|While the Ducks celebrate winning the Pac-12 title, they know they need to get a win in a BCS bowl. (AP)|
EUGENE, Ore. -- As the fireworks were shot off following the first ever Pac-12 Championship Game, the proudest person following Oregon's 49-31 win over UCLA was not a fan, a coach, a player or even the mascot crowd-surfing around the field.
It was commissioner Larry Scott, surveying the moment at hand.
He had built it. They had come.
Most importantly they had watched on television and advertisers had paid for it.
"We're just so excited to represent this university in the Rose Bowl," said head coach Chip Kelly, before slyly adding, "Now we're going to drink some Dr. Pepper and mail our Christmas presents with UPS."
It was easy to mistake the Ducks' head coach for a NASCAR driver but it was perfect for the charismatic commish who has shaken up the conference and college athletics.
"All-in-all, I think it's been a strong season," Scott said before the game. "The Pac-12 and the SEC are the only conferences to have three teams in the top 10. The conference is clearly establishing itself as a perennial, elite football conference."
On the field it didn't quite look that way. A 6-6 UCLA team "represented" the South division with ninth-ranked USC sitting out the final year of its postseason ban by watching two teams they beat on television. The Ducks were sloppy early and looked uninspired late. Their opponent never led and turned it over four times.
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But LaMichael James still ran over everyone, Darron Thomas still ran around and the Ducks ran through the Bruins on their way to the first ever Pac-12 title and the granddaddy of them all.
Duck. Duck. Duck. Rose.
"For the Rose Bowl in this conference, it's the pinnacle," Kelly said. "There's no other game you'd rather play in than the Rose Bowl."
It wasn't quite the match up Scott had hoped for at the beginning of the season but it was the one the season handed him. Don't worry, he'll get the last laugh Sunday night when the BCS matchups are announced. Walking around a stadium with enough sponsor signage to make a home field semi-neutral, his wallet will make up for his disappointment.
"Everything that we can control has played out," Scott said. "Of course, I acknowledge the disappointment over the fact that we have a 6-6 team that fired its coach this week. I don't spend a lot of time trying to script what happens on the field or what happens as a result of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. I think it emphasizes even more why a home-hosted model is even more important in situations that you can't always envision."
"It was a first-class event," outgoing head coach Rick Neuheisel said. "Our guys had big eyes as we looked at the stadium, all the different things you had put together to honor these two programs."
For all intents and purposes, it looked as though UCLA brass had already counted on a loss, receiving a waiver to play in a bowl game despite a 6-7 record. The Bruins didn't count themselves out despite being the biggest underdog in postseason history according to Vegas. The Pistol offense ended up shooting itself in the foot more often than not, but put up the team's first points since mid-November and sent Neuheisel out with a final touchdown drive capped with a one-handed catch by Nelson Rosario for the score.
UCLA was heartbroken on fourth down for the second straight week, failing to pick up an early fourth-and-1 that would have given it momentum and failing to stop Kelly's offense on fourth down most of the night.
"Those are huge plays because they're giant momentum changers," Neuheisel said. "Oregon is a very talented team."
And one with a third straight league title in hand. The Ducks hope they can maintain momentum after being set back two weeks ago by USC in the first ever home loss under Kelly. It was a minor speed bump according to those in Eugene.
Friday night showed off the good and bad of West Coast football. In front of a national audience, Oregon showed how good it could be. UCLA showed how far they had to go. Despite some sloppy play on both sides of the ball, the Ducks ran into the record books as easy as their running backs ran into the end zone.
LaMichael James became the first player in conference history to post three 1,500-plus yard rushing seasons. He passed some guy named Marcus Allen on the career rushing list and moved into second place on the Pac-12 rushing touchdowns list. Darron Thomas became the school's career leader in touchdown passes (63) and had a career-long run of 39 yards. School records were set for rushing yards and touchdown passes on the season.
"These guys don't blink. They're fearless competitors and they're a lot of fun to be around," said Kelly. "We've had a blast with these guys this year. They just keep their eyes on the prize and nothing will knock them down."
The Pac-12 heavyweight the past few seasons, Oregon has been knocked back before. Ohio State. Boise State. Auburn. LSU. The Ducks are 0-4 against top 15 out-of-conference team teams under Kelly and just 4-4 against teams with two or more weeks to prepare against them.
A month from now they have a chance to get over the hump. Kelly needs the win to cement the program as an elite one. Scott can't see them lose for the league's reputation.
"I think the other teams deserve credit when you play in games like that. If we struggled in the opening game this year, last time I checked LSU is not too shabby," said Kelly. "We don't know who we're going to play right now but we're very excited about the opportunity."
They'll face Wisconsin or Michigan State, two Big Ten teams who will take a power brand of football to Pasadena but not a powerhouse reputation. This is Oregon's easiest shot to get a win in a BCS bowl -- it's now or never.
"We have to. That's what we've got to do," James said. "We might have lost but we always compete. That's where it starts at."
Scott has given each of his twelve schools the tools. Media exposure has never been better, the money has never been greater. Of ESPN's top six highest-rated college football games, Pac-12 teams were in four of them. For Oregon, involved in three of those games, the time has come to show if it's more than just a flashy offense -- time to become a winner.
"I think our guys are going to go out there and compete, and not based upon anything that happens in the past," Kelly remarked. "I said this a lot, we're a forward-thinking operation. We have a chance to play one more time and it's exactly one month from today. We're going to play on January 2nd. That's what we'll be prepared for."
Oregon and the Pac-12 are determined to be ready for their close up in 2012.
Is the rest of the country?