Pac-12: Dennis Dixon

Mailbag: Too much credit for Kelly?

February, 1, 2013
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Peter Windsor, Conn., writes: Hey, don't you think people might be overblowing Chip Kelly's impact on the University of Oregon? He inherited the program that Mike Belotti had built, including most of the longtime assistant coaches. The Ducks finished number 2 in 2001, were number 2 during the 2007 season and were the 2nd winningest Pac 10 team in the Belotti era 1995-2008 leading up to Kelly's promotion to head coach. Coach Kelly deserves plenty of praise but it seems like people are forgetting that he inherited a great program to start with.

Ted Miller: No, I don't think people are overblowing Kelly's impact at Oregon. He was the man atop the program during the greatest four-year run in program history. No other four-year run even compares.

Oregon never went unbeaten and played for the national title before Kelly. When Oregon won the Rose Bowl after the 2011 season, it was the Ducks' first victory in the Granddaddy in 94 years. No Oregon coach ever won three consecutive unshared conference championships, something accomplished by a conference coach just twice before.

In 2006, the year before Kelly became the Ducks offensive coordinator, Oregon averaged 29 points per game. With him aboard, the Ducks never averaged less than 36 points per game. Before Kelly, Dennis Dixon was a bad quarterback. After Kelly, he became a leading Heisman Trophy candidate who would go on to have an NFL career.

The past three seasons, Oregon has averaged 49, 46 and 47 points per game.

He not only was 46-7 overall in Eugene, he was 33-3 in Pac-12 play. Yes, he lost three conference games in four years. Three!

Moreover, he was an innovator with not only his team's style of play but also how it practiced. He is responsible for the Ducks' entire "Win the day" culture.

Kelly inherited a good program. He made it great. And making a good program great may be more difficult than making a bad one good.

Costi from Phoenix writes:Ted, Can you reflect on Ka'Deem Carey's recent run-ins with the law? Do you think his actions have reached the point that it will affect his ability to play next year? Are his actions and behaviors a problem or is this just stuff getting blown out of proportion?

Ted Miller: I think Anthony Gimino does a nice job putting Carey's recent travails in perspective here. It's unfortunate that we are revisiting a topic from a few mailbags ago.

I don't think we've reached a point where Carey's 2013 season is seriously threatened. But, really, that's up to him and coach Rich Rodriguez, who I am guessing is not terribly happy with Carey at present.

It appears Carey has become very, very impressed with himself, pulling out the ole, “Do you know who I am? I’m an All-American!" card.

We all know who Carey is, of course. He's the running back who put up big numbers this season because quarterback Matt Scott was terrifying offenses.

While there are always multiple sides to every story, Carey now has three in which he comes off as the bad guy. It's one thing to get into trouble. That happens in college. It's another to come off as an arrogant lout. A guy can make mistakes. But attitude speaks more to character.

That Carey believes it is legitimate to ask if someone is failing to recognize how awesome he is suggests he's operating within a narcissistic mindset. Or, more simply, Carey is showing signs of acting like a jerk.

He should try to stop. Now and forever. A good start would be a written apology to the campus police officer he treated like dirt.

Rodriguez should invite Carey into his office for a man-to-man chat, one that should be one-sided, stern and unambiguous.

Mathias from Chur, Switzerland writes: Why don't NCAA programs recruit more frequently in Europe. I mean: Look at Björn Werner, Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Kuhn... Last year, we had our first Swiss guy recruited by a NCAA I team (Daniel Glauser), and I know as a fact, that there were better prospects in Switzerland alone (now after 2 years in JC and one year at FSU, he would probably kill every other Swiss lineman. It just seems to me, the potential in Europe might get bigger and bigger, as there are more than 1,000 clubs in Europe alone.

Ted Miller: The easy answer is coaches don't believe the payoff would match the expense.

The second easy answer would be that football hasn't taken root in Europe like basketball has, that it would be difficult to find many guys who are ready to play at a high level. Football is a difficult, complicated game. Physical skills and measurables are important, but there's a level of rawness when it comes to knowledge of the game that is difficult to overcome.

But my final response to your question is to want to ask it myself.

Perhaps my bosses should send me on a European fact-finding mission this summer? First stop: Amsterdam!

Anyone want to come?

Meet your quarterback: Oregon

August, 29, 2012
There were six quarterback competitions in the Pac-12 this year. Some came about by the departure of some outstanding quarterbacks. Others just needed new life infused into the offense.

Today we're going to take a look at each of the quarterbacks who won their job.

We continue the series with Oregon. The winner of the job takes over one of the most explosive offenses in America. And that person will be Marcus Mariota. The redshirt freshman won the job that many assumed, following Darron Thomas' ill-advised departure for professional football, would go to last year's backup Bryan Bennett. You know what they say about assumptions...

Marcus Mariota, Oregon
  • 2011 stats: N/A
  • Career stats: N/A
  • Pros: From Dennis Dixon to Jeremiah Masoli to Thomas, every quarterback Chip Kelly has touched has worked out near flawlessly. Has he given us any reason in the past to question his decisions? History says this is the right call and Mariota is the perfect fit for what Oregon does on offense. He's a true, dual-threat guy who has a ton of offensive weapons and a good offensive line surrounding him. The schedule also plays to Mariota's favor, as he'll have four straight games at home to get up to speed.
  • Cons: Of course, anytime you start a redshirt freshman, there is going to be the experience factor, or the lack there of in Mariota's case. No matter how much you practice or scrimmage, you never really know what you are going to get until you've seen the player in an actual game and how well he responds to a negative play. Right now, the biggest concern is the unknown. Plus, similar to the situation in Washington State, there are a lot who felt it should be Bennett's job, so you have to wonder how much over-the-shoulder looking Mariota will be doing the first half of the season.
  • How he won the job: It started with his eye-opening performance at the spring game, when he went 18-of-26 for 202 yards with a passing touchdown and five rushes for 99 yards and two scores. Those quarterback numbers are awfully Oregonian. But Kelly said the decision was very "analytical and detailed" and it was decided over the course of 37 practices (15 spring, 22 fall) and there was no one day or "ah ha" moment. But rather a culmination of everything.
  • Coach speak: "He hasn't played in a game, there is nothing we can do to manufacture that," Kelly said. "We do a lot of things in practice and we bring officials in and try to simulate game situations. But his first real-live snap is going to be Saturday night and I'm looking forward to it."
  • Backup plan: You have to imagine Kelly and Co. feel pretty good about having Bennett as a No. 2 option. He appeared in seven games last year, throwing six touchdowns with no interceptions on 24-of-45 passing and averaged 8.7 yards on his 23 carries.
Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoBryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for Oregon's starting QB job throughout August.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly has no use for depth charts before preseason camp is over. He sees 22 practice before earnest game preparation begins for the Sept. 1 opener against Arkansas State. A lot can happen in 22 practices.

"Everything is open," he said.

Sure, there's a little bit of coach-speak there. With 14 starters back from the 2011 Pac-12 champions, as well as plenty of key backups, it's actually not terribly difficult to project most of the Ducks' starting positions. There are plenty of the usual suspects, from Kenjon Barner, to Dion Jordan, to John Boyett, to Michael Clay to De'Anthony Thomas to Jackson Rice.

But Kelly isn't one to obsess about crowning starters on a depth chart even when games begin. To him, a strong two-deep is the thing to remain the Pac-12 king.

"I think we've really developed depth here the last couple of years," he said. "Everybody understands that. It's not about being the No. 1 guy. It's about being in the rotation."

Ah, but there is one special spot that will keep Ducks fans agog and, really, is one of the major preseason questions in all of college football: Who's going to replace Darron Thomas at quarterback? Marcus Mariota, who had the standout spring game? Or Bryan Bennett, who stepped in admirably for an injured Thomas a year ago?

“I’ve got a lot of faith -- after seeing Bryan for a couple years now, and Marcus for a full year now -- in both those guys’ abilities to play,” Kelly said.

A top-five preseason ranking in just about every poll, including the recently released coaches poll, suggests many share Kelly's faith that QB won't be a big issue. But faith isn't certainty. Competing for the starting job is one thing. Leading a top-five team is another. Just because Dennis Dixon blossomed and Jeremiah Masoli and Thomas had success as first-year starters under Kelly doesn't mean that will always be the case, and Kelly admitted as much.

"Their first snap is going to be really our first look at how they handle it," he said. "I anticipate them being very successful, but we’ll see. That’s obviously a big question for all of us.”

Kelly also said he's not opposed to playing two guys, though he said his experience in such competitions is there's typically a clear winner.

As far as what Kelly is looking for out of his starter, it's a mixture of measurable performance -- efficiency, protecting the football, running the plays correctly -- and less tangible things -- leadership, instincts, moxie, etc.

"I can't give you a concrete thing -- A 'Hey, I need to see this,'" he said.

Of course, fans and media won't see much of anything as practices and scrimmages are closed. While scuttlebutt will certainly get out, it will be difficult to know how reliable it is. Here's a guess there will be conflicting reports from players who enjoy toying with media, students and other fans trying to pry out tidbits of information. It's unlikely anything will be official before Aug. 24, and Kelly may even wait until the Monday before the season-opener.

Everyone in the know, however, knows it's going to be Mariota. No, Bennett. No, Mariota. Bennett!

Let the speculation begin.
The Pac-12 blog loves hype. It loves to throw down bait and watch you folks go at each other.

Such as: Oregon's recent success trumps Washington's historical dominance of the Northwest ... discuss.

But with our subject today -- Oregon's quarterback competition -- we're resisting hype, hyperbole and grand pronouncements.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota had an impressive performance in Oregon's spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes.
Yes, the Pac-12 blog watched Oregon's spring game. Yes, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota impressed me. A lot. And it wasn't just him completing 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Or an 82-yard TD run that included an option fake that screamed, "DENNIS DIXON!"

It was his smoothness. He looked poised and completely in control. And Bryan Bennett did not.

Yet the best reaction to this as we head into the offseason probably should be, "Hey, that was interesting!" And little else. For one, if both were lousy, Ducks fans, would you be in a panic? No. Everyone would be insisting, "There's no need to panic. This, really, is the Pac-12 blog's fault."

Every spring, players break out or flop. And then they do the opposite in the fall when we play actual games. Last year, I wrote that Colorado defensive tackle Conrad Obi and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones looked like dominant players. I wrote that because they looked like dominant players when I watched them and their coaches supported what my eyes told me.

My eyes were wrong.

Two springs back, I felt fairly confident that Nate Costa would beat out Darron Thomas for the Ducks' starting job. That's what my eyes told me. And it was also a strong hunch. My eyes and hunch were wrong. Two springs ago, I wasn't very impressed with Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. Three days ago, he was picked in the second round of the NFL draft. In 2000, I saw nothing from Washington's spring game that suggested the Huskies were going to win the Rose Bowl and finish ranked in the top 5.

My point: While it's impossible to not be impressed with Mariota and to give Bennett a deduction, it's premature to hand the job to Mariota. Based on the little we know coming out of closed spring practices, the distance between the two during the previous 14 workouts wasn't great.

Remember how well Bennett played coming off the bench for an injured Thomas against Arizona State last year? Remember how well he played in his one start at Colorado? While it wasn't good that Bennett seemed rattled Saturday, the guy already has shown poise in pressure situations. Know what I think was bothering him? I think -- and this isn't really a good thing -- that he was frustrated by how much worse his offensive line was performing compared to Mariota's

Bennett's team, which lost 41-14, couldn't run the ball and it yielded three sacks. Bennett was consistently under pressure, Mariota was not. Mariota also had De'Anthony Thomas and a much better cast of receivers. Bennett had Kenjon Barner, who had one carry. For one yard.

Bennett labored under adverse conditions, but he did have some nice moments. Mariota thrived under better conditions, but he wasn't perfect.

This isn't over.

So what are some fair takeaways?

  • Rumors of Mariota's impressive potential are true.
  • Oregon has two solid options to replace Thomas. This is not a position that will keep Chip Kelly up at night.
  • Whatever they did in previous scrimmages behind closed doors, Mariota, er, won the day when the doors were opened and the pressure was on.
  • At the very worst for Mariota, he and Bennett head into the offseason in a dead-heat.
  • Mariota now knows his candidacy is serious. And so does Bennett. Now how will each react to that knowledge?
  • Closing 14 practices -- and two previous scrimmages -- may have skewed perception of this competition. The burden for that now falls on Bennett, who will have to deal with everyone acting like Mariota will win the job. Yes, it will be annoying for him.

Before spring practices, I believed Bennett was a solid favorite. As of today, I'd rate -- again, with limited information -- Mariota a slight favorite. My opinion, by the way, means not a thing.

The spring game was interesting. Perhaps even revealing. But we probably won't know the accuracy of anyone's hunches until a week before the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1.

Cal sets up well for Ohio State

April, 19, 2012
Ohio State is becoming... Oregon Midwest?

That's what Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg noted on Wednesday, getting such analysis straight from the new mouth of the Horseshoe, Urban Meyer.

"All you've got to do is look at Oregon," Meyer told Rittenberg. "We're committed to it. We're still going to pop a huddle once in a while, but we're committed to it."

That sounds like bad news for the rest of the Big Ten, but perhaps not for one of the Buckeyes nonconference foes in 2012: California.

[+] EnlargeJeff Tedford
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAn imposing front seven on defense should help coach Jeff Tedford and Cal be competitive against elite teams in 2012.
While no defense has had consistent success stopping Oregon -- LSU even had its moments of failure in the 2011 opener -- the Bears have produced more stops against the Ducks than most, most notably the 2010 nailbiter that Oregon won just 15-13.

That's Chip Kelly's fourth-lowest point total since he's been in Eugene, including his two years as offensive coordinator (and that includes the shutout the Ducks suffered at UCLA the week after QB Dennis Dixon blew out his knee in 2007). The Ducks also scored only 16 points at Cal in 2008, but that predates coordinator Clancy Pendergast and the Bears' 3-4 look.

Last year, Cal led the Ducks 15-14 at halftime, shutting Oregon out in the second quarter. What happened after the break doesn't support our point, so we will ignore it.

Here's something Cal fans might not be entertaining but perhaps should: Cal can win in Columbus on Sept. 15.


Yes, the Bears tend to go rear-end-over-tea-kettle on the road, particularly when they travel east.

Yes, the Horseshoe is a brutal venue in which to play, one of the nation's toughest.

Yes, Ohio State is still Ohio State, one of the nation's elite programs.

And, yes, Meyer is a feared strategist.

But there's no escaping this: California will go to Ohio State with perhaps the biggest and most athletic front seven the Buckeyes will face in 2012. And the Bears line up against a highly questionable offensive line, one that welcomes back just two starters from a unit that yielded 46 sacks -- 118th in the nation -- on just 245 pass attempts.

For comparison: Arizona, with four new starters on its offensive line in 2011, gave up 23 sacks on 577 passes. Washington State gave up 40 on 492 passes.

The Ohio State offense in 2011 was QB Braxton Miller, who led the Buckeyes in rushing (715 yards with seven touchdowns) and passing (1,159 yards with 13 touchdowns) as a freshman. He's a major talent, but he certainly won't be the first dual-option QB the Bears defense has seen.

I know Cal fans don't want to hear any optimism from the Pac-12 blog because they well know that is typically the program's ineluctable KISS OF DEATH.

So I won't mention the plausibility of the Bears visiting USC on Sept. 22 at 3-0 and nationally ranked.

Competition on: Bennett vs. Mariota

April, 2, 2012
Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoOregon quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for the starting job this spring.
EUGENE, Ore. -- While Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas' decision to enter the NFL draft a year early shocked many outside the football program, it didn't surprise many of those close to him, including his fellow Ducks quarterbacks. Thomas had brought up the possibility a number of times throughout the year, so backup Bryan Bennett and talented true freshman Marcus Mariota knew he was eyeballing a potential departure.

Though the news was greeted with more than a few gasps, many Ducks fans didn't spice their surprise with disappointment. Some had felt that Bennett -- despite Thomas' record-setting numbers -- was a better quarterback, or at least that he had more upside. They had seen what he'd done in limited action in 2011, coming off the bench in a big win over Arizona State and a start at Colorado.

Inside the program, not only was it not a big surprise, it also wasn't viewed as a perfunctory passing of the torch. There was a mystery man, an X factor, with whom fans and media weren't terribly familiar because Oregon has shut down access to practices: true freshman Marcus Mariota.

Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, had shown enough in one impressive redshirt year to be viewed by his coaches and teammates as a legitimate threat to win the job.

"When DT left, I told Brian, 'You got to work for it. Marcus Mariota is a very good quarterback,'" said center Hroniss Grasu, Bennett's roommate and good friend. "It's going to be a great competition."

What you keep hearing when you ask players and coaches about Bennett and Mariota is that they are notably similar. Both are tall and fairly thin -- Bennett is 6-3, 205 pounds. Both are athletic and comfortable running an option attack. Both are capable passers. Both have low-key personalities.

"We feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation," said coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks begin spring practices Tuesday. "They just haven't played significant amounts. I'm real confident in whoever ends up out of those guys pulling the trigger that we'll have a pretty good one."

There's good reason for that. Since Kelly arrived as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007, Oregon has been good to outstanding at the position. He transformed Dennis Dixon from a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2006 to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate before he got hurt. He made Jeremiah Masoli, an unknown summer junior college transfer, into a swashbuckling, dual-threat force. And under his tutelage, Thomas ended up throwing more TD passes than any previous Ducks QB.

Kelly insists he has no preconceptions: "Our program is founded on competition," he said. Of course, many coaches throw the "competition" coaching platitude around. What actually happens on the depth chart demonstrates that most still favor seniority, particularly at QB. Coaches believe in the value of experience and they are more comfortable with players with whom they've built up years of familiarity. To win a job, a younger player must decisively demonstrate superiority.

But Kelly has shown he's not like that, and we need look no further than the last quarterback competition in Eugene between senior Nate Costa and Thomas, then a sophomore.

Costa was the feel-good story after Masoli's ugly departure. He was the one-time spread-option prodigy who'd been done in by bad knees, but heading into 2010 spring practices he was again healthy and ready to lead the Ducks with his moxie and still substantial skills. Thomas was a skinny guy from Houston with an odd throwing motion who lacked Costa's polish.

Just about everyone thought Costa would win the job, perhaps even by the end of spring practices. But a funny thing happened: Thomas was announced as the starter in late August.

Bennett was a true freshman observer of that competition, at least the fall camp portion. And, just as Thomas didn't surprise him when he opted to leave for the NFL, he also didn't surprise Bennett when he won the job.

"At first, I saw Nate as the older, senior, who kind of took control more," Bennett said. "I think it could have gone either way, but I wasn't too surprised. I thought it kind of started to lean towards Darron at the end."

Fair to say Bennett knows he can't expect his limited experience -- 369 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions -- to give him a substantial advantage, at least not as baubles that will impress Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. But that experience could become a foundation or launching point that helps Bennett develop faster, which could provide a competitive advantage. The game should be slower to him than to Mariota. He knows how it feels when the lights are on for real, and how his teammates and coaches react. He knows how to prepare as a starter. And he saw how Thomas won the job over Costa.

"Since Darron left, I have taken it on myself to present myself as a leader of this team," Bennett said. "I would like to be the starting quarterback of this team. In my mind, I'm going to continue to tell myself that I need to get better and worry about the things I can control. It could come down neck-and-neck. It could be decided in spring ball. I really don't know. It's more a competition with myself, because I can control what I do. I can't control what [Mariota] does."

When fellow Ducks talk about Mariota, they talk about how quickly he's picked up the offense. Mariota, in a revealing moment of humility that supports that very point, said it took him "a week" -- a whole week! -- to feel comfortable running the offense in fall camp his freshman year.

"I feel we are going in evenly," Mariota said. "Bryan is a very good player. He's been in this system for a while now. I'm just going to take it day by day. We both are. And whoever wins, we'll be rooting for each other."

Mariota adds: "If Bryan wins the job, I will be behind him 100 percent. This is a team thing."

This "team" thing has changed at Oregon. Three years ago, the Ducks starting QB was only of local, perhaps regional interest. After three consecutive conference titles, it's now a position of national import. The last three Ducks QBs have been in Rose Bowl and national title hunts.

The expectations aren't any lower in 2012, even with Thomas' surprising/not-so-surprising decision.

"I know whoever the quarterback is, he will do a great job," Grasu said. "Hopefully even better than last season. I know last season was a great season, but I think with the team we've got coming back everywhere else, we can be very successful."
EUGENE, Ore. -- John Boyett is still smiling. Everything seems fine. Up to the halfway point in a 15-minute interview, Oregon's free safety has been insightful and pleasant, even when a certain sportswriter started blathering about this or that.

But that smile hints at something else. It's a happy smile, yes, but happy in the way a lion looks just before he takes a huge chomp out of a gazelle.

Me: I just made a list of the top-25 of players in the Pac-12.

Boyett: [Big laugh] I heard.

Me: You were left off.

Boyett: [More laughing] I heard.

Me: [Nervous laugh] Are you competitive with the other guys?

Boyett: Very competitive.

If you've watched Boyett play, that shouldn't be a surprise. A soon-to-be four-year starter for the Ducks, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound senior from Napa, Calif., is child of a football family, and he's obsessed with the game, whether that's about conditioning or watching film or playing with an intensity that easily endures the filtering presentation of a TV camera.

[+] EnlargeJohn Boyett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireJohn Boyett could be the best in a recent line of successful Oregon defensive backs.
"Football is in my blood," he said.

How competitive is he? Competitive enough to be, yes, just a bit irked not only at that ole top-25 list but also that he ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

"I'm not just going to say I feel like I'm the best safety because it's me. I'm a realist," he said. "But I really do feel I'm the best safety in the country. I probably wouldn't believe that if [secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti] hadn't told me the same thing."

But Boyett, who's led the Ducks in tackles two of the past three season and finished second in 2010, didn't come to this discussion unarmed. He's completely aware of whom his rival is for best safety in the Pac-12: USC's T.J. McDonald. McDonald was first-team All-Pac-12, first-team All-American with The Sporting News, ended up ranked 19th on the top-25 list and is widely considered the best senior safety in college football. Insider

"I know T.J. McDonald's stats," Boyett said. "I know all the safeties I am competing with in the draft. I know all their stuff. But I'm not stupid competitive. I don't get into all the politics. I'm here to help my team win. If we get into another BCS championship game, I don't care if you give me first team or 20th team, I just want to help the team win."


Boyett continues, "But it is crazy when you look at it. I look at my stats compared to everyone else. And I'm not a big stats guy, I just want to win games."


"But of course you've got to look at it every once and a while. I've got 276 tackles, nine picks and like 29 pass breakups. And the other guy's [McDonald] got like [163] tackles, six picks and nine pass breakups. I've got him by [113] tackles, three picks and 20 pass breakups! And they are still getting...


"That's why I don't get caught up in all that stuff."

Not completely, at least.

What Boyett really does get caught up in is winning. Oregon has done that during his career like it never has before with a 34-6 record over the past three seasons. He was recruited to a 2007 team that fell out of the national title hunt when quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. In 2008, his redshirt season, the Ducks went 10-3 and won the Holiday Bowl. Yet those were the down years. He became a starter in 2009 when T.J. Ward got hurt, and since then the Ducks have won three consecutive Pac-12 titles and played in two Rose Bowls -- winning one -- as well as the national title game after the 2010 season.

Boyett believes the Ducks will again be in the hunt in 2012. And he believes this defense might be the best unit with which he's played.

"We lose three or four guys, but all the guys coming in for them are just as good as them," he said. "[Aliotti] asks me how the defense is doing, and I seriously tell him, 'This defense is going to be the best since I've been here.'"

Boyett is part of an impressive recent legacy of Oregon defensive backs. When he arrived, the Ducks' secondary included Ward, Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung and Walter Thurmond. The first three were second-round NFL draft picks, while Thurmond went in Round 4.

Those are the guys who first taught him how to play, but they aren't exempt from Boyett's competitive streak either. He's got big plans for this year, and part of that plan is leaving no doubt in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Said Boyett, "Coach Neal says if I have another great year I'm going to get drafted as high if not higher than them."

Reign in Oregon: Ducks aren't going away

December, 29, 2011
Let's play a quick game of fill in the blank: Oregon fans are ... What comes to mind? Keep it clean, folks. Behave!

Yes, it is fair to say that Oregon fans have eagerly, zealously and vociferously embraced the recent success of their team. The seed that was planted when Kenny Wheaton went the other way against Washington in 1994 is now a full-grown oak, and Oregon fans enjoy pointing out that their oak is more stately and beautiful than yours.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Chip Kelly
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRENCAA sanctions appear to be the only thing that could derail Chip Kelly's Oregon juggernaut in the near future.
Eleven other Pac-12 teams want Oregon to go away. We have bad news for those 11. Not happening.

With the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 against Wisconsin, the Ducks are playing in their third consecutive BCS bowl game. No other team in the country has played in three consecutive BCS bowl games. But this rise to the nation's elite started before this run of conference success. Oregon's first taste of national title contention was in 2000 and 2001. After a middling, post-Joey Harrington, pre-Chip Kelly interim, it was ranked No. 2 and a national title contender in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. Oregon finished the 2008 season ranked 10th. It finished 11th in 2009 after losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. It finished third in 2010 after losing to Auburn in the national title game.

While opposing fans can still pull out the "They haven't won a BCS bowl game under Kelly" card, that tweak comes from beneath the Ducks in the Pac-12 pecking order, so as ripostes go, it's rather pyrrhic.

And the Ducks, even if they lose to Wisconsin, will be a preseason top-10 team in 2012, probably top-five if they win the Granddaddy. There certainly is a lot to like about the depth chart.

Not including junior running back LaMichael James, who is likely off to the NFL, the Ducks should welcome back six starters on offense, six on defense and both specialists in 2012. But that doesn't tell the entire story.

For one, the Ducks will have a two-year starter returning at quarterback in Darron Thomas. While Thomas has had runs of inconsistent accuracy, there are two bottom lines: He's 22-3 as a starter and has thrown 63 touchdown passes with just 16 interceptions.

But what's notable about the Ducks' depth chart is not just returning starters.

Oregon only lists a two-deep. That means 44 players on offense and defense. Of the 22 names on offense, just four are departing seniors, not including James. Of the 22 names on defense, just six are seniors.

And most of the players who are leaving -- or are expected to leave, as in James' case -- are presently backed up by intriguing young talents who already have significant game experience. James leaving? Well, you all know who Kenjon Barner is. Tight end David Paulson? Freshman Colt Lyerla caught five touchdown passes this season. Lose two offensive linemen? Junior Ryan Clanton and freshman Jake Fisher have seen plenty of action. Lose two linebackers? Kiko Alonso has started five games and Boseko Lokombo has played a lot. Cornerback Anthony Gildon out the door? Redshirt freshman Troy Hill has started five games while Gildon has been hurt (and is doubtful for the Rose Bowl).

Further, the Ducks have some redshirt freshmen on both sides of the ball -- particularly at linebacker and receiver -- who figure to make an impact next year. Receivers Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley were highly touted 2011 signees, who could bolster the Ducks passing game.

If you were connecting the dots, you'd actually project the Ducks to be better in 2012 than their 2011, 11-2, Pac-12 champion selves.

And, even with the loss of Thomas after next season, the Ducks appear to set up nicely for 2013. And beyond.

I know. I know. Fans of those 11 other Pac-12 teams are jumping up and down and waving their arms, bellowing, "What about Willie Lyles and the NCAA?"

True, major NCAA sanctions would seem the mostly likely way the Ducks get knocked from their ascent to the nation's elite. And it could happen. You never know with the NCAA.

But the more I talk to people who make educated guesses on NCAA investigations, not to mention a few who have specific knowledge of the NCAA's inquiry into the Ducks, the more I'm leaning toward the position that the NCAA will not pound Oregon. I suspect sanctions will fall short of what Ohio State recently received.

Of course, I thought USC would receive less severe penalties than Alabama received in 2002, so I've also learned to not expect the NCAA to be logical and fair.

The point is this: If you are wondering what Oregon is likely to be doing in, say, 2014, my projection is they still will be annoying 11 other teams.

The Ducks aren't going to go away.

Indispensable player: Oregon

July, 11, 2011
See your team in your mind's eye -- 24 starters, including specialists.

If you could put an absolute halo of safety -- perhaps a girdle of indestructibility? -- around just one, who would it be?

We're rating each team's most indispensable player. And when the choice is too obvious -- say, Stanford -- we'll try to offer a second choice.

Up next: Oregon

QB Darron Thomas

Running back LaMichael James and cornerback Cliff Harris are the Ducks' biggest superstars -- both preseason All-Americans -- but the depth behind them is so strong, it wouldn't be crushing to lose either. Mind you: It wouldn't feel good; it just wouldn't turn the Ducks into an eight-win team from an 10- or 11-win team. And Thomas' backup, redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett, has been impressive at times, so there wouldn't be an absolute panic if Thomas went down. Bennett has impressive dual-threat skills that would work well in Chip Kelly's spread-option attack, and Kelly's record with quarterback development couldn't be much better (Ricky Santos, Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli and then Thomas). Still, he's a redshirt freshman and he suffered through what was, at times, a humbling spring. No one knows how he might react if he was suddenly handed the keys to the Ducks' high-powered offense. Further, one would think Thomas, who was good enough to earn second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a first-year starter, is headed for an uptick based on his steady improvement throughout the 2010 season. He's a good leader and his mentally tough performance in the national title game -- recall he recovered from a jittery start -- suggests he's ready for an expanded role. Finally, if Thomas went down and Bennett went in, the QB options thereafter would be severely limited: true freshman Marcus Mariota or Daryle Hawkins, a former QB who's been playing receiver.

Opening the mailbag: Bowls, Bellotti & Buffaloes

November, 11, 2010
A special welcome to this week's mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes.

Bobak from Minneapolis writes: Wow, the New Mexico Bowl! Is that all the Pac-12 is really worth? I thought the expanded conference was going to get us something respectable.

Ted Miller: Got a lot of this reaction. And I hear you. Everyone wants the Capital One Bowl to boot the Big Ten and match the SEC No. 2 vs. the Pac-10 No. 2 in a super-awesome-kick-butt game.

That's not going to happen for a couple of reasons. Contracts are already signed. And the Capital One Bowl is pretty juiced about its present situation.

But adding New Mexico Bowl is about a seventh bowl slot for a 12-team league. It's not so bad. It's regional, for one, which is important for a low-rung bowl spot. And ever been to Santa Fe? Pretty cool, right? It's about an hour away from Albuquerque.

As far as juicing up the Pac-12 bowl schedule with a Jan. 1 game going forward, that's going to take some creativity and salesmanship from commissioner Larry Scott. But at present, he's probably aiming those qualities at signing a mega-TV deal that helps the conference keep up financially with the SEC and Big Ten.

Once that's signed and everybody is rich, then Scott can ponder how to improve the Pac-12's bowl arrangements.

Joel from Toppenish, Wash., writes: Mike Bellotti would be an ideal fit [for Colorado]. He knows the dynamics of the conference. Recruiting really took off under his watch. The surrounding communities of both universities are quite similar; small to medium size college towns with 'green' minded citizens.

Ted Miller: Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti would be a good choice for Colorado, though I'd have to rub my eyes to see him on the visitor's sideline at Autzen Stadium.

But Colorado is also different from Oregon -- read this interesting interview with former Buffaloes coach Gary Barnett for some details.

In short, Colorado doesn't embrace the "arms race" in college football at nearly the pace Oregon has. Said Barnett, "There’s a disconnect between what it takes to compete at that level and what’s being done." For one, there are facility issues. And money issues -- Colorado isn't going to pay head and assistant coaches as much as they'd make at other top BCS programs. There are rules that limit multi-year contracts for assistants, which makes it hard to lure and retain staff members.

Now, if Bellotti just wants to coach again in a highly livable place that would be grateful to get back on the winning track, Colorado seems like a pretty cool place to land.

Sean from Sacramento writes: Let's suppose Cal notches the win over Washington at home at the end of the season. If that's the case, how do you feel Cal's season went? Most of us look at it as somewhat disappointing, but at the same time, Cal was predicted to finish seventh, and now appear as if they'll finish sixth, maybe even fifth if they can pull an upset against Stanford or Oregon. Wouldn't this be the first time in a long time that Cal actually did better than was expected of them for the season?

Ted Miller: Sean, I like the positive angle. Don't get much of that from Cal fans these days.

And if Cal finished 7-6 with a bowl win, it would be hard to call the season a failure. Perhaps lackluster and unsatisfying but not a failure.

But I think Jon Wilner made a valid point on Oct. 19 that's still relevant on Nov. 12th: It's not just the losses. It's the size of the losses that are worrisome.

Wilner pointed out that in coach Jeff Tedford's first seven seasons, the Bears lost just three games by two or more touchdowns. That's three out of 30 defeats. In other words, the Bears were almost always competitive, even when they lost.

However, since 2009 -- 22 games -- Cal has been beaten by two or more TDs seven times. That means -- with Oregon and Stanford still ahead on the schedule -- the Bears have been blown out in nearly one-third of their games over the past two seasons.

That's not good. To me, therein lies the reasonable disappointment and frustration for Bears fans. And therein lies something Tedford probably needs to solve during the 2011 season, or "hotseat" talk that felt unwarranted over the past few seasons will become valid.

David from Portland writes: Do you think that Heisman voters might be hesitant to cast their votes for Cam Newton due to the allegations that are out there now? I don't think anyone associated with Heisman voting wants another situation where the guy they voted for is stripped of the award. I know they're just allegations at this point, but even as a Duck fan, I think Newton is the best player in the country right now and should win the award if voting were held today.

Ted Miller: The short answer is yes. You'd figure guys like Oregon's LaMichael James, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Stanford's Andrew Luck will earn some votes from Newton defectors.

This is a sensitive, difficult situation, though. There's a lot of smoke here -- on a variety of issues -- but you want to give a young man and the institutions involved the benefit of the doubt.

You know. Just like SEC fans treated USC during the Reggie Bush ordeal that led to draconian sanctions from the NCAA after a four-year investigation turned up almost nothing that hadn't been reported three years before.

Greg from Portland writes: Looking ahead to next year with the Pac 10 adding 2 new teams and currently Utah ranked a top 15 team I have a 2 part question. First with the addition of Utah and Colorado how do you see the Pac 10 matching up against what some commonly think as a much better conference in the SEC? Second, how do you see Utah doing next year playing a Pac 10 schedule of teams? From what I understand Utah is a very young team and will have most of they have this year back next year.

Ted Miller: The addition of Utah and Colorado means the Pac-12 gets a new member that's played in two BCS bowl games and has been a regular member of the top-25 and even the top-10 in recent years. And, in Colorado, the conference gets a program trying to regain its mojo.

The additions make the conference stronger, particularly if you are optimistic about Colorado rebuilding fairly quickly. Will the additions make national pundits view the Pac-10 as the equal of the SEC? Probably not, particularly with USC trending down while yoked with NCAA sanctions. And is Jim Harbaugh going to stick around at Stanford?

What the Pac-10 needs to gain more national esteem is four or so programs that are regularly in or around the top 10 or 15. It's not hard to imagine that in the future, particularly if USC bounces back and Oregon keeps it up under Chip Kelly.

But, to me, the big winner in expansion might be the Big Ten. If Nebraska continues to climb, and Michigan gets back on track, which seems inevitable, the 12-team Big Ten might challenge the SEC. A seventh stadium with more than 70,000 capacity is also impressive.

Note: I am talking about perception. I think the reality is the quality of play in the Pac-10, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 already is comparable, and debating a pecking order is a moot issue that fans love and media members enjoy cultivating.

As for Utah in 2011, based on its current depth chart, it will welcome back six starters on offense -- including QB Jordan Wynn -- and seven on defense. My guess is the Utes will be a factor in the inaugural season of the Pac-12 South.

Scott from Phoenix writes: I wonder why no one has talked about LaMichael James coming out early. He is a red-shirt sophomore which I think is eligible based on the three years out of high school rule the NFL uses (unless it is three playing years or red-shirt years don't count).It is hard to fault running backs who come out early because the NFL window for RBs closes at around age 30. I also am not sure what more James would need to prove. Sure if Oregon does not go to the NC game and/or James misses out on the Heisman those are still there but for an RB that is a heck of thing to miss out on a year of NFL salary.

Ted Miller: I think it's perfectly valid for folks to wonder if James might enter the NFL draft this spring. If he's a certain first-round draft pick, which I'm not sure he is, he should seriously consider it.

Ducks fans, any of you have thoughts on that?

Joel from Eugene writes: Hey Ted,Just saw your video mailbag about Costa and I have a couple notes (This is intended to indicate that for the most part I enjoyed your point of view). First, While the focus of the video was on the backup QB, in Costa's situation I feel like is abilities as holder on special teams was valuable as well (see the Arizona game last year) and the loss there could be felt in a clutch situation later in the season. On a much more pedantic note, Oregon fans would have Dixon's injury burned into their Amygdalae (centers for emotional memory), which are at the edge of the cortex.

Ted Miller: Wait. I think I used to date Amy G. Dalae. She was very emotional and never forgot anything I did wrong, which means she had massive brain.

Good point about Costa being the holder. I think Ducks fans should relentlessly talk about that, thereby ensuring it won't be an issue that leads to a soul-crushing moment in a big game.

Oregon: Win the day, win the championship

October, 20, 2010
Chip Kelly's mantra for the Oregon football program is not "Win a national championship" or even "Win the Pac-10." It's "Win the day." And that's not just about Saturdays. Or Thursday nights. It's also about Mondays and Fridays and Sundays. And even days during off-weeks, which Kelly scoffs at the very notion of.

"We don’t have a week off," he harrumphed during the Ducks, er, week without a game last week.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon coach Chip Kelly is trying to keep his team focused on each day.
So being ranked No. 1 in both major polls for the first time in school history and No. 2 in the BCS standings feels like an abstraction that has little immediate and concrete value today. Or next Monday. Or on Nov. 17.

Kelly did note he might be more effusive about it on Dec. 5, the day after the final regular-season game.

It was a mild surprise during Kelly's media sessions this week, however, that he actually opted to fully entertain the topic of his team's new, lofty standing. Yes, he's aware of it. Yes, it's pretty cool. Yes, he knows it's fun for his players. Yes, there is some value to being ranked so highly at midseason. No, it doesn't have anything to do with winning the day. And, no, he doesn't plan to talk about it with his players.

"Obviously, it's out there," Kelly said. "It's not like we're trying to avoid it. Or let's not talk about it because it's a jinx. Really, what it is is it's nice to be ranked. Obviously, it's beneficial to us because we don't have to go far [up in the rankings]. But we still have to win. And if we lose one -- that's something unique about college football now -- if you lose one you're probably out of it."

The Ducks have one Thursday night against a baffling UCLA team that was good enough to win big at Texas and bad enough to get crushed by California. And, yes, if the Ducks lose this one they are almost certainly out of the national championship race.

The burden of being No. 1 appears real. Alabama seemed to have a stranglehold on it until it lost by two touchdowns to a mediocre South Carolina team. Ohio State then fumbled it away at Wisconsin. If the Ducks should go rear-end-over-tea-kettle against the Bruins, we might have to start wondering if it's 2007 all over again, when a top ranking served mostly as a bull's-eye for an ax stroke between the eyes.

Senior receiver Jeff Maehl has had a front-row seat during the Ducks rise to the elite of college football. They were ranked No. 2 in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down with a season-ending knee injury. They finished ranked in the top-10 in 2008. They ended USC's seven-year run atop the Pac-10 last fall. The unexplored territory of No. 1 isn't actually that shocking to the Ducks system.

"It's cool," Maehl said. "It's something the school is never experienced before. It's something this program has been building to for a while now. You got to give a lot of credit to the past classes that came through here. We're excited to see what we can do with it."

Kelly said he's confident that his locker room culture will prevent players from getting drunk on fawning praise from media and fans. He turns the notion back onto itself toward the potential effects of negative outside appraisals, recalling the outpouring of doubt and derision the Ducks' rotten performance in the 2009 opener at Boise State inspired.

Folks, you might recall, suggested that Kelly, in his first year as head coach after replacing Mike Bellotti, was in over his head. It's possible that no second-year coach has seemed less "in over his head" than Kelly, who just got a contract extension and raise, but that was a popular impression one game into his tenure.

"We learned a really valuable lesson in the opening game of 2009," he said. "We lost to Boise State and if we had listened to outside influences we might as well have canceled our season. We were done for the year. It was, 'Oh, my God, we're the worst football team ever assembled!' Our guys didn't pay attention to it when it was obviously negative in that situation. So therefore you can't just flip the switch and say, 'Well, now it's positive -- let's listen to it!'"

The target, however, is now squarely on Oregon. UCLA is beaten up with injuries, including the decidedly questionable status of starting quarterback Kevin Prince, but has shown itself capable of playing well on a big stage against a highly ranked foe. The Bruins are fast, too. The Ducks' speed advantage, so obvious against Stanford and Tennessee, won't be as dramatic Thursday.

Maehl said he thinks a fast start, which the Ducks haven't produced often this year, is a key. Stepping on the gas early might leave the Bruins hopelessly lost in the fumes.

"One of the biggest things is when they get down they start to lose focus a little bit," he said. "I think if we can jump on them pretty quick, it's going to be an advantage for us."

If the Ducks do overcome the Bruins, that sets up a marquee showdown at USC on Oct. 30. The Trojans, who are off this week, looked like their old-school selves while poleaxing Cal last weekend. But, after that, things don't get any easier trying to maneuver through a deep Pac-10. The home stretch of Washington, at Cal, Arizona and at Oregon State is not a schedule conducive to perfection.

But Kelly isn't concerned with those challenging days ahead. He only wants to win today.

Of course, for his players -- and here's a guess for some coaches, too -- it's difficult to completely block out the scintillating potential endgame, which is only the pinnacle of college football. Oregon, after all, has never won a national championship.

"That's a hard thing to not think about," Maehl said. "I know guys do their best to try not to think about it, to try to focus just on the week. But definitely, if you're in position to play for a national title, even if you know, it's just halfway through the season, it's hard to not think about it. To me, it should just make us more confident coming out each week. The best I can do is to treat each game like it's the national championship, because if we lose we understand those hopes go away."

In other words, if you keep winning days, the last one will come with a crystal football.

Practice? Chip Kelly's not talking

October, 13, 2010
Oregon coach Chip Kelly channeled Bizarro World Allen Iverson this week.

We're (not) talking about practice, man. We're (not) talking about practice. We're (not) talking about practice. We (can talk) about the game. We're (not) talking about practice.

Kelly closed practices this week -- a bye week, no less -- and won't say anything about what happened during practice, which means fans and media will have to keep guessing as to the health of quarterback Darron Thomas (shoulder) and backup running back Kenjon Barner (concussion). We know this because of a wonderful, testy exchange on the Pac-10 coaches conference call between a good, persistent beat writer -- the Eugene Register-Guard's Rob Moseley -- and Kelly, who never gives in to reporters' questions.

(You can listen to it here -- the exchange starts at 1:19).

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Don RyanChip Kelly and Oregon have closed practices to the media. The Ducks play just one game during a 20-day stretch this month.
Moseley asked about Barner's status: "I’m not talking about that. Practice is closed, Robby, that’s why we closed it. I’m not going to discuss practice," Kelly said.

Moseley followed up by asking why Kelly closed practice (the decision preceded the injuries on Saturday): "I thought that’s what our football team needed, so we don’t have to deal with questions like this," Kelly said.

(Moseley later felicitously noted this on his blog: "This struck me as odd. He closed practices so that he wouldn’t have to face questions like, “Why did you close practice?” Seems to me that, had he not closed practices, the odds were pretty low that I would have asked that question.")

Pac-10 coaches tend to be an open and affable group, unlike the reputations of a number of SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten coaches. And Kelly is no exception, though he can be a bit grumpier than most at times. Most teams have open practices (until Kelly's move only California and Stanford completely closed practices). But a gigantic, pink polka dotted elephant has wandered into Eugene and parked itself in front of Autzen Stadium, and this exotic interloper seems to have made Kelly even more intense than usual.

The elephant's name, by the way, is "National Championship Talk." But you can call her "Natty Champ" for short.

Kelly is trying to ignore this elephant, who is known to be fickle with her affections.

I stopped laughing just after the Moseley-Kelly exchange and was able to ask Kelly how he planned to shield his team from all the hype that is simmering around it.

"We don’t shield our team," he said. "I think our kids can read whatever they want to read. I don’t talk about that. But they also know that it means absolutely nothing. You can just look at Alabama. They were the No. 1 team in the country and they lost. Now they’re the No. 8 team in the country. So I don’t shield my team. I know our kids can read the paper. I know our kids can read the Internet. But we don’t need to discuss it. Because it means nothing."

The Ducks have been here before, though not as an undefeated team. They were 8-1 and ranked No. 2 in 2007 before an ill-fated trip to Arizona. Not sure if any Ducks fans will remember this, but quarterback Dennis Dixon's knee blew up in the first half, the Ducks lost and national title hopes went splat. They then meandered through their next two contests and ended the regular season with a three-game losing streak.

That season is not only noteworthy as a parallel but also as an example of what is different now. When Dixon went down -- and he was only the biggest name on a long injury list that season -- there was no one capable of adequately filling his shoes. The Ducks were shut out -- think about that: Kelly's offense shut out! -- in their next game at UCLA.

But when Thomas went down against Washington State, senior Nate Costa, who lost a close battle for the starting job during the preseason, stepped in and the offense just kept doing its ludicrous speed thing. Costa completed 13 of 15 passes for 151 yards and a TD. And he rushed eight times for 84 yards and a score.

"It just speaks to the depth we have in this football program," Kelly said. "It’s just like bringing Michael Clay in at linebacker or Boseko Lokombo or Cliff Harris or Josh Huff. We have depth at a lot of different spots right now, and that’s paying off for us."

The Ducks don't play again until UCLA comes to town on Oct. 21 for a Thursday night, ESPN game, so there's time for Thomas and Barner to heal, though the best guess is there will be no rush to get Barner back on the field after taking a huge hit against the Cougars that knocked him out and required two nights of hospitalization. There then will be a long week of preparation before the visit to USC on Oct. 30, which remains a big game even though it doesn't have the same gravitas that it appeared to have during the preseason.

So the Ducks have one game in a 20-day span. That's plenty of time for Thomas to get healthy (and perhaps Barner). And if Thomas still needs a few more weeks, the offense remains in good hands with Costa.

In other words, things are setting up nicely for the Ducks to remain in the national title hunt.

Chip, "Natty Champ" really is cute. You don't have to ignore the elephant in the room.

"We don’t run this football program based on outside influences," Kelly said. "People saying you’re this or that, whether you’re good or bad. I don’t think you can do that. We don’t as a coaching staff talk about it. We as a group don’t talk about it. Our players, when I listen to them talk, they don’t talk about it either."

And Kelly most certainly is not going to talk about practice.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

October, 11, 2010
A look back on the week that was.

Team of the week: Oregon State announced its return to relevancy with a win at No. 9 Arizona. The biggest revelation: Sophomore QB Ryan Katz is ready for primetime.

Best game: You can't beat a game with two game-winning drives, unless your team is the one that produced the penultimate game-winning drive, which was the case of USC in its 37-35 loss at Stanford. For the second consecutive weekend, the Trojans lost on a last-second field goal. Still, a game billed as a potential blowout showed USC has plenty of fight left, at least on offense. (Wow. Are we now citing "moral" victories for the Trojans?)

Biggest play: There were so many big plays in Oregon State's 29-27 win over Arizona that it's hard to pick just one. But if you had to, it might just be Katz's 43-yard completion to H-back Joe Halahuni on a second and 13 play from the Beavers 33-yard line. With James Rodgers out with a knee injury, Katz's top passing options were limited, and if he'd missed the throw over the middle, it's possible the Beavers wouldn't have been too aggressive on a third-and-long call from their own territory. The Beavers got a first down on the Wildcats 24 and were able to run a lot of clock -- six of the next seven plays were runs -- before scoring a TD that gave them a a 29-20 lead, which made it a two-possession game.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck passed for 285 yards with three touchdowns against USC on Saturday.
Offensive standout: As usual, so many to choose from: Katz, Oregon's LaMichael James, California's Shane Vereen, USC's Matt Barkley, USC's Robert Woods, etc. But Andrew Luck was masterful against USC, completing 20 of 24 passes for 285 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. What's more: He led a seven-play, 62-yard drive in 1:08 to set up the game-winning field goal. And did you see his hit on Trojans CB Shareece Wright after a fumble? Smack goes the QB!

Defensive standout: Cal cornerback Darian Hagan had a bad year last season. Not this year. He had two sacks, an interception and five tackles while leading the Bears stellar defensive effort against UCLA. Honorable mentions include Arizona State's Jamaar Jarrett, who had two sacks at Washington, and Oregon's Brandon Bair, who had 3.5 tackles for a loss at Washington State.

Special teams standout: Oregon's Cliff Harris returned a punt 67 yards for a TD at Washington. He has done that three times this year, which is the most in FBS football. Oh, and he returned an interception for a TD at Tennessee.

Smiley face: Cal suffered two tough losses in September: It got embarrassed at Nevada and lost a heartbreaker at Arizona. It could have yielded. Instead, it whipped a hot UCLA team 35-7 and showed it can stop a pistol offense by holding the Bruins to just 144 yards.

Frowny face: Washington had injury issues and QB Jake Locker was trying to play through a flu-like illness, but that doesn't change the fact that it couldn't maintain the momentum it built after a win at USC. Arizona State had plenty of issues, too, but it found a way to win on the road in a rainstorm, weather one would think would benefit the Huskies far more than the Sun Devils.

Thought of the week: Oregon fans: How different did it feel when QB Darron Thomas injured his throwing shoulder knowing you had senior Nate Costa on the bench ready to step in? While Thomas may be back as soon as the UCLA game on Oct. 21, the Ducks would still feel like the Rose Bowl favorites with Costa as the starter. Recall in 2007 that when Dennis Dixon was lost for the year with a knee injury, almost everyone immediately realized the Ducks were in big trouble.

Questions for the week: Does the cannibalism begin now? Or do a couple of teams emerge at the top of the conference? Arizona's loss to Oregon State -- which left only Oregon undefeated -- hinted that stringing together wins is going to be extremely difficult due to the depth of the conference. So does that mean we end up with a muddle of two, three and four-loss teams? Or will Oregon ride home unscathed with an escort in the top-10?

Is Oregon the new USC?

October, 4, 2010
With 18 starters coming back from a 10-3 team that won the 2009 Pac-10 title by two games, the only significant question for Oregon entering 2010 was at quarterback.

Of course, that's a big question. Experience at quarterback, traditionally, has been extremely important in the Pac-10. A notable recent exception would be when USC rolled to a second-consecutive conference title -- as well as the national championship -- in 2003 with sophomore Matt Leinart as a first-year starter.

What year is Darron Thomas again? For that matter, what year is LaMichael James?

No, we're not going there. We're not going to throw out the notion of Oregon stepping into the void left by the crumbling of USC's dynasty. That would be silly.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Rick BowmerQuarterback Darron Thomas is giving Oregon fans a reason to celebrate.
Wouldn't it?

Come on! Oregon doesn't have the recruiting base. It doesn't have the history. Its stadium is rowdy, yes, but it doesn't seat 90,000-plus like all the superpowers' stadiums do.

Heck, Oregon first needs to win a Rose Bowl in the modern era before anyone starts thinking about writing epic poetry about it. And in any event coach Chip Kelly is all about the present moment -- "Win the day!" -- which even has its own crest. There's nothing in "Thus Spoke Kelly" about building dynasties.

What we do have is this: Oregon was ranked No. 2 and a national title contender in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. Oregon finished the 2008 season ranked 10th. It finished 11th last season after losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. It presently is ranked No. 3.

The Ducks are building toward their best run in modern program history. And they are just a few clicks from becoming one of those PROGRAMS.

As we said, the question entering the season was how good could the Ducks be after losing a quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, who was a two-year starter and was considered a short-list Heisman Trophy candidate. At some point in the 52-31 win over Stanford on Saturday, the story moved decisively away from who Thomas wasn't to who he is. And who he could become.

"He's definitely coming along," center Jordan Holmes said after the game. "And I can't wait to see how far he can go because he gets better and better every week. He's just a kid. He's got a lot more football to play. I'm really looking forward to see what he becomes in the future."

With Thomas at present, Oregon might have the best offense in the nation. It ranks No. 1 in scoring (56.6 points per game) and total offense (569 yards per game). It doesn't give up sacks (one in five games). It runs the ball (No. 2 in the nation with 331 yards per game).

But Oregon also plays underrated defense. You've all heard the "one second-half TD surrendered in the first five games" factoid. But the Ducks are 15th in the nation in scoring defense -- 15 ppg -- and fourth in pass efficiency defense.

Have the Ducks given up some yards? Yes. But they surrender only 4.73 yards per play.

Whoops. That's not right. The Ducks surrender only 4.58 yards per play. Alabama's defense gives up 4.73 yards per play. My bad.

Oregon is never going to do well in total defense because opponents get to run a lot of plays against it due to the Ducks' offensive tempo -- see a rank of 98th in time of possession.

Folks say defense wins championships. The Ducks defense is good enough to win a championship.

Obviously, it's premature to contemplate Oregon stepping into the void left by USC's decline. Before USC's ascension, the Pac-10 was the most unpredictable conference in the country: See nine different teams at least earning a share of the Pac-10 title from 1993 to 2001.

And Oregon fans know that seeming juggernauts can fall hard. The 2007 Ducks were rolling with Dixon. Without him, they lost three straight and went to the Sun Bowl.

Still, at this point, the Ducks have looked like the best team in the conference as well as national title contenders. If those midseason perceptions end up being accurate in January, and the Ducks manage to win a Rose Bowl or -- gasp -- play for a national title, then Oregon will no longer just be a nice program.

It will become one of those PROGRAMS.
EUGENE, Ore. -- He Who Shall Not Be Named can now be named. Jeremiah Masoli? Neh. The "oh, what might have been!" is gone. Oregon doesn't need him. Sure, the Ducks offense ran at ludicrous speed with him last year. But their 2010 spread-option offense is running at double-secret ludicrous speed.

Sophomore Darron Thomas, the quarterback replacement after Masoli got the boot, is doing just fine, thank you very much, see 626 yards of offense in the fourth-ranked Ducks 52-31 win over No. 9 Stanford. He's doing so well, in fact, that he might help running back LaMichael James win the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesLaMichael James rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries against Stanford.
That Thomas completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns isn't the big news. He's always been a promising passer. It's that he rushed for a career-high 117 yards and score, too. He rushed for just 102 yards in the previous four games.

"We can put those rumors to bed that he can't run the football," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "He's everything you'd want in a quarterback."

Why is Thomas' success running important to James? Because when a defense can't entirely key on James in the spread-option, James is going to kill it. And by that we mean, say, rushing for 257 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. Stanford's defense, by the way, was yielding just 256 yards per game. That number is headed north.

Know how many yards James lost with those 31 carries? Zero.

James entered the contest ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 151.7 yards per game (the NCAA and Pac-10 got the numbers wrong this week, giving James 158.3 per game). A marquee performance on a big stage surely raised his Q-rating. Or H-rating.

"Tonight, I feel like I was running on all cylinders," he said. "I was running physically. I was really aggressive. I played with a lot more energy."

James said that he didn't feel like that was the case earlier in the season.

"I think he was trying to dance in some (early) games," Kelly said. "When he really trusts his speed -- that last touchdown run was a blur."

That last TD run went for 72 yards. It was his third run of 20 or more yards in the game. He has 30 of those over the past two years, more than any other back in the nation.

As for Thomas, he led the offensive onslaught -- the Ducks were down 21-3 before outscoring the Cardinal 49-10 the rest of the way -- after throwing two first-half interceptions. So far this season, he's displayed notable moxie, showing no ill-effects when he makes mistakes. This was the third time this season he's led the Ducks back from double-digit early deficits.

"He's definitely coming along," center Jordan Holmes said. "And I can't wait to see how far he can go because he gets better and better every week. He's just a kid. He's got a lot more football to play. I'm really looking forward to see what he becomes in the future."

Of course, the present looks pretty darn good. The Ducks, who visit Washington State next weekend, are 5-0 and figure to enter the national title discussion. It's possible, in fact, they'll get more than a few votes at No. 2 behind Alabama and ahead of Ohio State.

Such talk doesn't go very far with the Ducks, though, who seemed to have bought in to Kelly's whole "win the day" philosophy. And it's not surprising that James said he "didn't care" about Heisman Trophy buzz.

"I don't want to be sitting at the house with a Heisman Trophy and we're 5-5," he said. "I'd rather be 12-0, 13-0 with no Heisman Trophy."

It's then noted to James that those two events -- undefeated and stiff-arm trophy -- often are intertwined, see last year's winner, Alabama's Mark Ingram.

James relents: "If the Heisman Trophy comes with winning games, I'll take it."

If he keeps running like he did against Stanford, he might. And if Thomas continues his rapid evolution into ... wait for it... Dennis Dixon (ha!), the Ducks might be up to some big things, too.