. We have 'Stay Hungry' written on the wall. I told our players that it is very important that we keep this whole thing in perspective that we don't become self-satisfied, that we understand because we are the defending conference champions that we are going to get everybody's 'A' game. (We) have to go out just as hungry, just as motivated, just as focused as the other team."
Last year Bellotti talked about "surviving success" and expects to face the same issue this year perhaps even more acutely. "Our goal is not to take a step backward at all," said Bellotti. "Our goal is not necessarily to worry about defending a conference championship (but) to aggressively go seek another one."
From where I sit there is a lot in Oregon's favor. First, the coaching staff is exemplary starting with Bellotti and ending with the only new coach to join the team this year, offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, from Fresno State and whom Bellotti described as has having done a very good job during the spring.
Next come the players. The media has made too much of the loss of quarterback Joey Harrington to the Detroit Lions. The fact is Oregon has reloaded at quarterback consistently over the last 15 years dating back to Bill Musgrave. Furthermore, Jason Fife is a fourth-year junior in a system that has put its last five starting quarterbacks into the professional ranks. Finally, the featured minutes Fife has received, whether in the past two spring games or in clean-up duties, has shown he has the ability to carry on the Oregon quarterback tradition. Highly-heralded as a recruit, redshirt freshman Kellen Clemens, who has one year in Bellotti's system, is not far behind. Making things easier for these quarterbacks is the best group of receivers in Oregon football history, including senior Keenan Howry who only needs 30 receptions, 831 yards and six touchdowns to become the most prolific receiver in Oregon football history. The quarterbacks will also benefit from a versatile offensive line that features seven players with game experience. And if that isn't enough, consider junior tailback Onterrio Smith who was Oregon's back-up last year behind Maurice Morris but the team's leading ground gainer. Smith was the Pac-10 Conference's sixth leading rusher last year and the preseason first team candidate this year according to many prognosticators.
"The nice thing about our offensive balance is do you (competing coach) load up the line of scrimmage to stop Onterrio Smith, or do you double cover Keenan Howry or Samie Parker, and what about our tight end," questions Bellotti.
On defense, Oregon should field a seasoned group of linemen, linebackers and safeties and behind them there are a bevy of young and exciting players to watch such as freshman tackle Haloti Ngata, who comes in as Oregon's highest ranking recruit ever, the "real deal" according to Bellotti. Only at cornerback does there appear to be any real questions on defense. One of the cornerback positions will likely be anchored by last years nickel back, junior Steven Moore, the other will be competed for by a group including sophomore Charles Favroth, junior Courtney Miller, redshirt freshman Justin Phinisee, and potentially junior college transfer David Dixon and incoming freshmen Marques Binns and Aaron Gipson.
"I think we have a chance to be a more effective pass rushing team this year thus taking some of the pressure off the young corners," said Bellotti.
On special teams, both of Oregon's kickers, sophomore place kicker Jared Siegel and senior punter Jose Arroyo are returning. So are Oregon's return people, punts mainly handled by Howry and kickoffs handled mostly by Onterrio Smith and senior tailback Allan Amundson.
There are other reasons why Oregon sizes up to be very good this year. The Ducks get eight home games in a newly expanded Autzen Stadium where the home field advantage has recently added up to a 25-1 record dating back to 1997. Three of Oregon's four away games are also against the same teams they played away last year. The team appears well conditioned and relatively injury free moving into fall with many players having stayed through the summer to work with strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe. Finally, there are the intangibles such as team chemistry and spirit. Those things can only be assessed by someone with the experience and familiarity necessary to make such subjective calls.
"I feel very good about the chemistry of this group of young men," said Bellotti. "Many of them have been through the wars. They're veterans. They know how to win. They know how to win close games. But, every year that chemistry and unity needs to be reformed. We have some great leaders, great players. I am excited personally about the start of this season."