Every so often, as in once a year, I look through my closet in an attempt to find old clothes that may have been forgotten about. Often, the process simply helps sort out what fits, what doesn't, and what needs to be gotten rid of. But every so often, I'll find a shirt that slipped through the cracks, that sweatshirt I loved in high school, or those pants I used to wear every weekend my freshman year of college.
The process is not so much about de-cluttering my wardrobe. Rather, it acts as a way of taking me back to a time and place I may not have even realized I missed.
In essence, watching the Oregon Ducks take down Ohio State in Columbus on September 11th was equivalent to that cozy sweatshirt from days gone by. The win, which wasn't even as close as the 35-28 final score may suggest, was perhaps the most important victory in about ten years for the Pac-12, college football's least respected Power 5 conference. More importantly, it meant that the Pac was back, or at least felt like it was. In-season implications aside, the alignment of the college football universe simply feels right when midnight madness matters.
The win vaulted Oregon into the top four early in the season's AP polling, and earned the program a level of respect they haven't had since the halcyon days of Chip Kelly and Marcus Mariota. To be fair, the Ducks haven't exactly been doormats since they lost the 2014 National Championship to Ohio State; it was only two years ago that they ranked 5th in the final AP Poll, boosted by a 28-27 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
However, for every high the past seven years has produced, there seems to have been an equal amount of lows. The end of the Mark Helfrich era, the oft-forgotten successor to Kelly, ended with a dismal 4-8 record. The following year, promising head coach Willie Taggart bolted before the end of the season to his dream job at Florida State (that worked out well). Even last year's pandemic-impacted season could be seen as a step back; the Ducks were shellacked 34-17 by Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The 2021 Ducks Are For Real...
Enthusiasm for Oregon, both on the field and on the recruiting trail, has not been unwarranted. They have been unquestionably better under Cristobal's watch compared to his two predecessors, and the future is bright. With all that being said, you could have been excused for not buying the hype coming from Eugene.
Clearly, Oregon's enigmatic nature made picking them to break out a risky proposition. Cristobal's teams have shown plenty of talent in the past, but their ability to win consistently, let alone against high-quality opponents, has never really been proven outside of the 2020 Rose Bowl. Prior to the win over OSU this year, the Ducks had a mediocre record of 6-8 vs. Top 25 opponents since 2017, including a 1-3 mark against those outside of the Pac-12. Therefore, despite being surrounded by unknowns, trendier choices to win the conference naturally emerged this offseason.
As the dust has settled on the first three weeks of an incredibly young campaign, any notions of Oregon not being the Pac-12's team to beat have been silenced. A dynamic offense led by running back C.J. Verdell, and his stellar backup Travis Dye, has gashed opposing defenses. At quarterback, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown has played smart, risk-averse football while mixing in some rushing ability of his own. A sturdy defense that has kept opponents to under 20 points a game is headlined by former five-star Kayvon Thibodeaux, a likely top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
As long as the big pieces on the Ducks offense stay healthy, which is not guaranteed, and the defense continues its solid play, it's hard to envision any of their remaining Pac-12 opponents slowing them down.
...But Who Can Challenge Them?
Competition is key to gaining legitimacy in the uber-exclusive, downright monopolized world of college football.
Therein lies the problem for the Pac-12 as a whole. Oregon may be en route to reclaiming its former elite status, but most other programs in the conference have been derailed this season. That presents a slim margin for error for the Ducks, even with a win over Ohio State on their resume.
USC, seen as the likeliest choice to win the Pac-12 South, suffered a humiliating 42-28 home loss to Stanford two weeks ago, prompting the firing of head coach Clay Helton. Arizona State started off strong at 2-0, but lost its way in Provo against BYU last weekend. Utah, Colorado, and Arizona have a combined 2-7 record.
Up north, Washington's two losses on the year were both equally humiliating; a season opening defeat against FCS Montana and a 31-10 rout at the hands of Michigan. Oregon State has shown some scrappiness this season, but their failure to beat Purdue makes national relevance unlikely for the Beavers. Cal and Washington State should continue to perpetuate in mediocrity, as they have for most of the past decade.
Stanford, often the chief protagonist in Oregon's once-annual quest for conference supremacy, has had an inconsistent season. The optimist may point towards two straight road wins, including their takedown of USC, as signs that the Cardinal are poised to challenge the Ducks for the Pac-12 North. The pessimist would mention an embarrassing season opener against Kansas State that saw their offense held to a paltry 233 yards on the day.
That leaves us with UCLA, helmed by who other than Chip Kelly. After destroying Hawaii, the Bruins went on to upset LSU at home, catapulting them to 13th in AP polling. Any good vibes were stifled last weekend when Fresno State came to the Rose Bowl and ran up and down the field on their way to a 40-37 win. Although Fresno State is a ranked team that proved their worth in a seven-point loss to Oregon earlier this season, it was an unquestionably bad loss for a UCLA team looking to take control of the Pac-12 South.
So, what is the Pac-12? Ultimately, it looks a lot like it has in most recent years: programs filled with promise, but ultimately crippled by inconsistency and a flat-out inability to perform at a high level against out of conference opponents. The difference this season lies in an Oregon squad that has the makings of a bonafide CFP contender. The diminished strength of its conference peers could be what vaults the Ducks to an undefeated season...or it could lead to their ruin with just one loss.
The Pac-12 isn't back just yet. Too many of its once-fearsome member schools have yet to truly put it together. Still, having one national power within its ranks is cause for celebration. With a contending Oregon comes increased attention, from both fans and recruits alike, that can have a trickle-down effect for the rest of the conference.
Now, the Ducks must fit into the musty old sweater that is title competition, while balancing the hopes and dreams of a Pac-12 starving for a shred of recognition on the national stage.