Yes, a lot has changed since then. Oregon has developed a sustainable college football power in the Northwest. It is a program with very solid foundation and momentum. Everything from the coaching staff, led by eight-year man Mike Bellotti, to the athletic department, to the facility improvements, to the fans and boosters, has contributed to the program's success. In Bellotti's tenure, his teams have faced season home openers against Big 10 Conference powers Michigan State in 1998 and Wisconsin last year and prevailed. He has led the Ducks to a 19-2 regular season non-conference record. He has proven with seven consecutive winning seasons and six bowl game appearances that his teams consistently reload not rebuild. Most recently, his teams have gone 9-3 in 1999, 10-2 in 2000 and 11-1 in 2001. In 2000 and 2001 the Ducks brought home Pac-10 Conference championships.
So, why have any questions? The 15th ranked Ducks are favored to win by 10 points. Mississippi State is unranked. The Bulldogs only went 3-8 last year. For goodness sake, they'll probably have jet lag or at least a language barrier or something.
Part of the answer can be attributed to the Ducks themselves. Who are they really this year? Will this team have the same talent, character and passion for winning as those of the past? Who will be the team leaders? Who will step up? These questions are relevant regardless of whom Oregon's opening opponent is. The other part of the answer concerns Mississippi State and exactly what they are capable of.
"I feel we are where we need to be," said Bellotti speaking to the media on Wednesday. "But, I'm not sure I could give an evaluation until we play a game. I feel good about our development. There are always some things you'd have liked to accomplished, or stayed a little healthier in fall camp. I think our kids are excited about the chance to step up and see what they've got."
There is evidence that the Ducks should be very wary of Mississippi State. Although the Bulldogs only posted a 3-8 record last year, they lost five games by only a touchdown or less and could have just as easily been 8-3. They have a seasoned coach in Jackie Sherrill who has accumulated a 70-56-2 record over 12 seasons at Mississippi State. Bulldogs were the SEC Western Division Champions in 1998 and posted a bowl-game-winning 10-2 record in 1999.
"This is a game we're going to have to play very well to win," said Bellotti. "This (Mississippi State) is a good football program, good football team, that's well coached."
Probably Mississippi State's greatest strength is their defense. There are seven returning starters including two All-America candidates, senior linebacker Mario Haggan and senior free safety Josh Morgan. In 2001, Haggan led the team in tackles recording 95. Overall, Haggan has produced 13 double-digit tackle games in 20 career starts and is only 72 stops away from moving into Mississippi State's Top 10 career tacklers. Morgan was named first team, all SEC by the Football News and was a second-team selection by the Associated Press following his junior season in which he made 79 tackles, five for loss, two fumble recoveries, nine pass deflections and three interceptions. Joe Lee Dunn who mentored Rocky Long, a former highly successful Pac-10 Conference defensive coordinator at Oregon State and UCLA, also coordinates the Bulldog defense. Last year the Bulldogs were 4th in the SEC in passing defense, 7th in total defense and 5th in sacks.
"It's a unconventional somewhat non-traditional defense with five DBs (defensive backs)," said Bellotti speaking of Mississippi State. "Their strength is in the secondary with the returning corners and all-league free safety Josh Morgan. The hardest part is not necessarily in my mind the (defensive) scheme itself but how the match-ups will go. When you have not played that opponent and have no common opponents, how are we going to match up speed, size, strength?"
The key to this game could be how well the Ducks respond to a tough SEC team that wants to rebound from their uncharacteristically poor record last year. If the Duck offense led by its rookie quarterback junior Jason Fife gets rattled early or inpatient against the Bulldog defense then the game could come down to which team makes the fewest overall mistakes. And, mistakes are sometimes a concern in openers when timing, game speed and emotion haven 't yet been fully assimilated by the players.
"If you can avoid penalties, avoid negative plays, avoid turnovers and avoid explosion plays where you give up large chunks of yardage, then you definitely have a chance to win," said Bellotti. "It's a tremendous test for us. This is a nationally televised game (which) gives you a chance to jump right back into the national scope of attention."
Bellotti has often stated in the past that the most improvement a team can make in a season is after playing its first game. If Oregon can get by the Mississippi State Bulldogs then the improvements they make from such a significant test could provide just the impetus needed to springboard them on to another run at the conference title.