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A New Kind of Pressure

Darron Thomas wears the Ducks' AP ranking on his chest as he throws a pass against New Mexico.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Darron Thomas wears the Ducks' AP ranking on his chest as he throws a pass against New Mexico. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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With Oregon assuming the #1 ranking in the human polls for the first time in school history, a new challenge awaits our football program.  We have seen Chip Kelly show his leadership in times of trouble, leading the team to a Rose Bowl after the Blount distraction, and keeping the team together and dangerous after a tumultuous offseason.  But how will this team carry itself in a time of unprecedented success?

It's easy to get distracted when spotlights are shining on you.  We saw it in 2007, with eleven teams (including Oregon) losing while ranked in the top 2.  We saw it on Saturday, with Ohio State coming out flat and not being able to recover, albiet to a focused and talented Wisconsin team playing at home.  Even a team that says they aren't focused on rankings can get caught up in the hype.  Consequently, never in the brief history of Chip Kelly as a head coach has his mantra of "Win the Day" been so apt.  Rankings mean nothing.  It's just the team and the day.  Win it, and you're the best.  Fail to win it, and you work harder tomorrow to win that day.  Win the Day comes with a short memory and a narrow attention span.  It was the right move to close practices last week, and opening them back up this week could prove to be an unnecessary distraction.  Coach Kelly has been as gracious as his personality allows with the media, but eliminating a media presence is not a means of secrecy, but a simplification of operations. 

We know how the #1 team lives from being on the other side.  We know how it feels to be the spunky underdog with a puncher's chance of winning.  The week leading up to a #1 matchup, the other team gears up, works harder.  The fans pack the stadium and cheer louder than they ever have.  A win over a top-ranked opponent is the paramount for any team; it means you can compete with any team in the country, putting hope and excitement in the minds of team, campus, and alumni.  It can be a signature win that propels a team to overachieve that season, and a program to build and improve long-term.  This UCLA team coming to town Thursday night has already embarrassed a talented-if-inconsistent Texas team in their own building.  If the Ducks rest on their laurels, they can and will get beat.  

 How does a team succeed as the favorite?  By remembering what you did to succeed, and not wavering from those ideals.  These last two Duck teams have been free of ego, boasting, and concerning themselves with things outside their control.    Let's keep it that way.  John Wooden once said, "You can't let praise or criticism get to you. It's a weakness to get caught up in either one."  The Ducks have shown their ability to tune out criticism.  Praise, you're next.