Pac-12: LeGarrette Blount

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a school of thought, now apparently subscribed to by a handful of desperate NFL teams, that if that uber-suave, hirsute gentleman from those wildly entertaining Dos Equis beer commercials revealed his true identity, he would rip off a bearded mask and reveal Chip Kelly.

Is Kelly the most interesting man in the world?

Pause for a moment before chortling over our potential hyperbole, for Kelly has packed a lot into his 52-game tenure at Oregon, including 45 victories.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Don RyanChip Kelly doesn't often discuss his life with writers, but when he does, his answers are revealing.
He has run with the bulls in Pamplona. He has led the Ducks to three Pac-12 titles and four BCS bowl games. He has done humanitarian work in Africa. He has produced Oregon's first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years. He has visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kelly, 49 and single, is also fiercely private. He has never cooperated with any truly in-depth "This is your life, Chip Kelly!" story, which is exceedingly rare for a high-profile coach. Nearly all his close friends are back in New Hampshire, where he's from and where he went to college.

Kelly doesn't like glad-handing boosters, something often viewed as a prerequisite for being a college coach. He particularly dislikes talking to reporters, and he goes to great lengths to make sure they understand.

The Dos Equis guy says, "Stay thirsty, my friends." Kelly would say, "Stay away, annoying hangers-on."

Yet the vast majority of Ducks fans not only love all the winning, they love Kelly for his wiseacre, smirking self. They chant "Big Balls Chip!" inside rocking Autzen Stadium to celebrate Kelly's penchant for going for it on fourth down, going for 2 and launching onside kicks at surprising times.

He tells fans, "Shut up!" for cheering behind him during an ESPN postgame interview, and they love him more. A Twitter page, Chipisms, celebrates not only Kelly's amusing or insightful wisdom -- “I saw the ‘Feel Sorry for Yourself’ train leaving the parking lot & none of our players were on it, so that was a good sign” -- but also for his snark.

Inquiries that Kelly doesn't like might get one-word answers, clichéd responses or snappy rejoinders that belittle his inquisitors. Questions that engage him, however, receive full and thoughtful treatment. Consider this response from an ESPN story on Kelly's trip to Africa, when he worked with adolescent girls who had no idea who he was.

"The real heroes are the little girls in Africa who are trying to better themselves so they can help their families," he said. "When I hear a coach say, 'We're grinding.' I'm like: You're sitting in a room with air conditioning watching videotape. That's not grinding."

There seem to be three facets to Kelly. His standoffish public face, the detail-obsessed coach and the Renaissance man determined to drink life to the lees away from the game. Even the hard-driving, "win the day" side of Kelly can loosen up behind closed doors; those who work with him frequently cite his sense of humor.

"He [jokes around] all the time," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, a leading candidate to replace Kelly should he bolt for an NFL job. "It's not: 'Aha, he smiled! Isn't that amazing?' It's daily. We have a lot of fun."

Further, while Kelly's offense almost always runs like a finely tuned machine, plenty of, er, interesting things have been interspersed with winning during Kelly's tenure. Drama has not been lacking over the past four seasons.

His first game as Oregon's head coach remains his worst: A 19-8 loss at Boise State. Not only did the Ducks gain an embarrassing 152 total yards, but Kelly's star running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Broncos player afterward, bringing the hot light of controversy to his team's feckless performance.

Some thought Kelly was in over his head. He answered that by becoming the first Pac-10 coach to lead a team to an outright conference championship his first season.

Oh, and in a sign of interesting things to come, when a season-ticket holder wrote Kelly demanding a refund for his expenses incurred after attending that disastrous trip to Boise, Kelly quickly fired off a note with a personal check for $439.

Heading into 2010, starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended after he was involved in the burglary of an Oregon fraternity house. Losing a star quarterback typically would damage a team's chances, but all Kelly's team did was finish undefeated and play for the national championship, losing 22-19 when Auburn kicked a last-second field goal.

The NCAA came calling during the 2011 offseason, wanting to know details of Kelly's and the program's dealings with street agent Willie Lyles. A distraction? Nope. Oregon won the conference a third consecutive year and the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

Kelly then nearly left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His quarterback, two-year starter Darron Thomas, had already opted to leave the program, which again threw into question the Ducks' prospects. But Kelly returned and so did the winning, with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors while leading the Ducks to a No. 4 ranking and a Fiesta Bowl berth opposite Kansas State.

Yet he arrives at the Fiesta Bowl amid swirling rumors that he's about to leave for his pick of available NFL jobs. Asked about his NFL ambitions this week, he gave a 235-word answer that essentially said "no comment."

"My heart is to win the day, and that’s it," he concluded. "I know everybody wants to hear a different answer, and I know at times when I don’t give you guys the answer you guys want, then I’m being evasive. I’m not being evasive. My job is to coach the University of Oregon football team, and I love doing it. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

So the question will linger for a coach who at the very least is currently the most interesting man in college football: Will the Fiesta Bowl be his last day to win for Oregon?
Be prepared. Oregon coach Chip Kelly won't talk big picture this week. He won't talk about national perception or the beauty contest that college football is. A reporter will note to him that Oregon has beaten Washington eight consecutive times by at least 17 points, and he'll shrug.

(I bet inside he'll go, "Sweeeeet!" but outside, he'll shrug).

And he'll be right. Oregon has done a pretty good job under Kelly -- to the tune of 39-6 over three-plus seasons -- focusing on the present moment rather than looking ahead or back.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kirby Lee/US PresswireA convincing win over Washington could go a long way in helping Chip Kelly and Oregon earn a spot in the BCS title game.
While it's perfectly reasonable for civilians to wring their hands over how a victory looked, as Oregon fans have over the first-half sloppiness against Washington State, Kelly's Ducks have a pretty simple formula ahead of them. If they win all of their games -- pretty or not -- the odds are extremely high they will play for the national championship. Again.

So, let's note in advance that the Ducks don't really need style points against Washington on Saturday in Autzen Stadium. They don't need to ring up a ninth consecutive blowout over that team in purple whom Ducks fans regard with such loving warmth. They don't need to match the domination of LSU's 41-3 beatdown of the Huskies a couple of weeks ago in Baton Rouge.

But it certainly wouldn't hurt.

A dominant win would further cement the national perception of the Ducks as the nation's No. 2 team behind Alabama. Perception, as you know in this, our penultimate year yoked by the BCS system, matters. A tight game going into the fourth quarter might cause some voters to reconsider Florida State, LSU, Georgia or a Big 12 front-runner.

In the event of there being three or more unbeaten teams at season's end, then perception takes over. And don't forget those fickle computers.

The Ducks are 24-point favorites. So the expectation has been set high for an impressive win. Falling short of expectations could have short-term consequences that, potentially, could resonate negatively throughout the regular season.

Of course, the Huskies aren't looking to be a doormat that Oregon can decorate with footprints. They're nationally ranked and feeling pretty rejuvenated after beating then-No. 8 Stanford, a game for which few -- yes, both of your humble Pac-12 bloggers -- expected them to be terribly competitive.

You might recall Oregon's worst offensive performance under Kelly was his first game as the Ducks' head coach, in 2009 at Boise State. In a 19-8 defeat best remembered for LeGarrette Blount's meltdown, the Ducks gained just 152 total yards and six first downs and were 1-for-10 on third-down plays. Suffice it to say, it provided no hints of the offensive pyrotechnics that were ahead for the program.

The Broncos' defensive coordinator on Sept. 3, 2009? That would be Justin Wilcox, who is now running the Huskies' defense.

That has Washington fans crossing their fingers that they can slow the Ducks' offense enough to give QB Keith Price and company a puncher's chance.

Kelly will shrug about Wilcox, too. He'll graciously praise him as a defensive coach. He'll claim the Boise State game holds no sway over his present thinking. He'll talk only about what he and the Ducks can control: their preparation, their attitude and their effort. Hey, it's not personal -- it's business.

But here's a little secret: Kelly is not a robot. He hasn't completely cleansed himself of the emotions -- personalized emotions -- that attach themselves to competitive people. Just as he's well aware that his fans relish the recent domination of Washington probably as much as three consecutive Pac-12 titles, he's also well aware that scoring 50 on Saturday against Wilcox would feel pretty good.

I suspect he'd like to score 50 more than he typically would. (Editor's note: As some of you have noted, he did get 48 against Wilcox when the Ducks visited Tennessee in 2010).

At the very least, doing so would eliminate an annoying angle a reporter can ask him about or write about.
The system of checks and balances is working in Los Angeles. Just consider new UCLA coach Jim Mora's recent hiring of a new new strength and conditioning coach.

The media in Los Angeles is calling attention to a horrible — and infamous — mistake Sal Alosi made when he worked for the New York Jets. It is opining on the riskiness of Mora's hire.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Nick Ut/AP PhotoUCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, left, poses with new head football coach Jim Mora on Dec. 13, 2011.
That is good. That is the media doing its job, holding public figures accountable for their actions.

And Mora and Alosi are talking about the hiring. They are not hiding.

"I understand the criticism, I expect the criticism, it's completely warranted," Mora told LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke. "But I know the fiber of this man."

That is good: Public figures stepping forward to explain themselves in a controversial situation.

And, by the way, well said, Jim.

I love Mora's hire here all the more, even without knowing a whole lot about Alosi as a strength coach, other than that he seems highly respected by a number of NFL players.

As you long-time readers know, I am a big second-chance guy. I believed LeGarrette Blount deserved a second chance. I believed Rick Neuheisel deserved a second chance. I think the ranting and raving of absolutists who act like everything is black-and-white is a pose, one that my life experience has often found to be situational and hypocritical.

But this isn't about praising Mora for giving a guy a second chance. It's about Mora doing what he wants to do with his team and not fretting the PR angles. This is a revealing moment that Bruins fans should feel good about.

Here's a secret of all good head coaches: They insist on autonomy. They hire who they want to hire. They don't allow administrators to dictate whom they hire. Sure, there are obvious parameters -- felonies and NCAA violations tend to disqualify assistant coaching candidates. But the quickest and surest path to failure is a new head coach taking a job and then being steered to hire assistants he doesn't know.

Perhaps the most important quality for a head coach is being a good CEO, and the first thing a good CEO does is hire the right people. He needs to build a cohesive unit that functions efficiently. To do that, he needs to know whom he's hiring. How he works. How he takes suggestions and criticism. How he teaches and motivates. His work ethic, both on the field and in recruiting.

Further, it's also about loyalty. An assistant who isn't connected to a head coach often feels little reason not to undermine him "off-the-record" if things get tough.

The worst case I can think of was Terry Bowden at Auburn back in the 1990s. His fatal mistake was retaining assistants who worked for Pat Dye. That became a train wreck of epic proportions.

UCLA fans are well-aware of another: Neuheisel's second chance was a dream — coaching his alma mater — that turned into a nightmare, in large part because he agreed to hire Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator and retain DeWayne Walker as his defensive coordinator. Chow and Walker are outstanding coaches, no doubt. But they weren't Neuheisel's guys. A major part of the problem in Westwood the past four years was a lack of cohesion on the Bruins coaching staff.

Obviously, this isn't the same thing. We're talking about a strength coach, not a coordinator. But I am choosing to freight the hiring of Alosi with meaning, meaning that speaks well of Mora and the early — early! — trajectory of his tenure.

Mora wanted to hire Alosi. He knew there would be some negative blowback, and not without justification. But he met that blowback head-on, and now he's got a the strength coach he wanted.

And he's got a strength coach who probably feels pretty darn obligated to bust his rear end and repay Mora's faith in him with a finely conditioned football team.

Does extra prep time doom Oregon?

December, 28, 2011
Oregon clearly was in trouble. Its opponent had all summer to prepare for the Ducks gimmicky offense, and we all know what that means. The defense could train its eyes. It could memorize the Ducks' feints and misdirection and personnel groupings. The scheme would become second-nature. Heck, stopping the Ducks' fancypants offense would be easy.

Then Oregon beat New Mexico 72-0 to open the 2010 season, gaining 720 yards.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezOregon's high-powered offense has averaged 17.8 points per game in Chip Kelly's four nonconference losses at the school.
A lot has been made of how teams with extra time to prepare for Oregon's offense seem to gain a significant advantage. And we're going to make something of it, too. But let's first understand something: When you talk about giving a team extra time, it's most likely the "team" part of the formula that is more important than the "extra time."

Oregon has lost six games under Chip Kelly. Only one defeat came against a team that didn't finish ranked in the nation's top five (8-5 Stanford in 2009). Only one came against a team with just one week to prepare (10-2 USC in 2011). But it's the four nonconference losses that are most notable, in large part because the Ducks' offense put up respectable numbers in the two conference defeats.

Those four games include three undefeated teams and 11-2 Ohio State. Auburn beat Oregon for the national title last year. LSU is playing Alabama for the national title on Jan. 9. In 2009, Boise State went 14-0.

So Kelly's explanation for his team's losses reduces each to a fundamental essence that puts the foundational justification for this story at risk.

"The games we lost are because the other team was better than us," he said.

Better on that day would be the way some in the Ducks locker room might phrase it.

Excuses are bad. No one likes to hear a loser making excuses. But let's make them anyway.

  • Boise State 19, Oregon 8: Kelly's head coaching debut was a disaster. The game is best known for Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount's postgame punch. This was the one, truly dominant throttling of Kelly's offense: 152 total yards, including just 31 yards rushing. The Ducks were breaking in four new offensive linemen and it showed. Excuse? Oregon just got whipped in every area, including coaching.
  • Ohio State 26, Oregon 17: This one was most notable for Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor posting the best game of his career, passing for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 72 yards. On the Ducks side, QB Jeremiah Masoli had his worst game of the season, completing 9-of-20 passes for 81 yards with an interception. And Ducks fans certainly remember the fumbled exchange between Masoli and Blount in the third quarter on second-and-2 on the Buckeyes 18 with Ohio State up 19-17. While much is made of the Ducks always losing the battle up front in these games, the Ducks outrushed Ohio State 179 to 153, averaging 5.4 yards per carry compared to 3.0 for the Buckeyes.
  • Auburn 22, Oregon 19: The Ducks lost on a last-second field goal in the national title game -- there's shame in that? Sure, they didn't score much but they gained 449 yards. In terms of the physical matchup, sure, Oregon couldn't block DT Nick Fairley. The 2010 Lombardi Award winner was pretty good.
  • LSU 40, Oregon 27: The excuse here is the most obvious: What if Oregon didn't lose the turnover battle 4-1, including a fumbled punt that gave LSU a TD? But if you won't entertain the excuses, just look at the facts of the season. How many teams scored 27 points on LSU? That would be none. Next highest totals were 21 and 17 points. The Ducks gained 335 yards. Only West Virginia gained more. Said Kelly, "When it was all said and done, that LSU defense, they are pretty freaking good."

Still, excuses are for losers. If the Ducks' ultimate goal is to rank among the nation's super-elite -- the top five -- it must win these games. It can't average 17.8 points and 95 yards rushing against highly ranked nonconference teams, as it did in these four games.

And if the Ducks go down against Wisconsin on Jan. 2 in the Rose Bowl, they will hear the same sort of chatter. Further, the Badgers believe the extra prep time gives them an advantage against Oregon.

"If you got done with a game on Saturday and you had to get ready for (them), I think it would be a very difficult challenge," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But the extended prep and the opportunity to kind of slow things down a little bit mentally is going to be great."

Added defensive end Patrick Butrym, "It's such a difficult offense to go against. Honestly, it would be very hard to prepare for them if we only had a week. So I'm glad we have that extra time."

The key for the Ducks is the running game. In all four of the above defeats, the Ducks didn't approach their season average on the ground. That's understandable against good defenses, but the Oregon offense isn't the Oregon offense without an effective rushing attack.

Wisconsin has a good defense -- eighth in the nation in total defense and sixth in scoring -- but it's not as fast as LSU or Auburn and it doesn't have the NFL talent up front Ohio State did. The Badgers rank 46th in the nation against the run, surrendering 138 yards per game.

Kelly also pointed out that the Badgers, despite Big Ten stereotypes, have seen plenty of zone-read running plays and spread passing formations this season. The Ducks' offense won't be completely new.

For Kelly, the formula is simple. He needs to get his speedy playmakers the ball in space. The Ducks need balance. They need to convert on third down. And they need to win battles up front.

Extra prep time spelling doom for Oregon? That's probably part of the equation, but in the end it's just, well, football. Players making plays. Or not.

"It's a quick sound bite," Kelly said of the story that won't die until his team wins a marquee nonconference game.

"The answer is the team that has the best players is going to win the football game."

So are Oregon's players finally better?

No James? No problem for Oregon

October, 13, 2011
The facetious question was met with a laugh from Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson.

So, with Oregon running back LaMichael James almost certainly out with a dislocated elbow for Saturday's game against the Sun Devils, the Ducks' offense is likely hamstrung and lacking weapons, correct?

Hardy-har-har. Replied Erickson, "You name them, they've got them."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly was asked who would replace James and what would change with his offense. He listed his depth chart: Kenjon Barner and a pair of true freshmen, De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson.

[+] EnlargeKenjon Barner
AP Photo/Wily LowKenjon Barner will look to fill the void with LaMichael James out of the lineup.
As for changes, Kelly was his typical, expansive self: "Nothing changes."

Well, he could have just said, "Nothing."

He's mostly right. Sure, James is the nation's best game-breaking back. Sure, he's had more 20-yard runs in his career than any other back in college football. Sure, he is an outstanding return guy and has dramatically improved in the passing game.

But Barner, James' best buddy on the team, is a pretty good backup plan. He'd be the starter for, oh, about 110 teams in the nation.

"Very similar," Kelly said of Barner and James. "I've always felt they were 1 and 1A here. They are both explosive. They both can go the distance."

And, according to Oregon's top-of-the-line stopwatches, Barner and James, who both tip the scales at 195 pounds, are a push in terms of speed and quickness. Barner's electronically timed 40-yard dash is the equal of James', but Barner beat James in the shuttle run and vertical jump.

Barner had 228 all-purpose yards at Tennessee last season, including an 80-yard punt return for a TD. He eclipsed 100 yards rushing twice last season on his way to 551 yards, despite missing two games with a concussion.

So, he's good.

And Thomas looks like a budding star. The multipurpose threat is the Ducks' leading receiver and has accounted for six TDs, four receiving. He averages 7.6 yards per rush and 16.8 yards per reception.

Carson, meanwhile, is the 227-pounder who offers the power element, a la former Duck RB LeGarrette Blount.

"They have got so much depth," Erickson said. "You take Barner, you take De’Anthony Thomas -- who we tried to recruit -- and they’re something special. They’re solid in all areas. They’re not going to try to change anything. They do what they do and they’ve got depth to do it, so you don’t treat it any different whether he plays or whether he doesn’t."

Still, it's hard not to turn more focus to Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas. He's been fairly efficient this season -- 15 TD passes, just two interceptions -- but his 208 yards passing per game ranks 10th in the Pac-12, and he's been far less of a running threat than last season (see: just 18 carries for 100 yards).

"Darron has done a really good job for us, managing the game, taking what the defense gives him," Kelly said. "He's been very efficient with the ball."

Kelly, who's not one to give in to reporters' questions, actually admitted that, yes, Thomas is running less this season due to play calling. (Sure, that's a "duh" admission, but it feels notable for reporters who regularly hear Kelly quibble over every detail: "No, Ted, the sky isn't really blue. That's about Rayleigh scattering -- light waves from the sun passing through our atmosphere.")

Part of that is Thomas taking what the defense gives him. Kelly said Thomas has been making the proper reads in the Ducks' diverse option game. But Kelly also said that he's called fewer zone-read plays this season.

Still, Thomas has shown in the past that he can run the ball well, and that forces a defense to account for him. The Sun Devils' defensive coaches surely asked themselves whether Thomas might be more of a factor in the running game with James out.

"For us to be successful, he has to be a viable running threat," Kelly said. "When defenses have forced him to run, he's done a good job with it."

Of course, the Sun Devils will focus first on containing the Ducks' running game, which they mostly stymied last season. That means Thomas, the passer, likely will need to make plays, and that receivers Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff, as well as De'Anthony Thomas, will need to step up.

Might this be a coming out party for the Ducks' passing game, which has been prolific just once this season, when Thomas passed for 295 yards and six TDs (although on just 19 attempts) against Nevada?

That's the thing about the Ducks: You don't know. Their offense can beat you a lot of ways, even without the nation's best running back.

"You try to make them earn it and keep the big plays down," Erickson said. "You run to the football and tackle."

In other words, nothing changes.

Pac-12 lunch links: Lobbestael to start

October, 4, 2011
It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.
Nobody likes sounding relentlessly redundant, but if the story doesn't change the story doesn't change.

For all that Oregon has accomplished in two years under Chip Kelly, it has flopped against highly rated nonconference foes who have had extra time to prepare for the Ducks high-tempo, spread-option attack.

  • In 2009, the Ducks opened at Boise State. While that game is most remembered for LaGarrette Blount's post-game meltdown in Kelly's debut, Boise State fans will be glad to remind you the Broncos held the Ducks to 31 yards rushing in a 19-8 victory.
  • The Ducks righted themselves dramatically in 2009 and earned a berth opposite Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. But the Buckeyes held the Ducks to 260 yards in a 26-17 victory
  • And, finally, in the national title game against Auburn, the Ducks only scored 19 points. They gained 449 yards but only 75 on the ground.
[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOregon coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks would score a big win for the Pac-12 with a defeat of LSU on Saturday.
Those three games, against which there is little counter argument, other than the Ducks Pac-10 success, have inspired this sort of analysis: Oregon needs to get more physical.

If you have ever played football, you surely understand that when a football player has his physicality doubted, well, that's pretty galling.

Before all you Ducks get bent over this, keep in mind that Kelly has been a stand-up guy about this very point. In all three instances, he admitted the Ducks got beat at the point of attack. Further, during preseason camp, I asked running back LaMichael James about what went wrong against Auburn.

"Their defensive line was overpowering our offensive line," he said. "That was just the way it was."

How do you think this goes over with a Ducks offensive lineman? Department of "Truth Hurts."

Here's the good news: Oregon can end such talk on Saturday. All it has to do is take it to No. 4 LSU, a program as physically talented in terms of future NFL potential as any in the nation.

That's the micro-economic level of the super-cool-awesomeness of this marquee season-0pener in Cowboys Stadium.

Any one else curious to see what Kelly's got up his sleeve to counter LSU's extra prep time to school itself on the Ducks misdirection?

The macro-economic level is this: Pac-12 versus SEC. One game for a regular-season's worth of trash talking.

You might have heard the SEC has experienced some football success of late. On occasion, SEC fans will take a moment to remind you of it. There is a rumor, in fact, that five consecutive seasons have ended with a happy ending in some SEC outpost, the latest against the Pac-12's newest top-dog.

That would be Oregon.

To be honest, last January, I though Oregon was going to pound Auburn. I didn't think a two-player team -- no matter how good those two players were -- could beat the Kelly and the Ducks. The last time I had such a strong hunch about a game and was so completely wrong was when Washington pushed Miami around in 2000. (This is not to say I've had a long run of correct strong hunches about games before January. They just don't come by very often before marquee matchups).

Even if you throw out the stakes specific to Oregon and the Pac-12, this game has huge meaning nationally. The winner could -- should, in my mind -- rise to No. 1 in both major polls. Voters should reward the winner for showing the courage to play this game, which is great for college football at a time college football needs something great to distract fans from a stunning onslaught of scandals. A couple of which, rumor has it, might involve these two teams, territory we're choosing not to explore at this moment.

So if Oregon wins, it could rise to No. 1. If LSU has a successful season in the rugged SEC West, that win will grow in value. But even if LSU falters, the Ducks will be in position to play again for the national title if they keep winning.

Further, the odds aren't terrible that Oregon could arrive at Stanford on Nov. 12 and we find ourselves eyeballing two unbeaten teams. It could be a One-Two matchup even. At the worst, if the Ducks and Cardinal face each other without a blemish on either slate, it will be the biggest Pac-12 game in years (last year's game also matched unbeaten teams but was much earlier -- Oct. 2 -- in the season). If Stanford prevailed, it also could crow about beating the team that beat LSU and likely would play for the national title if it finished 12-0.

If Oregon loses to LSU, the Ducks could still have a great season. They could rally and perhaps get back into the national title hunt. And there's always the Rose Bowl, hardly a terrible destination. One nonconference game can't completely make or break a season.

But an Oregon victory would give the program a level of early-season gravitas it has never had. It would silence any remaining doubters, both of the Ducks and the Pac-12.

So, yes, you have heard correctly: This game is very, very big.
Chip KellyKirby Lee/US PresswireChip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks remain focused on taking care of business on the field.
Wise folks have said and written many things about dealing with the hills and valleys of life. Most of us are well aware that it's a mistake to get too high when things are good or too low when they aren't. We know it's better to focus on things we can control and to avoid allowing our emotions to overcome constructive decision-making and ensuing action.

And if any of that were easy, wise folks would spend more time talking and writing about other things.

So we have Oregon. No college football program in the country has combined stunning successes and swirling controversies over the past two-plus seasons as much as Oregon has under coach Chip Kelly. Perhaps even more amazing than the frenetic tempo and creativity of the Ducks' offense is their ability to make news in positive and negative ways, yet remained focused.

Year 1 started with a humiliating loss at Boise State and a punch from then-Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount and ended with a Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Year 2 started with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- a Heisman Trophy candidate -- getting booted from the team and ended with another Pac-10 championship and a berth in the national title game.

Year 3? It's started with an NCAA inquiry into the recruitment of redshirt freshman running back Lache Seastrunk, who decided to transfer last weekend, and a $25,000 payment to his mentor, Willie Lyles, who is a recruiting scout and alleged "street agent."

Where will Year 3 end? Will this be the year that the Ducks do get distracted and upended by off-field issues?

"I think the media around here is the smartest people I've ever been around my entire life," Kelly said with what sources said may have been some sarcastic shadings.

"If they voted us No. 1 in the conference and No. 3 in the country, they must not think it is a distraction. So we shouldn't let it be a distraction, because I don't think anyone would vote us No. 3 in the country if you guys thought it was a distraction."

Zing! The capacious "Book of Quotable Chip" adds another entry.

Kelly then referred to one of his handful of mantras: "We have the same mentality all the time. We have a vision for what this football program is supposed to be about and we prepare against that vision. We compete against that vision every Saturday and that's how we measure ourselves. ... We are not concerned with any outside influences, whether it be praise or blame."

Kelly's ability to impose that philosophy -- all part of his "Win the day" credo -- has been remarkable, the fuel for the Ducks' rapid rise in the college football pecking order. When you talk to his players, they either parrot what he says verbatim or provide their own little twist.

Said redshirt junior running back LaMichael James: "I focus on my team and that's it. I don't really care what outsiders have to say."

Still, there's just a little bit of double-speak. Don't believe for a moment the Ducks are unaware of -- and not following -- both the intrigue (Lyles & the NCAA!) and hype (national title contender!) that surrounds them. Kelly claims he doesn't pay attention to what reporters write, but he is curiously apt to tweak them for their stories -- Hey, Chip! -- most notably when they are wrong.

And the players, though totally bought into the Temple of Chip, are the same way. They claim they never discuss the day's headlines. Balderdash.

"Everybody wants to say all this about Oregon," redshirt junior quarterback Darron Thomas said. "We don't like that. We've just been working hard, getting ready for the season, ready to shut everybody up, ready to come out and play ball and forget about all these other allegations that are eventually going to come out."

No one knows when things are "going to come out." The NCAA hasn't even gotten around to sending Oregon an official letter of inquiry, which would spell out how the organization plans to apply vague rules about the use of scouting services. Those who say they know the endgame are lying. Nonetheless, there's been lots of guessing that Oregon and Kelly are in big trouble, with a couple of columns suggesting Kelly will be fired.

"I hope whoever wrote that, and I didn't read it, isn't our athletic director or our president," Kelly said. "I'm very confident in everything that will happen."

It's sometimes hard to believe that Kelly has been a coach in FBS football for just four seasons. Recall that in 2006, he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, a guy only a handful of offensive aficionados knew of. His two-plus years of leading Oregon have been more eventful than entire careers for many head coaches.

When asked if Kelly has shown any stress or strain during his tumultuous tenure, James almost seems amused. "He always seems the same to me," James said. "He maybe seems a little more relaxed."

James also called Kelly "a phenomenal coach." While Rich Brooks made Oregon respectable, and Mike Bellotti created a consistent winner, it's fair to say that Kelly's dynamic leadership has pushed the program to heights that no Ducks fans imagined it could reach, even mega-booster Phil Knight. And for that, James said, Kelly deserves predominant credit.

"Coach Kelly changed the whole identity of the program," said James, who redshirted in 2008, Bellotti's final season as head coach. "Everything is 100 percent different from when I was a true freshman."

What did Kelly change? "I literally mean every single thing," James said.

Of course, Brooks and Bellotti were able to avoid any major NCAA issues, too.

What's next for the Ducks? A win over LSU, a third consecutive conference title and another run at a national championship? NCAA sanctions?

Said Kelly, "I don't know what is going to happen next. No one knows what happens in the future."

One thing is likely: With Kelly and the Ducks, it at least figures to be interesting.

Pac-10 presence on All-NFL team

January, 19, 2011
Pro Football Weekly and the Professional Football Writers of America have announced their 2010 All-NFL team, and there's plenty of Pac-10 presence.

Former USC linebacker Clay Matthews was named Defensive MVP, and he led three Pac-10 defenders on the team:

Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore (Oregon)
Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay (USC)
Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh (USC)

Further, an All-Rookie team was announced, and four from the Pac-10 made the team.

LeGarrette Blount, RB, Tampa Bay (Oregon)
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England (Arizona)
Tyson Alualu, DE, Jacksonville (California)
*T.J. Ward, S, Cleveland (Oregon)

*Ward also was honored for special teams.

It's fair to say that Blount's fortunes have taken a positive turn since Sept. 3, 2009.

Pac-10 lunch links: Why Stanford beats Oregon

September, 30, 2010
Then I noticed, in all my pain and sickness, what music it was that like crackled and boomed on the sound-track, and it was Ludwig van, the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, and I creeched like bezoomny at that. ‘Stop!’ I creeched. ‘Stop, you grahzny disgusting sods. It’s a sin, that’s what it is, a filthy unforgivable sin, you bratchnies!’”

Pac-10 lunch links: What's different about Cal's defense?

August, 19, 2010
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.

Pac-10 lunch links: Cal's Riley expects a big senior year

August, 16, 2010
First you traded the Cadillac in for a microphone. Then you lied to me about the band. And now you're gonna put me right back in the joint!

Opening the mailbag: Rodgers vs. James

May, 17, 2010
Wanted to post the mailbag on Friday from the home offices in Bristol, Conn., but ACC blogger Heather Dinich told me you guys had already started your weekend early and would be unavailable until Monday.

To the notes.

Cam from Albany, Ore., writes: Preseason All American, Dark horse Heisman hype, Pac Ten awards, national media attention: Jacquizz Rodgers has all of these things. What he does not have, with two attempts, is a season as good as LaMichael James had last year. Quizz leads LaMichael only in rushing touchdowns in a year, and Oregon scored on the ground with no less then six different people last season. Long runs, average, yards/game: In all of these categories James is measurably above Rogers. OSU fans will claim Quizz means more to his team then does LaMichael, and they are right. But since when did lack of depth make a player better? And wasn't Quizz flat shut down against both Oregon and Cal last year? Why no love for LaMichael?

Ted Miller: LaMichael James is an outstanding back. He could become an All-American candidate. Heck, even a Heisman Trophy candidate.

But you lost me when you asserted that James had a better season that Jacquizz Rodgers. Cam, you get a frowny face.

James rushed for 1,546 yards last year. Rodgers, 1,440. James averaged 6.7 yards per carry and Rodgers 5.3. Ergo, you write, James had a better season.

You leave out this: Rodgers scored 22 touchdowns (one receiving), James 14. Now to me, TDs are important in football. I realize there is a camp where they are not so important -- the 2008 Washington squad apparently found them burdensome -- but I am not a member of that camp.

You, fairly, note that "Oregon scored on the ground with no less then six different people [seven actually] last season" as a reason for James scoring fewer TDs. In fact, four Ducks had at least three rushing TDs. No other Beaver had more than two.

So ... everybody knew Rodgers was coming and he still found the end zone. James? Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was just as much of a threat, see 13 rushing touchdowns. A defense didn't know what to expect from Chip Kelly's fancypants offense that in 2008 had Jeremiah Johnson averaging 7.2 yards per carry -- and LeGarrette Blount 7.3. Heck, a converted cornerback, Kenjon Barner, averaged 6.0 per carry as James' backup last fall.

Has any Oregon tailback not been successful under Kelly?

But let's just say that a comparison of Rodgers and James as running backs is close (which it is). Rodgers résumé also includes this: He was one of the best receivers in the conference last year, catching 78 passes for 522 yards. James caught 17 for 168.

Now, I've begun to suspect that Oregon State fans are secretly asking me this question -- it seems to come up every mailbag -- because they know my position (you know, the correct one). There is no argument here: Rodgers is the Pac-10's best running back based on what he has done thus far.

Projecting forward? Ah, that is why we play the season!

Brandon from New York writes: Why is everyone bullish about Stanford? I consistently see them on the fringe of top 25 lists and i am confused how a team that barely scratched the top 25 last year with the best player in the country is generally assumed to be BETTER after losing said superhuman. I wasn't aware they had a tremendous defense, and Stanford is no Ohio St or Va Tech when it comes to winning with special teams. Luck may be great, but seems like he's set up to disappoint without the support of some other QBs in the Pac (Locker, Foles, anyone not under arrest at UO)

Ted Miller: First of all, if Andrew Luck has played in the Sun Bowl, Stanford would have beaten Oklahoma and ended up 9-4 and ranked in the final Top 25, which would have paved the way for even more 2010 Cardinal bullishness.

Toby Gerhart is a big loss, no doubt, and that's a legitimate reason to question just how good Luck will be in 2010. Still, he's a major talent and a future first-round NFL draft pick. Moreover, he's got seven other returning starters around him, including four of five offensive linemen and all of his main receivers.

Luck is where most of the Stanford hype starts, but there's also intriguing up-and-coming talent on the Cardinal that should break through in 2010, particularly on the defensive front-seven, such as sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov, junior end Thomas Keiser and sophomore end Chase Thomas. The biggest question is the secondary, but word out of spring drills is that crew looked much-improved.

Stanford is a program with momentum. Folks are impressed with the coaching and recruiting of Jim Harbaugh, and last season felt more like the start of an upward trend than a flash in the pan.

Kevin from San Francisco writes: I see the 2010 Cal Bears being the most boring 8-4 team in the country. Kevin Riley will (finally) settle in and become the mediocre QB that he was meant to be. I love Shane Vereen and see him rushing for 1500+ yards but I just don't see No. 34 stealing the hearts of media pundits. Do you agree? I'm already looking forward to the 2011 season when our stellar recruiting class has matured into super soph's.

Ted Miller: 8-4 sounds like a pretty good record for Cal in 2010, so I guess I agree.

If Vereen rushes for 1,500 yards, however, it's a good bet that he'll steal at least a few media pundits hearts. And I'm not so sure that Riley won't be better than mediocre in 2010. After all he's been -- suffered -- through, it would be nice for him to walk away from his senior season hearing a few cheers from Cal fans.

Though, after reading your letter, it appears Cal fans may need a pick-me-up -- or Prozac.

Jay from Seattle writes: Just saw [Washington president] Mark Emmert drive by me in Madison Park behind the wheel of a brand new Lamborghini Murciélago. Does the NCAA pay that well and what happened to his Prius?

Ted Miller: Jay, I'm glad you wrote. Emmert told me he was going to "borrow" my car. That was May 12!

Yes, the NCAA pays well, Emmert's predecessor, the late Miles Brand, made $1.72 million, according to 2008 tax records. And Emmert was doing OK already, making more than $900,000 a year at Washington.

[Note: A school spokesman has confirmed that the Lamborghini doesn't belong to Emmert, though the school has a relationship with the manufacturer, which you can read about here .]

Barrett from La Grande, Ore., writes: I'm the S.I.D. at Eastern Oregon University and thought I'd pass along a story from our Spring Game. 21-year-old Dylan Steigers passed away after a hit in the game. Not sure if you could share any info on something like this, just being a West Coast guy I thought I'd try. There is also a foundation in his name beginning and for his two-year-old daughter.

Ted Miller: A terrible story. Frightening and sad.

Raymond from Tucson writes: Joyless ride: Oregon State trio sentenced to community service -- I think they should clean the bathrooms after each OSU home game including the visitors locker room. This might be harder than making trips to a retirement community and driving golfers in carts or serving on the food line at the local Salvation Army.

Ted Miller: Not a bad idea. We obviously should keep them away from golf carts.

Al from Pasadena, Calif., writes: A guy that sits next to me at the office is originally from Atlanta and transplanted to the West Coast. Although a diehard Georgia fan, he has become a Pac-10 football believer over the years. SEC fans are quick to discount the Pac-10 as a "wine & cheese conference." I know this because I lived in the South for 4 years. Being a native of Atlanta yourself, why can't the rest of your SEC brethren look at things objectively?

Ted Miller: I know that guy!

SEC fans? What makes SEC fans so great is their lack of perspective. As for the "wine & cheese" belief: That's just trash talk. SEC fans don't really believe that. At least, not the smart ones.

Blount rejects 49ers for Titans

April, 26, 2010
Former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, who went undrafted over the weekend, has decided to sign as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans instead of the San Francisco 49ers, as was previously reported, according to The Tennessean.

Blount apparently believed the Titans had a bigger need for a power runner than the 49ers.

Pac-10 lunch links: Arizona State lineman suffers ACL injury

April, 21, 2010
Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted -- one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?