LaMichael James can't believe Oregon is ranked No. 3 in the country. The 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner as the nation's best running back can't believe folks think the Ducks are that good.
"We're not the best team in the country by any means," he said. "They say we're ranked No. 3, but if you look talent-wise, we're definitely not ranked that high."
Poor old Ducks. What are they possibly going to do against big, bad, fourth-ranked LSU on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium?
Part of this is James being coy, which he sometimes does with reporters. Another part is James believes the chief secrets of the Ducks' recent run of success is: 1. preparation; 2. chemistry.
So while he might downplay Oregon's talent, he doesn't downplay the Ducks' expectations. Another berth in the national title game? Said James, "We know what it takes to get there."
Yes, they do. They were clipped by Auburn 22-19 on a late field goal in January. In that game, James was held to 49 yards on 13 carries. He said he's yet to watch the game film but he knows what went wrong with the Ducks' potent running game.
"Their defensive line was overpowering our offensive line," he said. "That was just the way it was."
The first big question for Saturday is whether LSU will do the same.
Auburn wasn't the first to throttle the Ducks' explosive offense after getting extra time to prepare. Boise State did it in the 2009 season opener. Ohio State did it in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
What wrinkle will James, Chip Kelly and the Ducks introduce that might end that pattern? No hints are forthcoming from the Ducks' camp, but it's likely you will see new formations that pair James with outstanding backup Kenjon Barner on the field at the same time. And perhaps even talented true freshman De'Anthony Thomas will join them, putting a speedy troika on the field to distract the Tigers.
Ask James where he most needs to improve his game and the first thing he notes is being a "better decoy."
"I need to be better without the ball in my hands," he said.
With the ball in his hands in 2010, James led the nation with 1,731 yards rushing (144.25 yards per game) and ranked second with 21 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He also caught 17 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. While James is widely viewed as a speedy, home run threat who's undersized (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) he does a lot of his damage between the tackles.
"If you ask anyone who plays against him, or anybody who has watched him consistently, he's a very physical running back," Kelly said. "You don't have to be a big back to be physical."
A lot of that is want-to. James, a first-team All-Pac-10 academic in 2010, is one of the Ducks' hardest workers. He has to be, considering his 294 carries last fall was 34 more than any other Pac-10 running back.
It's possible, in fact, that James might become more valuable this season with fewer touches. That might hurt his chances to win the Heisman Trophy, but it would keep him fresher for a late-season run.
"I don't really care how much I get the ball," he said. "I really am a team player. As long as we win games, that's the only thing that matters to me. If I get the ball 30 or 40 times in a game and we lose, that's not good. It doesn't matter to me. I'll take the ball 10-15 times and if we win the game, I'll be happy."
James and the Ducks know what it takes to play for a national championship. So they probably know a good place to start -- and a good place to silence doubters -- will be Saturday in Arlington, Texas.