Thursday, August 11, 2011
EUGENE, Ore. - Thanks to NCAA investigations and a vacated BCS National Championship win in 2005, the Pac-10 has never won college football's national championship.
And much as it pains me to say it - a friend told me I will lose my Cougar Card - my hopes are now on Oregon.
Through a combination of professional ability and dumb luck, I recently found myself at a University of Oregon football media day.
Maybe my antennae were up. After all, the Ducks were second in the country last year following a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS National Championship.
I was in Eugene for a seminar and - naturally - needed to see Autzen Stadium before I left. Ducky friends have told me about the stadium and I've seen it on TV. It was time to see it in person, even if there was no football.
So out I went into a dreary, cold Eugene day, with the six-hour drive back to Walla Walla weighing on my mind.
But there were a lot of people around this imposing and beautiful stadium. People carrying notebooks and cameras, and looking suspiciously like my breed.
What else does a reporter do? I followed them. Turns out it was media day for the Oregon football team and they let me in, providing I kept my mouth shut.
And out came coach Chip Kelly, running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner and quarterback Darron Thomas.
Did I mention ESPN was there?
Yeah, well. ESPN and me.
But though Kelly et al came out brimming with cautious optimism - just eight seniors come back with starting experience this year - well, it's hard to get away from all that yucky stuff.
To recap: It's been a less-than-relaxing offseason in Eugene.
Cliff Harris was arrested for driving 118 mph in a car rented by a university employee. Kiko Alonso was arrested for criminal trespass which included falling asleep in someone else's bed, although this seems more like something a Cal Bear might do. And who can forget Texan Willie Lyles and the recruiting hot water that the Ducks are currently cooking in?
There are concerns that running back Lache Seastrunk arrived in Eugene on the heels of a $25,000 payment to recruiter Lyles. The details are murky, but if he did, that's an NCAA violation (a la Reggie Bush, USC, 2005) and it could seriously affect the Ducks' season.
Despite repeated media questions on the NCAA situation, Kelly and his players say they're focused on football.
"Our staff is fully committed to getting ready for practice this afternoon," Kelly said in response to the fourth or fifth NCAA-related question on Monday, before their first practice of the season. "We're not concerned with anything else."
And with preseason ranks of No. 3 in the country and No. 1 in the Pac-12, Kelly's hands are full.
Several key offensive players are gone, and whoever will be centering the ball to Thomas will be playing his first game in green and yellow come Sept. 3 against preseason No. 4 Louisiana State University at the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.
"They're really good," Kelly said of the Tigers. "We've looked at them on film and on tapes. You spend so much time on your opener because you know who they played last January. This is as good of football as we'll play through the conference schedule."
Hmm, you mean Washington State isn't currently in the same gene pool as LSU? Say it ain't so.
LSU, 41-24 winner of the Cotton Bowl, is no stranger to NCAA troubles, either. The Tigers are also on the NCAA watch list over their relationship with Lyles.
It's always nice to play with good company.
For all the talk of youth and off-field issues, Kelly says his team will be ready. And speedy.
"I hope the (new players) don't affect our tempo," he said. "I feel the pace we play at is an advantage, and really, our goal is to play faster than we did last year."
James, Barner and Thomas, easily one of the scariest trios in Pac-12 football, agree.
"You can always play better," James said. "It just depends on how hard you work."
Barner says they'll be hyped.
"I think the seniors this year have a different mentality as leaders," he said. "My class is more aggressive. ... We're ready to go out and play football, and once we step on the field, all the outside stuff doesn't matter. It's all football at the end of the day.
And James, a 2010-2011 Heisman Trophy candidate, hopes to return to the BCS title game.
"We have unfinished business," he said. "They sky's the limit."
With last year's last game coming as Thomas' only starting loss and fresh on all the Ducks' minds, it should be a season to watch.
"I checked and they won't let us play it again," Kelly said of the 2011 BCS National Championship loss to Auburn.
This January is fast approaching and all the Ducks say they'll be working harder in their ever-changing uniforms.
"January 10 is the best motivation I have in my life," Thomas said. "Today (the beginning of fall practice) is like Christmas. And last night was Christmas Eve."
This Coug hopes the Ducks manage to tear through the rest of the country rather like a 5-year-old does wrapping paper. It's good for the Pac-12's morale and wallets, and it would sure be nice to see a Northwest team win it all.
The Ducks seem to agree.
"We're going to continue to be Oregon and continue to play Oregon football," Barner said. "We do things how we do them."