College Football Nation: Oregon feeling ducky as year’s biggest surprise
It happens every year. What seemed so certain in late August already looks ludicrous. Teams that were DEFINITELY going to contend for the national championship in truth have no shot, like Michigan and Louisville, and some that were supposed to do nothing look like juggernauts.
There are 22 teams from the six Bowl Championship Series conferences still undefeated.
Many are exactly who were expected to be unbeaten at this early stage, top teams like Southern Cal, Louisiana State and defending champion Florida as well as good teams who haven't had major tests yet, like Ohio State and West Virginia.
Then there are the ones that make the head turn a bit, the eyes double check to make sure they read that right - Michigan State, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Kentucky.
The most surprising name - and the team doing it in the most stunning fashion - is Kansas. Yeah, the basketball school, Rock Chalk Jayhawk, Allen Field House. Kansas has been an irrelevant football team, well, forever. The Jayhawks have finished in the top 10 exactly two times since the Associated Press poll started in 1936 - Rice has been a more frequent visitor. The Owls are not ranked now.
But of all the surprises, teams that weren't ranked coming into the season but are unbeaten a third of the way through, the one that has the best chance to vault into the championship picture is Oregon.
The Ducks already have a win over a quality opponent, winning decisively at Michigan the second week of the season. They have a tough schedule the rest of the way that includes two top 10 teams, one of which happens to be No. 1. Both - California and USC - come to Eugene. And they have an offense that seems unstoppable.
Then again, Oregon looked good at the start of last season as well, winning its first four games before ultimately finishing 7-6.
"This group of kids is a year older, a year wiser, and I think there's a more concerted effort to understand that at times things aren't going to go right and we've got to change it," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "There's good leadership. Obviously ability is one thing, but character and consistency are things we preach, the mental toughness to carry you through the tough times.
"I think this team has that."
Through four games, the Oregon offense has looked plain scary. The Ducks are averaging 48.5 points per game, and piling up 536.75 yards per game. They put up 39 points on a Michigan squad that's suddenly looking pretty good, and they scored 52 against a decent Fresno State team, winning by 31.
Oregon got caught up in the chain reaction of LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher's departure for Florida State when Gary Crowton, who helped the Ducks to a 10-2 mark in 2005, left for Baton Rouge. But Oregon, which had installed a spread offense a couple of years ago, found itself a spread offense wizard to take over, and the offensive numbers have skyrocketed on his watch.
Chip Kelly led the attack at the University of New Hampshire for eight years, and last year guided Bellingham's Ricky Santos to the Walter Payton Award - the Div. I-AA version of the Heisman Trophy - last season.
"He inherited a tremendously talented group, and that's to take nothing away from Chip," said Bellotti. "He has a fifth-year senior at quarterback, we've got veterans at tailback, three veterans at wide receiver and three starters back on the offensive line. He came in with a group that was used to moving the football and scoring points. He's taken it to another level.
"His knowledge and expertise with the spread offense is evident. I think we were still learning the last two years because I force-fed that offense on the team. Chip has brought in his expertise and melded well with our coaching staff, and I think we are a very efficient offense."
Last year, quarterback Dennis Dixon passed for 2,143 yards and 12 touchdowns, but threw 14 interceptions. This year, he's shredding defenses and has become a Heisman Trophy candidate, having thrown for 932 yards with 11 TDs and no interceptions.
"I'm not surprised (by Kelly's success this season)," UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. "He's a bright guy. He's pretty pleased to have some good football players out there. They have a great running game, great quarterback, great receivers. Chip's got a good mind for football and works very hard at what he does."
What's scary is that despite the success the Ducks have had to date, according to Bellotti, they still haven't played up to the standards he and his coaches have set.
"We have not played a complete game where we've hit on all cylinders," he said. "We've gotten a lot of yardage but we've not gotten the points necessary. We can't turn the ball over. But I'm really pleased with where we're at."
The defense, however, with the exception of the win over Michigan, has not shut anyone down. The Ducks allow 21.5 points per game, including a surprising 31 to 1-2 Stanford last week, and are ranked 78th in total defense. And beginning tomorrow when Oregon hosts No. 6 California, the Ducks will have to get solid play on both sides of the ball if they're to sustain their early-season success and jump into the championship picture.
In addition to Cal, No. 1 USC will come to Oregon the last weekend of October. Should the Ducks beat both and stay undefeated, there's no team outside of the Southeastern Conference that can claim a more difficult road to perfection.
Will Oregon run the table?
Probably not. The Ducks may not even survive tomorrow's test, which figures to be a shootout.
But of all the surprises, of all the teams still unbeaten that make the eyes double-check for clarity, it's the Ducks who have the best chance.
What We Learned
LSU has been as impressive as anyone through four weeks of the season. But for the first time last Saturday, they were in a ballgame. At least for a while.
But that in itself is something given that the Tigers had won by scores of 45-0, 48-7 and 44-0 the first three weeks of the season. To win by just 12 points - 28-16 - gives a morsel of hope to LSU's opponents down the road - the defense isn't totally invincible.
LSU may be the best team in the country, and is definitely deserving of its No. 2 ranking - at least. But for the first time there was a hint of vulnerability. Suddenly the Tigers' game against a Florida team averaging a shade uner 50 points per game on Oct. 6 looks like it might be a little closer than it did before LSU played South Carolina.
But that's a week off in the distance for LSU. The Tigers have been dominant to date in part by not looking ahead, by focusing simply on the next team, which tomorrow is Tulane.
"I don't think there's anyone in this program who doesn't realize we have to be ready to play," said LSU coach Les Miles. "We've been very comfortable here in putting off what is the rest of the schedule, no matter what the rest of the schedule is. ... We're not going to talk about other opponents, and we don't really see the rest of the schedule."
Then again, while perhaps the slightest vulnerability showed, LSU still looks really good. The Tigers still have the best defense in the country, tied with Kansas allowing 5.75 points per game and are allowing just 161.50 yards per game. Offensively, they average more than 41 points, and that includes 48 against Virginia Tech, which led the nation in total defense the past two years.
"If we stay with our attention to detail and do the things we're capable of doing, we'll fare well," said Miles.
For the first time, last Saturday LSU didn't look unbeatable. But the Tigers still look darn close.
Game of the Week
The game up at Autzen Stadium between Cal and Oregon will impact the national championship picture, but so will one in the Big East, where South Florida hosts West Virginia tonight.
The Mountaineers are a popular pick to play in the BCS Championship Game because they play an easy non-conference schedule, and the Big East, while deeper than it's been in the past, still doesn't boast any teams considered among the best from a talent standpoint.
In other words, they're a popular pick because their road to a perfect record has fewer potholes than USC, for example, which already played at Nebraska, still has to travel to Oregon and later hosts California. The SEC contenders, meanwhile, teams like Florida and LSU, must play one another during the regular season and then perhaps a second time in the SEC championship game.
At the start of the season, it looked as though West Virginia would have only one really rough game all season. Louisville is coming to Morgantown, and even before losing the last two weeks the Cardinals looked one-dimensional and weren't a threat to the Mountaineers. So the lone big game on West Virginia's schedule looked like Oct. 27, at Rutgers.
Well, enter South Florida.
The Bulls actually beat West Virginia in Morgantown last year, and already this year they've won at Auburn and waxed North Carolina. They will be no easy test for West Virginia.
Should the Mountaineers win in Tampa, their lofty ranking won't simply be because their schedule looks easy. They'll have a quality win on the level of USC's over Nebraska and Oklahoma's pasting of Miami.
"We understand we have a tremendous challenge going into a hostile environment against a very good football team on the road," said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.
He added, "We know what kind of environment it's going to be. We've done a good job the last couple of weeks getting better in all three phases, but they're so athletic and have good schemes and obviously are going to play with a lot of emotion. They're so athletic that the opportunity for big plays don't come up a lot."
The game isn't big just for West Virginia, of course. South Florida would be 4-0 with a win, and both Rutgers and Louisville travel to Tampa.
The Bulls, believe it or not, could crash the BCS party.
"We're going to play hard," said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt. "They beat us two years ago, then we beat them last year. We just have to play."
If I Had A Ballot ...
1. USC (3-0): The Trojans are at Washington this week, but the next real challenge won't come until the last weekend of October at Oregon.
2. LSU (4-0): The Tigers get a break this week against Tulane before hosting Florida.
3. Oklahoma (4-0): Tulsa showed that the Sooners defense can be scored upon. Then again, OU still won by 41.
4. Florida (4-0): Each of the last three opponents have scored over 20.
5. West Virginia (4-0): If the Mountaineers win this week at South Florida - decisively - their ranking will start to look right.
6. California (4-0): A defense that's allowed 24.5 points per game might get lit up at Autzen Stadium tomorrow, but an offense that's scored 41.5 per game might light up the Ducks.
7. Ohio State (4-0): The Buckeyes just keep rolling. At Purdue at night next weekend could be a fun one.
8. Oregon (4-0): See Cal above - expect a shootout.
9. Texas (4-0): Little will be known about the Longhorns until next weekend against Oklahoma.
10. Rutgers (3-0): The Scarlet Knights haven't had the toughest schedule, but at least they've won decisively.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 508-626-3809.