It's not just the Nike money.
If that were the case, Oklahoma State would have won a couple of national championships by now. Even with all those T. Boone Pickensbucks, the Cowboys haven't won so much as a division title.
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Remember when Oregon paid for that 250-foot high Joey Harrington poster to hang in downtown Manhattan? It was a bold Heisman campaign. It was also hubris, wasteful, guerilla marketing. Except that it worked, if nothing else, because Oregon has backed it up.
The Ducks beat Stanford on Saturday -- mugged is more like it -- and got behind the velvet rope. Their name is suddenly on the A-list. Not so subtly, Oregon just established itself as a national power. You don't get a certificate or a notice in the mail for such a thing. One day it just happens. Saturday was that day.
In the past two decades, Oregon has moved from punch line to power. In the past two years, Oregon has changed coaches and ADs -- and gotten better. It has happened that fast. All the momentum and impressive wins Boise State had logged melted away Sunday when it was jumped for the No. 3 spot in both polls by Oregon. That's the way it seems to work in Eugene. Swiftly, almost furtively. Its run to the Rose Bowl in 2009 was built upon the wreckage of a slumping USC. Future runs will be aided by the Trojans' impending NCAA demise. One dynasty seems destined to end. Is there another on the way with a Disney character as its mascot?
That's not being totally fair to what Oregon has accomplished on its own. In the space of one game, Stanford went from thinking it had taken over the Pac-10 to wondering what hit it. The Cardinal were up 18 on Saturday. It lost by 21. That's a 39-point swing in one game. Oxygen masks should have dropped from the overhead after such a loss of altitude.
It happened that fast.
|Dodd's Power Poll|
|2. Boise State|
|4. Ohio State|
|12. Michigan State|
|15. South Carolina|
|18. NC State|
|23. Kansas State|
Suddenly, Oregon is king, of the Northwest, of the Pac-10, maybe the entire country. The nation's highest-scoring team has napalmed its opponents. Chip Kelly is developing into one of those rock-star coaches. Staffs come to him from around the country to learn the intricacies of his version of the zone read spread option.
After seeing Alabama rout Florida in person and watching Oregon pimp slap Stanford, the national championship game I most want to see most at this point is Ducks-Tide. Think of the clash of cultures. Imagine the meeting of stern, strong coaches who can loosen up and channel Mike Leach now and then. Kelly called for an onside kick to change the momentum when Stanford was rolling. 'Bama receiver Marquis Maze threw a touchdown pass out of the Wildcat on Saturday to Mike Williams.
It's not just the marketing.
Nick Saban makes $4 million a year. Kelly just got extended through 2015 for $20.5 million in guaranteed Nikebucks. One school claims 13 national championships. The other claims a really loud stadium. But they're both big time, which says more for Oregon than Alabama. Sure, it's early but in a week several teams will be halfway through their schedules. It's time to draw some conclusions.
Oregon has arrived in a different and significant way. It is a program. All the Nike money, uniforms and hype have worked because Rich Brooks was the firestarter, coaching Oregon out of the laugh factory. Mike Bellotti, the patriarch, got it to the next level before handing off the program to a former I-AA offensive coordinator (Kelly). It was risky only if you hadn't been paying attention. All those years the money, apparently, had been well spent.
Oregon has to be different because it doesn't have a 100-year history. It even has a quarterback again despite fate's best efforts. Darron Thomas might have been elevated to legend status Saturday, at least to Heisman status. After throwing two first-half interceptions Thomas ended with a career-high 238 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 117 rushing yards. Without him, Oregon would be dead Ducks. Haven't we said that before? Since 2007, Oregon has lost the Heisman favorite to a crippling knee injury (Dennis Dixon), its future with rash of QB injuries (2008) and, finally, its Rose Bowl quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) to knuckleheadedness. Thomas, a sophomore, then beat out the more experienced Nate Costa to became the deadliest quarterback weapon this side of Denard Robinson.
Amazing. LSU can't buy a quarterback, and in the SEC that means something.
At Oregon they just yell, "Next man up!"
And we haven't even gotten to LaMichael James, and his career-high 257 yards rushing. Stanford wasn't beaten, it was reminded of its place in the universe which is second place, at best, in the Pac-10.
"I think it's going to be hard holding us down," James said.
There were doubts, of course. The Ducks spotted Arizona State and Stanford double-digit leads in consecutive weeks, only to come roaring back. There were doubts, of course, playing the likes of New Mexico and Portland State. But what had No. 1 Alabama done before beating back-to-back top 10 teams? Smacked down San Jose State, Duke and a highly overrated Penn State. Now you have to mention Oregon and 'Bama in the same sentence and imagine them playing in the same league. Both clobbered top 10 teams at home Saturday night.
Oregon is 5-0 for the first time since 2002 and for only the eighth time in its 115-year history. It's hard to remember that during the offseason some thought Kelly was running a work-release program instead of a football program. It hurt Kelly, bothered him, that Masoli and James had stained his and the program's rep.
"That's the great thing about this game," Kelly said Saturday night, "You're going to get challenged a million different ways."
All it took was playing some football. And on Saturday night that put Oregon on the A-list, and behind that velvet rope.