The day before the Michigan State-Oregon showdown in Autzen Stadium, I'm nervous. Some might say I'm a pessimist, but like Rustin Cohle, I consider myself a realist. I'm nervous because Michigan State fits the archetype of a buffet buster on both lines of scrimmage who have posed problems for Oregon. I'm nervous because Oregon hasn't beat a pedigree of a team like Michigan State in an uncomfortably long time. Two years in college football might as well be an eternity.
In a vacuum this is just a football game. Two teams are playing against each other that have practiced the same amount of time, play by the same rules, and have dealt with roughly similar turnover. What makes this game so important is the implied perception and the meaning attached to it by people who don't have a part in determining the outcome. What we see Saturday on top of being a football game is a competition between ideals. That's what the media would like us to believe at least.
The truth of what we'll learn after Saturday's game is that either the 2014 Spartans or the 2014 Ducks is better than the other. We won't know if the spread is a better option or if Helfrich can get the job done or if MSU has really devised the best defensive strategy since Bear Bryant became head coach at Alabama.
The fallout of this game will really direct the narrative for the rest of the season. Michigan State is the Big Ten's prime candidate to make the playoffs. If the Spartans lose then the Big Ten is going to be questioned for the rest of the year. If Oregon loses and then goes on to win the PAC-12 then the validity of the PAC-12 comes into question. This isn't just a battle between Oregon and Michigan State. It is a battle between the Big-10 and PAC-12 with more repercussions in the history of the sport. It's not a Rose Bowl that's a glorified exhibition game, this game will impact the future of the college football playoffs.
To be honest, I don't know if I can handle another offseason where the narrative around Oregon is that they aren't tough enough. Oregon ran over and through Stanford and USC in 2010. So I'm tired of hearing this crap about Oregon not having it or the spread not being the answer, as if Florida and Auburn didn't embarrass most teams and all-star defenses with the spread in their national championship seasons. The narratives may seem dumb and ill-educated, and for the most part they are, but that doesn't make it any more bearable in the months of April and June when predictions and hyperbole about the season run rampant.
Most of all, I want Oregon to show me that we have fixed the problems and that the emphasis on speed hasn't scarified size. Really, I need to know that Oregon doesn't' have to make concessions to win. They don't have to pick between size and speed. Oregon can pick both because they are a top dog in the sport. The honest truth is that we can say we're good to go and have solved the problems, but the performance against South Dakota doesn't show that we have. Power running is still a threat of the worst kinds; the death by a thousand wounds kind.
Oregon is a team that has challenged the norm and accepted traditions of practices in college football. Their argument for why people say they can't do things has always been, "Well, look at our results." The spead won't work? Watch the Ducks use the offense break records in yards per game. The spread's a gimmick that can be figured out? Years after adopting the spread the Ducks are still dominating. The Ducks defense isn't good enough? I can point to so many games where the defense was the difference it doesn't make sense to list specifics.
Can the Ducks win the whole thing and take their strategy and personell into every game and win? That's the question that still has to be answered. Leaving no doubt about what the truth is, is really the only route to go. As innovators in the sport the Ducks will always be questioned because people are afraid of change and the established powers don't want to be disrupted by the new ways of doing things. What I want to see Saturday is a performance that carries over to every argument and gives confidence when discussing Oregon against bigger teams and seemingly impenetrable defensive schemes. I want a performance against a marquee opponent that I can always refer to when someone says Oregon can't beat a top team. I want the Ducks to play and execute at the level I know they're capable of.