NCAA 13 was released yesterday. Among the bevy on new features in the game, one that is most heavily promoted is the new "Heisman" mode, where you can play as one of several preview Heisman winners. Oregon's relationship to the Heisman has been a rocky one. The lack of a Heisman winner is the one accomplshment that Oregon State can hold over our heads. We've had finalists (Joey Harrington and LaMichael James), players who should have won but didn't (Harrington), players who had it all but wrapped up, only to get injured late (Dennis Dixon). But we've never had somebody win it, though hopefully Kenjon Barner or DeAnthony Thomas can change that this year.
However, in following through with the concept of NCAA 13 this year, which Heisman winner would I most like to see don an Oregon uniform? Its a interesting question, with many issues to ponder in the process. If we have Cam Newton in 2010 instead of Auburn, we win the national championship. Having Reggie Bush in '05 gives us a much better shot at the Pac-10 championship. However, in both cases, the required payment probably wouldn't have been good for the program long term. Choosing a player from the suffering is an interesting proposition, though the net effect is likely to change the team from really bad to simply mediocre. We don't want a Weinke or a Crouch when we had Joey. These are Heisman winners, any of them would have made our team better. But I want a player in a situation that would have been program changing. This led me to Carson Palmer in 2002.
Oregon came into the 2002 season with a world of momentum having finshed #2 and blowing Colorado out of the Fiesta Bowl the year before. The Ducks lost a lot of notable players from that 2001 squad, notably Harringon, RB Maurice Morris, and CBs Steve Smith and Rashad Bauman. However, Oregon was thought to have the personnel to make up for it, with Onterrio Smith taking over the lead at RB and the highly touted Jason Fife taking over for Harrington at QB. Keenan Howry and Samie Parker were also returning, offering Fife star level receivers to throw to. The Ducks' #15 preseason ranking was affirmation that the college football world was taking them very seriously heading into that season.
Early on, Oregon affirmed the confidence bestowed upon them, winning their first six games. This included a season-opening blowout of Mississippi State, and winning the first two conference games--on the road--against Arizona and UCLA. Smith looked a future NFL superstar and Fife looked to be adjusting well--reaching the halfway point of the season ranked 3rd in the nation in passing efficiency. Oregon would climb to #6 in the polls headed into the week seven showdown with Arizona State. And that's where the wheels fell off.
The game would expose three major problems that would go on to define that season. The first was the defense, which gave up over 500 yards passing and started a three year trend of awful secondary play that plagued the Ducks. The other was the play of Fife, especially in late game situations. Driving for the winning score, Fife was intercepted to seal the game for the Sun Devils. The next week, the defense was equally awful, giving up 448 yards through the air, while Fife was intercepted twice and went 20-45 as the Ducks blew a halftime lead and lost by 11. The Ducks would recover to beat Stanford, but had another close loss at #5 Washington State. After that, the wheels came off, and the Ducks ended the season with three straight blowout losses, against Washington, Oregon State, and Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl.
I don't want to blame the entirety of that season on Fife. The defense was quite bad, and seeing opponents score in the 30s and 40s regularly would have been tough for any offense to overcome consistently. However, Fife's 51.8% completion percentage doesn't do justice to how bad his play was at the end of the year, because he was among the nation's most efficient passers to start the season. Oregon had chances to win several games late, and those chances always seemed to end in a game killing turnover. While under Harrington's leadership, you knew the team was going to find a way to rally, the '02 through '04 Oregon teams were hampered by a lack of leadership, and the thought was always that the team would fall apart.
USC under Palmer was the opposite of Oregon that season. In a season that started with very close games in wins over Auburn and Cal, and losses to Kansas State and Washington State, USC consistently got better offensively, ending the season with three straight blowout of ranked teams in #25 UCLA, #7 Notre Dame, and #3 Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Unlike with Oregon, Palmer's leadership helped USC weather those close games, and his improvement turned that team into a juggernaut.
If we change history and put Palmer on that Oregon team, maybe they win a couple of the winnable games against USC, Arizona State, and Washington State. They don't regress to getting blown out against relatively mediocre Washington or Oregon State teams. They had a decent shot of fulfilling the promise of a 3rd straight top ten finish. And while not having Palmer wouldn't have elimiinated USC's rise under Pete Carroll, Oregon being able to build on the momentum and being able to recruit after another stellar season could have tipped a few more recruits northward, making the conference competitive at the top instead of slowing Oregon's rise to a national program to the end of the decade. As much fun as it would be to see a Bo Jackson or a Herschel Walker in an Oregon uniform, Palmer would have had a chance to leave a much longer lasting legacy.
This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.
EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EASPORTS)