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For the Oregon Ducks, The Sun Also Rises

The sun has risen on a program that had the ominous feeling of their window to win a national championship begin to close.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

4 Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains forever.

5 The sun rises and the sun sets,

and hurries back to where it rises.

6 The wind blows to the south

and turns to the north;

round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

7 All streams flow into the sea,

yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,

there they return again.

-Ecclesiastes Chapter 1

Every year springs new hopes for the the institutions in one’s history. While some school stars have departed to the NFL or post-graduate life, others are ready to take their place. “The returning players are more experienced than before and have had more time to develop to be better than the guys who just graduated,” says every fan ever. “These guys have put in a lot of work this offseason and should be stronger and the new defensive coordinator is going to be more aggressive this year,” follows closely after.

For Duck football fans this set of typical unfounded optimism that occurred before the last preseason is not sprouting from the same conditions as the this year. The typical disappointment every team experiences, except for a few teams, leads to some small optimism during the spring before irrational reasoning on a favorite team’s outlook for the year begins to take hold. This type of thinking happens every offseason, and for the teams that can’t punch through the ceiling the offseason can feel like Sisyphus, who manages to push a boulder up the hill only to watch the boulder roll down once again as the season is nearing its end.

Teams are always rising and falling in America. Who would have thought that two teams only one and three years removed from the college football playoffs would be near the cellars of their conferences? While Michigan State decided to retain its head coach that built the team to its current form, Oregon decided to part ways with not just head coach Mark Helfrich but the entire staff that had dedicated decades to bringing the Ducks from the gutter of the PAC-10 to multiple rose bowl wins and national title game appearances. Alas, it appears that college football over the course of many seasons, may have passed the coaching staff by.

'How did you go bankrupt?' Bill asked.

'Two ways,' Mike said. 'Gradually and then suddenly.' -The Sun Also Rises

The cracks began to show in 2015. No replacement was ready at quarterback and the holes that Marcus Mariota covered were fully realized a few games into the season. The defense was having troubles replacing the stars that had recently departed who seemed to be able to cover some of the deficiencies in strategy and execution amongst some of the other players on the field. In 2016 the wheels came off and it wasn’t until the after the season that fans had found out that the the small tear in the fabric that began once Chip Kelly had left had fully ripped open. The vacuum of leadership from seniors, and the lack of transformational leadership at the top, led players to not being accountable to each other and with such a large group underperforming there wasn’t enough competition to really push anybody to try harder. The flaws of the past have been well documented so there is no need to dive further here, and the constant re-digging of past failures have been revisited ad nauseum to the point of resembling a scorned lover who just needs to move on.

The true question for Oregon football at this point is similar to that of the Ship of Theseus. Imagine if you have the ship of Theseus. Over the course of the ship’s lifetime component parts must be replaced as needs arise. After a long enough period of time every part of the original ship will have been replaced. Is this ship that you currently have still the Theseus? Or is it a completely different ship because every single part is different than when you first got the ship? What if you had taken every component part off the ship and rebuilt the ship piece by piece next to it. Is the boat that was built from the original ship as it was being replaced now the Theseus or is a new ship entirely?

Every component part, except for the players has been changed for the program. There are all new football coaches, there is a new strength and conditioning coach, there is a new attitude, new slogan, and new signs all over Autzen Stadium. Can there truly be any real rebuilding on a team whose structure is entirely new?

'Oh, Jake,' Brett said, 'we could have had such a damned good time together.'

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

'Yes,' I said. 'Isn’t it pretty to think so?' -ibid

A lot needs to go right for a team to win a conference championship. And everything has to go right for a team to win a national championship. In 2013 Auburn needed the most absurd sets of plays that college football has witnessed in order to make it to the national title game against Florida State. LSU needed the wildest season in college football in order to make it to the national championship where they beat Ohio State. Teams like Alabama have been able to fully control their own destiny through something that is a secret to nobody: the Jimmy’s and Joe’s are maybe more important than the X’s and O’s. There are plenty of ways to mitigate the possibilities of chance and in the past the Ducks may not have been set up to do many of them. When one gets to the championship levels of football less things are up to chance. Maybe we had to rely too much on chance in the past for the success we had and maybe in hindsight we are thinking we were a lot closer to those championships than we actually were.

The coaches and their strategies seem perfectly tuned for the modern college football landscape. They know full well that it is now a necessary condition for a national championship team to be a top recruiter every year. Injuries happen and it is a lot easier to deal with them when a 4-star player is stepping in to replace them. STars leave and it is a lot easier when there is another guy who is just as talented who is going to fill the spot. Teams like Alabama and Clemson recruit like hell and that’s why they leave as few things up to chance as any other team in college football.

Teams that were outmatched by size went to speed. The same strategies that Chip Kelly used that the team was still leaning on were no longer the innovative strategies that wrecked even the most prepared defenses. Now, the tempo, spread, and speed have been countered. The spread was designed to help simplify the game and that simplification has gone all the way back to the most fundamental of positions. The trenches are once again undoubtedly where games are won and lost. Coaches like Cristobal and Salave’a were brought in to recruit the guys in the trenches that have strength and size and then coach them to dominate. Championship teams have unbelievable lines that can expose flaws in opposing teams and at this point there is simply no way around it like there was even five years ago. On defense the modern offenses have required defensive backs to play on an island and play man-to-man nearly every down so that the front seven can focus on fighting the war in the trenches. Leavitt and his assistants were brought in to recruit guys who can play in space, on an island, and coach them to lock down opposing players and entire parts of offenses.

“You ought to dream. All our biggest businessmen have been dreamers.” -ibid

In Taggart’s first day he talked about what he thought Oregon could be: national champions. He would not accept the dogmas surrounding the program that many fans, like myself, had come to accept as reality. Based on what we’ve seen of him so far and the player interviews he is a transformational leader. He’s one that doesn’t leave it up to the players to assume their own leadership opportunities. He’s one that has demanded a certain level of effort based on the open disclosure that he is trying to recruit people every year to take the starting spot of a player that is already on the team.

Taggart has done and said all the right things so far, with a few speed bumps along the way, has rekindled optimism and excitement as the run rises again on the Oregon Ducks heading into the 2017 college football season. The execution has yet to be determined and everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, but for now:

“The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright and inclined to blur at the edges.” -ibid

“This is a hell of dull talk...How about some of that champagne?” -ibid