Best case-worst case: Oregon

July, 22, 2010
7/22/10
1:15
PM ET
Ninth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.

Up next: Oregon

Best case

"Nate Costa is our quarterback," Oregon coach Chip Kelly tells reporters on Aug. 23." "But Darron Thomas is going to play, too."

A reporter asks, "Are you concerned that..."

"No," says Kelly.

"I mean to say, might it become an issue that..."

"No," says Kelly.

Both Costa and Thomas play and play well in a 50-13 win over New Mexico. With LaMichael James on the sidelines serving a one-game suspension, Kenjon Barner rushes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

"Truth is, when our offense is rolling like that, getting a break isn't such a bad thing," Costa says.

James returns to score two touchdowns and run for 133 yards in a 35-17 win at Tennessee.

"I know from my 'How to talk like an SEC coach' class that we're supposed to act like no body plays good football outside the SEC," new Volunteers coach Derek Dooley says. "But, man, that is a really fast team. They could play with anybody in our league."

Three men in seersucker suits and panama hats seemingly appear from nowhere behind Dooley. They grab him by the shoulder and whisper in his ear.

"Er, just kidding," Dooley says. "Just ignore the Pac-10's consistent success against the SEC. Nothing to see there."

The Ducks whip Portland State and survive a sloppy performance against a rugged Arizona State defense. Stanford's Andrew Luck throws three TD passes at Oregon, but Thomas leads a nifty 80-yard drive for the winning score late in the fourth. The Ducks, now ranked fourth, improve to 7-0 after easy wins over Washington State and UCLA. They average 485 yards on offense and surrender just 287 yards on defense. Combined, Costa and Thomas average 254 yards passing and 88 yards rushing per game and their twin efforts lead the conference in passing efficiency.

"This is almost like USC's bowl game," Kirk Herstreit says from the ESPN "College GameDay" set in front of the Coliseum. "If the Trojans win this game, they have a good chance to go undefeated. That means they could even end up ranked No. 1 in Lane Kiffin's first season."

A Matt Barkley TD pass to Ronald Johnson gives USC a 28-24 lead with two minutes left. Costa and company take over at the Ducks 20. James takes a first-down screen for 20 yards. A reverse to Barner moves the Ducks into USC territory. On third and 10, Costa finds Jeff Maehl for a first down at the Trojans 28. Under pressure, Costa scrambles for a first down at the 7-yard line with 40 seconds left. After an incomplete pass, James rushes for five. The Ducks use their final time out with 17 seconds left. Costa dumps a pass to Barner, but he's knocked out of bounds at the 1.

On fourth down, USC stops Costa on a spread-option play. The Coliseum releases its pent-up, NCAA-sanctions-induced frustration.

"I think Chip Kelly is challenging the spot," Brent Musburger says through the din.

Touchdown. Oregon wins 31-28.

"The Ducks look like the best -- the most complete -- team we've seen this season," Chris Fowler says.

Oregon returns home triumphant and avoids a let-down against Washington after intercepting Jake Locker twice. At California, things go splat. Perhaps it's back-to-back emotional victories followed by a road trip to Berkeley with a bye week ahead. Whatever the excuse, the Ducks turn in a lethargic performance and a late comeback attempt falls short in a 28-24 loss. Oregon drops from No. 2 to No. 6 in the rankings.

The Ducks trounce No. 17 Arizona 38-20, which sets up another Civil War for the Roses at No. 9 Oregon State.

With two minutes left, Oregon trails 27-23 and faces a fourth-and-3 from the Beavers' 33-yard line. Kelly has no choice but to go for it. Costa drops back and, under pressure, shovels the ball to James, who breaks to his right toward the sideline. One yard. Two yards. But at the marker Stephen Paea grabs James from behind. A battle of wills ensues. And the 180-pound James drags the 300-pound Paea, perhaps the strongest player in college football, forward for the first down.

And then he slips away and high steps into the endzone for the win. Later, most folks agree it was the moment that won James the Heisman Trophy.

The Ducks, one of four teams with only one loss, finish behind Alabama and Ohio State in the BCS standings even though they are ranked No. 2 in both the final human polls.

"Coach Kelly, have you noticed that the folks who do the computer polls all wear seersucker suits and panama hats?" a reporter asks.

"Yes," says Kelly.

The Ducks bludgeon Boise State 42-14 in the Rose Bowl and split the national title with Ohio State.

Worst case

A week after winning the quarterback competition with Nate Costa, Darron Thomas posts an uneven performance in an easy win over New Mexico. The sophomore clearly has skills both as a runner and passer, but he fumbles once and frequently tries to force the ball through tight coverage, though only one pass ends up picked off.

Those issues are even more glaring at Tennessee, where a crowd of 105,000 seems to be distracting the young QB. The Ducks trail 10-7 at halftime, and coach Chip Kelly makes a switch, inserting the senior Costa.

Costa isn't spectacular, but he doesn't make mistakes and he leads two second-half scoring drives as the Ducks escape 21-17. The Ducks improve to 4-0 with wins over Portland State and Arizona State.

But the ninth-ranked Ducks yield three TD passes to Stanford's Andrew Luck in a 30-24 home loss. After needing overtime to slip improving Washington State, and a fourth-quarter comeback to survive a challenge from UCLA, USC pounds the Ducks 35-20, knocking them out of the national rankings.

Then hated rival Washington comes to town.

Locker, who ranks just ahead of Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers in most Heisman Trophy polls, is asked if he's aware of how Oregon fans constantly tweak him as all hype and no substance.

"No, I've never heard that," Locker replies. "I love Oregon fans. A lot of fans in the Pac-10 are obnoxious. But Oregon fans are gracious and mellow. Like Michigan fans."

Locker rushes for 205 yards and two TDs and passes for 310 yards and two scores as the Huskies roll over the Ducks 41-17, ending a six-game losing streak in the series.

"Wow," says Rece Davis back in the ESPN studios. "If Jake Locker isn't atop your Heisman Trophy contender list, I don't know what you're thinking. Who would have thought that Autzen Stadium would provide him such an accommodating stage to record a signature performance."

Oregon bounces back with a win at California and beats Arizona in overtime.

The Ducks find themselves in the unusual role of spoiler when they visit Oregon State for the annual Civil War. The Beavers must win in order to go to their first Rose Bowl since 1965.

Rodgers, who ranks just behind Locker in most Heisman Trophy polls, is asked if he's aware of how Oregon fans constantly tweak him and say he isn't as good as LaMichael James.

"No, I've never heard that," Rodgers replies. "I love Oregon fans. A lot of fans in the Pac-10 are obnoxious. But Oregon fans are gracious and mellow. Like Michigan fans."

Rodgers rushes for 225 yards and three touchdowns and catches 10 passes for 107 yards and a TD as the Beavers roll over the Ducks 44-14.

Wow," says Davis back in the ESPN studios. "Seems like Oregon is the team to play to make a Heisman Trophy statement."

Locker wins the Heisman. Rodgers finishes second and announces he's coming back for his senior season.

A 31-24 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl earns Washington a 10-3 finish and a final No. 9 ranking. The Beavers beat Iowa 28-24 in the Rose Bowl and finish 11-2 and ranked fourth.

Oregon loses the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah and finishes 8-5.

Phil Knight converts to Buddhism, gives his fortune to the United Way and moves to Tibet. Chip Kelly goes with him.

Tyrone Willingham comes out of retirement to become the Ducks head coach.

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