Oregon looked bored, sloppy, passive, and undisciplined in their 42-16 loss to Arizona, and if you replace the Wildcats with any other Pac-12 team out on that Arizona Stadium field on Saturday afternoon, there would have been thousands of confused Arizona fans as to why Oregon and Washington State were playing a game in their stadium. Of all the games I've seen Oregon play, that was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of them.
This is, by NO means whatsoever, a reason to panic.
Oregon football lost a game in a way that Duck fans haven't seen in a half-decade. There was no late, furious comeback that came up short. There was no justification for the loss based on the opposing talent level. This was a game that Oregon just didn't show up for. That just wasn't something that happened with Chip Kelly as head coach. And it wasn't something that happened for the first ten games of Mark Helfrich's tenure either. Things are going wrong for Oregon right now, but this game isn't an indicator of anything.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls are considered by many to be the greatest NBA team of all time. They went 72-10, won their first 37 home games of the season, and went 15-3 in the playoffs to win the NBA championship. During that season, they lost a road game to the Toronto Raptors, in their first year as a franchise and sporting a 17-48 record at the time. What did this game mean for the long term legacy of the Chicago Bulls? Nothing whatsoever. Sports are weird sometimes, and good teams lose games to bad teams. The difference is, the Bulls could afford to lose a game to Toronto, and still play for a championship. Oregon is not afforded that luxury, because college football is the most unforgiving sport in existence. To demonstrate this, we merely have to look back two years.
- The 2011 UConn Huskies entered the Big East conference basketball tournament with a 9-9 conference record. They would win their next 11 games to capture a national championship. If a college football team plays .500 ball in their conference, they're playing a meaningless bowl game on December 27th, and watching the national title proceedings at home.
- That same year, the St. Louis Cardinals finished second in the National League Central with a 90-72 record. They earned a playoff spot via the Wild Card, played three straight close playoff series, and won the world championship with an 11-7 playoff record. Their total record for the year? 101-79, a .561 winning percentage. Translate that to a 13 or 14 game college football season, and it's 7-8 wins vs. 6 losses. And they won a championship.
- And also in 2011, the New York Giants finished their regular season with a 9-7 record, made the playoffs, and went on to win a Super Bowl title. That'd be like a 7-5 college football team making the playoffs, catching fire, and winning a national championship. Except there isn't any playoffs. Conversely, if Oregon were an NFL team, a 9-2 record in November would put them among the top 5 teams in the country, and in no danger of losing their shot at playing for a championship.
All these examples show why everything in college football is magnified. An 8-4 record is considered a failure by some college football teams, but winning 2/3 of your games in the NBA, MLB, or NHL puts you among the game's elite. Ohio State is probably going to win all of its games for the second straight season, and probably won't get a chance to play for a title. Fresno State and Northern Illinois will probably win all their games, and they were out of title contention before the season even began. On a fundamental level, this game isn't fair. And there isn't a whole lot to be done about it, with 126 teams at the FBS level competing in America's most punishing major sport. It's as subjective as figure skating, and we ask kids who can't order a drink at a bar to never lose focus for a whole season, all while attending school and trying to figure out what they'll do for the rest of their lives if their knee gives out, or their 40 time isn't fast enough.
Many of you are familiar with the phrase, "Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you'll land amongst the stars." It's an inane saying, and any astronomer could tell an infinite number of things wrong with it, but it's nonetheless a thing people say as motivation. In college football, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you land with a thud amongst a sea of fire-engine red in Tucson, Arizona. But the end of an era? Please. Oregon lost one game, playing a fickle and stupid sport. They get to do it again next
Saturday Friday, playing for less than they were last Saturday. But this is still one of the best football teams in the country. They won't have a national championship to show for their work, but neither will 99.2% of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Oregon is no longer playing for the "Crystal Football or Bust" fans. They're playing for themselves, in a rivalry game with meaning. Oregon State loves to kick Oregon when they're down; their last three wins ('04, '06, and '07) have come under such a circumstance. But free of politics, posturing, and pressure, Oregon can just get back to playing fun football. And in a weird and unfair sport, that's all any of us can ask for.