2015 Best Column, by Ted Miller

ffaw_redesignComment by the judge, Alan Cox: Great look at the change in attitude and expectations of Oregon’s football program. Solid argument as to why they needed to win the championship to validate the program and to show the Playoff would expand the sport. Even more interesting in hindsight as we will see what happens to Oregon going forward having lost the championship.

By Ted Miller

ESPN.com

Coach Rich Brooks led Oregon to an 8-4 finish in 1989, his 13th season in Eugene. If that elicits a “so what,” understand the Ducks hadn’t won that many games since 1963. Five seasons — and two losing records — later, Oregon played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958, losing to Penn State by 18 points, though the Ducks’ media guide celebrated the program’s effort as proving it “belonged in Pasadena.”

Ted Miller, ESPN.com

Ted Miller, ESPN.com

In 2013, Oregon went 11-2, beat Texas 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl and finished ranked No. 9 in the nation. It was considered a down season, and some wondered if first-year coach Mark Helfrich had what it takes to lead the Ducks, post-Chip Kelly.

Times change and so do expectations.

“We do sit back every now and then and kind of laugh at it, us that have been around here a long time,” said first-year Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum, who’s accumulated 31 seasons with his alma mater as a player, administrator and assistant coach.

For the vast majority of its 119 seasons of football, a winning record was an ambitious wish for Oregon. Yet now, as the Ducks eyeball defending national champion Florida State, winner of 29 consecutive games, as more than a touchdown favorites in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual, the simple reality is Oregon needs to win the national title.

After going 69-10 over the past six seasons, playing for a national title in 2010 and finishing ranked in the top five three times, the Ducks need to finish the deal and be the last team standing. They need to make this their year.

That need is not only about program validation, though that’s a big part of it, as the Ducks have accomplished everything else. It’s not only about opportunity, though the greatest player in program history — Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota — is likely off to the NFL next year.

It’s also about something larger, about the good of the game, about making the first year of the College Football Playoff represent an expansion of the sport rather than a contraction, which most would argue the CFP ultimately will be. It’s about the 121 FBS teams who are not participating, 84 of whom, like Oregon, have never won a football national championship.

Dismiss the Ducks as nouveau riche, but Oregon represents the present and future upstarts in its semifinal game, and upstarts are a fairly rare thing in college football. There has not been a first-time national champion since Florida won in 1996, and it’s difficult to view the Gators as anything other than a so-called “have” program, particularly after they won two more BCS titles in the last decade. The biggest outlier program to win a national title under the BCS system from 1998 to 2013 was, what, Auburn?

The other

three teams in the semifinals are college football blue bloods. Alabama claims 15 national titles. Ohio State claims seven. Florida State picked up its third last year. Each of their sitting coaches already owns a national title. They dominate recruiting rankings and play in front of 80,000-plus fans on Saturdays. Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, though one of the loudest and most hostile environments in the sport, seats only 54,000. No BCS champion plays in a smaller stadium.

Further, it’s about expanding the sport’s national map. The SEC has won eight of the past nine national titles and nine total during the BCS era. If you include Florida State and Miami in the mix, then 12 of the 16 BCS national titles ended up in the Southeast, and Texas and Oklahoma add a 13th and 14th below the Mason-Dixon Line (at least an extended one).

The Pac-12/10 hasn’t won a national title since USC in 2004, and no Pac-10 team other than USC has won a national title since Washington in 1991. Before that, if then-Big 8 member Colorado’s 1990 title doesn’t count, it’s UCLA in 1954.

Of course, most players and coaches and even fans don’t view their team through a prism of the big picture or cogitate over symbolic meanings and larger ramifications. Oregon and its adherents want to win a national title for the concrete thing itself and then enjoy the resultant crowing that sitting atop college football affords. Few connected to the program are likely to extrapolate too much more from the accomplishment. It’s pretty obviously there, though, as a potential historical landmark.

Some folks even doubt whether winning it all will quell the critics who view Oregon as an interloper among the elite, a team that dresses strangely and relies on a peculiar system to fool the burly blue bloods who stubbornly celebrate the game as an expression of mano a mano manhood at the line of scrimmage. Ducks players, who’ve patiently entertained “validation” questions in advance of just about every big game since 2009, aren’t certain they will be done with doubters even if they hoist the first College Football Playoff trophy.

“Who knows? I feel like with media and people and outside voices these days, you never know,” outside linebacker Tony Washington said. “We could get there and people would still talk about how ‘Oregon is not this. Oregon is not that.'”

Yet count Tony Washington among the “national title or bust” crew. The fifth-year senior called the Ducks during his career “up and down; it’s kind of been a roller coaster,” though that career has featured 59 wins, including two BCS bowl games, and just seven losses.

“We want to get to the big game,” Washington explained. “We’ve fallen short every year. That’s been disappointing for us because we all come into the season with high expectations.”

Oregon’s high expectations have evolved from a winning season and any old bowl game to a singularity: The Ducks must win the 2014 national title.

Ted Miller, ESPN.com

Age: 46

College: University of Richmond

Background:  Miller turned 46 on Sept. 2, which means his birthday always reminds him that the football season has arrived. He was born in Atlanta, where he was a KEY member of the 5AAA region champion Westminster Wildcats in 1986. He attended the University of Richmond when it was good in basketball and became the first 15 to beat a 2, graduating with a BA in English. He fully intended to pursue his Ph.D. and become an English professor. Instead, he became a sportswriter by accident when newspapers were thriving. (Mournful pause). He left Atlanta for the Mobile Register, where he was introduced to some college football rivalry, he can’t remember which because it lacked passion. After covering Auburn for a couple of seasons, he then went West to Seattle to truly learn about how college football was played by the big boys in the Pac-10. He worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1999 to 2008 before joining his current family at ESPN. He presently lives in Scottsdale with his wife, Chandra, and two boys, Grayson, 6, and Asher, 3. He read “Anna Karenina” and “Middlemarch” this summer and wishes someone would ask him about those books because they were quite an undertaking.

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