Bud Withers has a piece in the Seattle Times today that's based on what is already one of the central questions of this college football season nationally:
It's as if the Ducks have been playing virtual football. How good are they? Good enough to fend off, say, an unbeaten West Virginia team (No. 5) in the BCS rankings? Good enough to survive an unbeaten Notre Dame (No. 7) team playing a tough schedule?
And, ultimately, good enough to do away with an old rap that says they aren't stout enough to hang with the SEC?
I've heard a few national pundits suggest that this is the year Oregon beats some of those teams, but I've also heard a lot of this same story. Not just if Oregon can beat those teams, but if Oregon can 'hang' with them.
This is the new version last year's "Chip Kelly can't win the big one," which, of course, you no longer hear after the Ducks beat Wisconsin in last season's Rose Bowl. Now, the narrative has shifted to "Chip Kelly vs. the SEC," on the premise that Oregon runs some kind of Voodoo magic that works on 'soft' Pac-12 teams, but not in real, big boy football.
Now, with the heights that Oregon has reached under Chip Kelly, the Ducks are going to face questions until they win the ultimate prize of a national championship. But there is a strong sentiment that it has been proven that Oregon doesn't belong in the same class with the SEC elite. Well, lets see what the evidence actually says.
Chip Kelly has played three games against SEC opponents, with a record of 1-2. In 2010, Oregon went into Knoxville to face a middling Tennessee team, and did what Oregon does to pretty much every middling team they play, which is smash them into bits. The Ducks won 48-13. So lets not pretend that there is something special about the entire SEC. They have a lot of average to bad teams, and Oregon does the same thing to them that they do to all average and bad teams.
Really, we are looking at a sample size of two. The 2010 National Championship Game vs. Auburn, and last year's season opener vs. LSU.
In the Auburn game, Oregon lost on a last second field goal, 22-19. The three points was Auburn's second smallest margin of the year, behind at one-point win at Tuscaloosa. Any number of plays could have swung that game. Oregon lost, yes, but the claim cannot be made that Oregon didn't 'hang' with them.
Now we look at the Oregon-LSU game from last season, which Oregon lost 40-27. Oregon actually held LSU to under 300 yards, the 40 points coming on turnovers. Oregon had a freshman center playing his first game against LSU's defensive line, and a freshman in De'Anthony Thomas who was responsible for two of the turnovers. However, Oregon posted the most points of anyone against LSU last season, and the second most yards behind West Virginia. Again, it was the second closest margin for LSU last season, the only one closer being a three point victory against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
So what are realistic expectations for the national media to have for Oregon against the elite of the SEC? Is the expectation that Oregon will put up 550 yards and 40 points like they do against most teams they play? In these two games, Oregon faced teams who went a combined 27-1. Nobody is going to put up those kind of numbers, and it shouldn't be an indictment of the Ducks' system that they didn't. The evidence has shown that the Ducks have 'hung' just fine with the elite of the SEC. Even mighty Alabama lost to both of those teams, at home no less, and nobody questions whether they can 'hang' with the SEC. The evidence suggest that if the Ducks were in the SEC, they would do the same things Alabama and LSU do--smash the bad teams, and suffer 1-2 losses a year when they play the other heavyweights.
Its a long way until the national title game. Its possible, likely even, that Oregon slips up and doesn't make it. But if they do, and they face an SEC team when they get there, there is little to suggest that Oregon doesn't belong on the same field. In fact, there is every reason to believe that it would be another close game that could swing either way.
Of course, I just hope that the players are focusing on Arizona State this Thursday.