- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- LaMichael James didn't win the Heisman Trophy. He didn't defend his 2010 Doak Walker Award. He wasn't again a unanimous All-American.
So, yeah, maybe some would say that the nation's leading rusher, who led his team to a third consecutive Pac-12 title and another BCS bowl game, had a down year.
But here's his consolation prize, presented by the Pac-12 blog: He's the greatest player in Oregon history. And, when you list the best running backs in Pac-12 history, you need to start considering James shortly after you tick off former USC running backs Charles White and Marcus Allen.
James is the first running back in Pac-12 history to rush for more than 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.
James is the only running back in Pac-12 history to post three of the 20 best single-season rushing totals: No. 10, No. 20 and No. 14 (and counting).
He needs one rushing touchdown in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin to break a tie with former USC running back LenDale White and move into second place on the all-time rushing touchdown list with 53.
He's rushed for 4,923 yards in his career. He needs 122 yards rushing in the Rose Bowl to pass former Oregon State running back Ken Simonton and move into second place on the conference's career rushing list.
He finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting a year after finishing third, when he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back.
His 288 yards rushing at Arizona is the 10th-best performance in Pac-12 history.
He has seven 200-yard rushing games and 25 100-yard rushing games.
Obviously, this is up for debate, but keep in mind this isn't about NFL success. And it's not only about statistics. It's the total package of numbers, team achievement and general spectacular play.
But, yes, it's fair to say that getting those 122 yards he needs to move into second place on the conference's all-time list in a win over Wisconsin would substantially strengthen his case. The only thing his résumé lacks is a marquee performance in a victory in the final game of the season.
Of course, there is one chief tweak often directed at James: He's a system back. Oregon has produced big rushing numbers every season since Chip Kelly took over the offense in 2007.
"We are a very good running offense, and statistics will match that up," Kelly said. "But when you are a very good running offense, you have very good running backs. Anyone who runs for three consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, you're not a system guy."
Badgers coach Bret Bielema has watched a lot of tape of Oregon's offense. It's a heck of a system, he said. But James often makes up his own system.
"Incredible player," Bielema said. "The thing I always say about kids is you have a player who can make something out of nothing and you have a special player. Obviously, they have very well-designed plays to get him in a position to have success, but sometimes those things are cut off, and he still makes a great play."
Kelly noted that James often improvises, such as his reverse-field, 72-yard touchdown run at Tennessee in 2010.
"I can point out runs where it's, 'How did he do that?'" Kelly said. "His highlight-tape runs are him making those runs on his own."
Another point on James' side: He's accomplished everything he has in just three years. If he opts to return in the fall and not enter the NFL draft, he could end all arguments and make himself the best running back in Pac-12 history without question.
If he plays his senior season and stays healthy, he'd almost certainly break White's seemingly unbreakable conference record of 6,245 career rushing yards. He also could break Simonton's career touchdown record of 59. He also could win the Heisman Trophy for a Ducks team that has the look of another BCS bowl team, perhaps even a national title contender.
He'd also likely break the FBS career rushing record set of 6,397 yards set by Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in 1999.
See: End of argument.
But, of course, James is expected to announce shortly after the Rose Bowl -- and before the Jan. 15 deadline -- that he is going to enter the NFL draft. It was a question James entertained over and over again this week, but he never tipped his hand. He wouldn't reveal when he expected to make a decision.
"Me coming here and thinking about my future, that's completely selfish," he said.
As for those who don't believe James hasn't made a decision, as he insists he hasn't, James said, understandably, "Whatever."
"It doesn't really matter what everyone else believes," he said. "If I went around thinking, hey, this guy doesn't believe this or that, then my life would be miserable. I don't care what anyone else has to say or think about my future. That's why it's called my future."
That James is here is a minor miracle in itself. His father was killed before he was born. His mother gave him up. He was raised by his grandmother until she died of cervical cancer when he was a high school junior. James then lived alone in Texarkana, Texas, until he went north to Oregon.
Not everything has been perfect at Oregon, either. In February 2010, James was arrested after a fight with his ex-girlfriend, which included a charge of domestic abuse. When the facts eventually came out, it became clear that James didn't handle a situation well but also didn't assault anyone. Nonetheless, some folks -- fans and media -- still incorrectly and unfairly bring up his arrest in an effort to diminish James.
There is, however, no diminishing his career, which includes the sociology major being named to the Pac-10 All-Academic team in 2010.
The last question James was asked at Rose Bowl media day: Are there times you even surprise yourself on the field?
Said James, "Half the things I do, I still wonder like, how did I do that? I just run. Everything is instinctive to me."
Although James and his instincts likely won't be back next season, he certainly will be remembered. That's what happens when you're the greatest player in school history and on a short list ranking the best running backs in conference history.