Mario Cristobal is not the only coach whose team's aspirations are clouded by COVID-19. In normal times, Oregon would be a potential preseason top 10 worthy headed into 2020. But in these dystopian times, there is no top 10 ranking for it to achieve -- at least this fall.
Coming off a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win, the Ducks are grounded. The Pac-12 is playing next year. Maybe. So much promise. So much anticipation. So much uncertainty. All of it hurts more than you can know.
"It sucks," Oregon's third-year coach told CBS Sports. "We have a really good team."
It sucks because this had the potential to be the best season of Cristobal's career. It sucks because his left tackle, Penei Sewell, is the defending Outland Trophy winner who was getting Heisman Trophy buzz. It sucks because the Ducks were favored to win the Pac-12 again and -- who knows? – maybe even restore the reputation of the downtrodden Pac-12.
It sucks because that process would have really started with a Week 2 intersectional blockbuster against Ohio State.
"I think we would have played Ohio State twice this year quite honestly," Crisotbal said. "We have a more talented team than we had last year."
That was obviously a reference to a College Football Playoff rematch. The CFP has all but committed to awarding its championship this fall, a source told CBS Sports. Perhaps a Rose Bowl II meeting would be more likely?
Oregon's coach has been left to wonder what there is to play for in a spring season.
"What do you chant, 'We're No. 2?'" Cristobal asked.
With Labor Day creeping up, it has become a daily struggle for Oregon to mine optimism, set goals and keep from asking, "What if?"
For starters, what if those nine returning starters on defense were allowed to be unleashed? Even during the glory years under Chip Kelly, Oregon's defense was an issue. Last season, only six teams allowed fewer touchdowns than the Ducks' 24.
"Our front seven right now? My Lord," Cristobal said. "Our linebackers? I know they're young, but three guys are effing creatures right now."
Cristobal is not alone in his frustration. Coaches from as many as 53 other programs may attempt to give it a go in the spring. This is merely his story, Oregon's story. It is a unique one.
At Oregon, he became the quick, obvious choice in late 2017 to replace Willie Taggart after only a season as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator.
Cristobal, 49, got the job largely because he can recruit like a madman and represented continuity within the program. Oregon officials were soured on an outsider after Taggart had stayed only a year.
It's a challenging job even with Phil Knight's dollars. Because of its physical location (Eugene, Oregon) and place in college football's pecking order, the Ducks teeter on a bit of a brink. Day-to-day, it can't let up.
Los Angeles still has to be a recruiting base. That loaded defense includes Kayvon Thibodeaux, the top recruit in the school's history, who was the Pac-12 defensive lineman of the year as a freshman. The five-star wonder came out of Oaks Christians High School in the L.A. suburbs.
That's why it's so enriching to be the man to actually resuscitate Oregon. The Ducks went 12-2 in 2019, their best record in five years.
The rise reflects Cristobal's complete immersion into the Northwest. Oregon is a school at which he'd like to retire. However, the South Florida native recently relocated back to Miami because, well, he could.
Cristobal's players had been sent home. His was mother was turning 80. The other day, Mario and his brother Lou picked up their mom and her walker and placed her on the sand.
"She wanted to see the beach," Cristobal said.
You can do those type of things during a pandemic. The rest, well, some of it hurts.
The Preseason AP Top 25 that included the Big Ten and Pac-12 had the Ducks at No. 9, their highest preseason ranking since 2015. It was only the seventh time in Oregon history that it had started in the top 10.
Big deal. The Pac-12 determined on Aug. 12 it would explore a spring 2021 season.
"That game against Ohio State in Autzen Stadium? Brother, people have been waiting their entire lifetime," Cristobal said. "Who knows? They might blow us out of the stadium. But at the same time, we have a really good team and we're hard to play at home."
Really good team. There's that simple phrase again. Cristobal keeps saying it almost like he can speak a fall season into existence.
Oregon was not only favored to win the Pac-12, it had a much bigger, unspoken duty: restore the conference's credibility. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national championship in 2004.
That's why that Ohio State game was so big. The Buckeyes had won all nine previous meetings, including the first College Football Playoff National Championship in 2015.
Now everything is up in the air. Players around the country are opting out like crazy. There is the threat of Big Ten and Pac-12 players transferring to programs playing in the fall.
High draft choices otherwise forced to play next spring may have played their last snap. That includes the possibility that the massive Sewell (6-foot-6, 330 pounds), who allowed one sack in his last 1,376 snaps, might never step foot on the field for Oregon again.
Also included in that group is defensive back Jevon Holland, another preseason All-American. Cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir, along with nose tackle Jordon Scott, all decided to return for their senior seasons.
"I'm sure everything is cool now, but as it starts to get closer to playing, then all the sudden … Bam!" Cristobal said. "People want to play. They get antsy. It's like the waiver wire in the NFL right now.
"I wish they would have slowed things down, [gone] to an October start, everybody in general."
It's unbridled optimism that has turned to crushing uncertainty that upsets Cristobal. He lost a first-round draft choice at quarterback (Justin Herbert) and developed a capable replacement in sophomore Tyler Shough.
"He looks awesome," Cristobal said.
Earlier this year, Ty Thompson became the program's first five-star QB commit in history. Oregon coaches are quietly saying they consider Thompson, an Arizona native, to be a future first-round pick.
The last two recruiting classes have finished 7th (2019) and 11th (2020) in the 247Sports Composite rankings. The Class of 2021 is currently ranked in the top 10.
"The last two have been the best classes in the history of the program," Cristobal said. "This one will be the best of them all."
But there is no football. Not now and not for a while. In quiet moments, there is too much time to think about what could have been.
"My head is spinning," Cristobal said. "I wish for … I don't know what I wish for. This sucks."