Oregon is at a crossroads -- as a program and as a flagship for the Nike brand. Not necessarily in that order.
Even if the school doesn't fire coach Mark Helfrich, we should all agree something is missing from the Ducks. That goes beyond the obvious: Chip Kelly is no longer around. The fast-talking, innovative coach helped put Oregon on the map.
But even a Kelly return from the NFL wouldn't necessarily guarantee renewed excellence. The swag is gone. The spread offense that Kelly helped create and refine is common in college football. Defensive coordinators have had years to game plan back against it.
Even the rules have conspired against Kelly's innovation. Since he left college, they've been changed to allow defensive substitutions negating hurry-up offense's advantages.
It's clear something has been lost in Eugene, Oregon, besides a few football games. This downturn may take the program's relevance with it.
Oregon remains in a quandary whether to even axe Helfrich, who is 36-15 in his fourth season. It was barely 22 months ago he took the Ducks to the first College Football Playoff National Championship with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
That sort of accomplishment usually buys a coach a healthy dose of job security. But this season, the Ducks have collapsed on all fronts.
Engaging in graduate transfer quarterback free agency didn't work after Vernon Adams. Only Cal and Texas Tech are worse defensively. Fans departed in droves Saturday during a 36-point beatdown by Stanford.
The troubling walk-out may have sealed Helfrich's fate. Even in the glory days, athletic director Rob Mullens wondered about the challenges of filling 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium.
The budget of an athletic department supported by one of the world's largest athletic apparel companies is not even in the top 20 nationally.
"We're the equivalent of a small-market professional franchise," Mullens told me.
At the heart of the matter, Oregon isn't experienced at this sort of thing. The school hasn't fired a coach in 40 years.
The administration has to understand the problems before it finds the solutions. Oregon football is a fragile thing. It took Mike Belotti years of grinding in remote Eugene before breaking through was a program that competed for BCS bowls.
Kelly took the program to another level. Long-term success remains a concern.
As prospects have dimmed, emotions are running high. Former AD Pat Kilkenny went on a Portland radio station Monday to refute a tweet by ESPN's Darren Rovell, who claimed Nike CEO Phil Knight was ready to spend $10 million or more per year on the next coach.
Kilkenny called the tweet "irresponsible journalism," and "out and out fabrications." All of it reflects Oregon's current quandary. Any current coach who is worth $10 million -- not just willing to take it -- probably isn't coming to Oregon.
Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer are all more than happy where they are.
Assuming all those names are out, where does Oregon turn? The list is small because a possible replacement for Helfrich almost certainly has to be a sitting Power Five head coach with a winning record and a spread offense background.
Remember, Oregon isn't marketing only football, it is marketing Nike. It needs a face, a personality. If it can't get Kelly back, it has to attempt to get something resembling his swag back.
You can count on one hand the number of schools that don't have multiple uniform combinations these days. Oregon used to be a subversive trendsetter with its unis that shocked the media, fashion and football worlds.
Now they're just ducks in the crowd.
In no particular order, here are some names that may help get back that swag, that recruiting, that winning, that look and feel of what Oregon used to be ...
Tom Herman, Houston: LSU has seemingly cooled on Houston's coach perhaps for obvious reasons. (See below.) At age 41, Herman is almost a young Chip. His offense is innovative, he has boundless energy and he recruits like a madman. His offense would be familiar to Oregonians, too. Can he be the face of Nike and the Ducks? Absolutely.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina: There are only two people walking the Earth who have double-digit win seasons at North Carolina. Fedora is one of them. If the Tar Heels win out, Fedora and Mack Brown would be the only coaches to do it in back-to-back seasons. There's lots of chatter about Fedora going back to his native Texas at Baylor, but his offensive background makes him a good fit at Oregon, too.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs' slump to 4-6 after Dak Prescott almost reinforces Mullen's chances. Look what Mississippi State is without Prescott. Look what the Cowboys are with him. Mullen deserves some credit for developing a top candidate for NFL rookie of the year.
If Mullen can take freakin' Mississippi State to the No. 1 ranking for five weeks (in 2014), think what he could do at Oregon. Lest we forget, Mullen has ties with both Kelly and Meyer. Kelly recommended Mullen for his first job. Both grew up in New Hampshire.
Bryan Harsin, Boise State: The former Texas offensive coordinator has picked up in Boise where Chris Petersen left off. That is, making the Broncos a national program in the Group of Five space. You want player development? Three-star tailback Jeremy McNichols has consecutive 1,300-yard seasons for a team that may be headed to the Cotton Bowl. Harsin is 30-7 in three seasons at Boise, including a Fiesta Bowl win.
James Franklin, Penn State: How do you leave Penn State after winning the Big Ten? For more money and an easier path to a championship (Pac-12 North over Big Ten East). Sure, he's is a longshot, but Franklin is positioning himself for Big Ten coach of the year. If Ohio State beats Michigan next week, Penn State gets to the conference title game. Plus, there are no NCAA sanctions to dig out of in Eugene.
The remaining hot seats
Texas: Charlie Strong has actually brought some stability. The Longhorns are 5-5 despite a loss to West Virginia and are virtually assured of a bowl. (They finish with Kansas and TCU.) That means 15 more practices and a chance to improve for 2017. The critics have backed off and there seems to be growing support that Strong will return.
Texas has somewhat of an identity with freshman quarterback Shane Buechele returning and tailback D'Onta Foreman leading the country in rushing. It's going to look awkward if Foreman goes to New York as a Heisman finalist after his coach is fired.
Boston College: Steve Addazio's offense is stultifying. (Only two Power Five teams are worse in scoring.) He's won just one ACC game in the last two years. But a bowl is still a possibility with UConn and Wake Forest still left on the schedule. Addazio has a contract through 2020, so a buyout would be prohibitive.
Kansas: David Beaty has a record of 1-21 in his first two seasons with no wins against FBS and Big 12 opponents. If Kansas wasn't still paying off Charlie Weis (through December), AD Sheahon Zenger might think about getting rid of Beaty. But the former Texas A&M receivers coach remains the lowest-paid Power Five coach.
Kansas has at least learned its lessen from paying guaranteed money to Turner Gill and Weis. Beaty would be owed $1.6 million if he was fired today. KU hasn't won a road game since 2009 (!) but will stay with Beaty for at least one more season.
Notre Dame: Sometimes we don't allow guys just to have bad seasons. That's the case for Brian Kelly. If the Irish don't beat Virginia Tech and/or USC, they will end up with the second-fewest wins since 1960 (4-8). The real pressure comes next season. Kelly will have to win.
There are only three in the Power Five at this time. Here's the latest.
LSU: The Tigers and AD Joe Alleva are right back where they were a year ago: pursuing Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Will they get their man? The school has contacted Fisher, according to a report, but there were ongoing negotiations with Fisher a year ago at this time, too. If I'm Fisher, my first question for Alleva is, "How long are you going to be around?" If Alleva screws this up, he may not last.
Then there is the evolving political intrigue with Ed Orgeron. If Coach O wins out, there will be a -- probably large -- faction of folks supporting the native son over Fisher. Herman's name hasn't been mentioned as much probably because of two Houston losses (one to SMU) and some defensive lapses. The Cougars are no longer playoff darlings.
But that speaks to why Alleva should have known how this process was going to end before he canned Les Miles after Week 4. You don't hope Fisher will come or conduct an audition with your defensive line coach. You have a plan. It's called Athletic Directing 101.
Baylor: Les Miles remains a possibility, but the two names most prominently mentioned are Fedora and Cal's Sonny Dykes. Yes, Dykes' Bears are only 4-6, but he developed the NFL's No. 1 overall pick in Jared Goff. He also won at Louisiana Tech (22-15 in three seasons). The feeling is that Dykes would have access to better players in his native Texas and continue the up-tempo offensive philosophy.
Baylor desperately needs to address recruiting. The 2016 class was gutted after the sexual assault scandal. With two commitments in 2017, Baylor is ranked 137th nationally by 247Sports behind eight FCS programs. With a coaching staff that almost assuredly is going to be canned en masse, there can't be much motivation to recruit.
These desperate times mean the new guy is going to be given some time build the program back up. As for Miles, one source said he should be on Baylor's short list. As for Miles, who is trying like heck to get back in the Power Five, Baylor should be on his short list.
Purdue: Not much has changed since Darrell Hazel was fired Oct. 16. This is P.J. Fleck's job to lose.
If anything, though, the Western Michigan coach has become even a hotter commodity as the Broncos keep winning. If something more enticing opens up, Fleck could be off to a place like Cincinnati or NC State.
Not saying those jobs are going to be open. Just saying, don't be surprised.