Timing is everything, especially in college football.
Your best teams and best seasons often fail to align. Tom Osborne couldn't win a national title with Turner Gill and Sam Bradford. So many variables are outside of your control -- schedules, injuries, other teams' wins and losses, the odd bounces of a pointy, oblong ball, etc. -- that your opportunities do not always come when you think they will. The teams that win are the ones that can consistently put a high-quality product on the field and await a chance to pounce when opportunity presents itself., but he did with Brooks Berringer and an injured Tommie Frazier. Ohio State fell short with potentially the best team in the country in 1996 and 1998 and won it all with a limited offense in 2002. Oklahoma won a national title with Josh Heupel (and at the end of the season, a banged-up Josh Heupel), but not or
Twice in the last five years, Oregon has fielded an indisputably elite team; the 2010 team that made the national title game was not one of those two. The first one was 2007's squad and was done in by an injury to Dennis Dixon. The second is this year's team, which, unless LSU or Oklahoma State loses soon, might be held back by scheduling and timing.
On Saturday, before Oregon's 53-30 throttling of previously undefeated Stanford, I revisited the 2010 Stanford-Oregon game to see if the script the Ducks followed to victory could be replicated this year. After falling behind 21-3 last year in Eugene, Oregon took to the air a bit more and took some risks (like an onside kick) to get them rolling.
Saturday night, they really did not need to do either one. They just lined up and smoked Stanford. They held a Stanford offense that was averaging 7.1 yards per play, to just 5.1. The Stanford defense was allowing 5.1 yards per play; Oregon gained 6.1. The Ducks passed just 17 times, scored on touchdown drives of 20 (following an interception), 12 (fumble) and zero (pick six) yards, and completely suffocated Stanford every time the Cardinal needed yards. It was a statement game for a speedy Oregon defense (and a reminder that Stanford is a bit lacking in the speed department), and it was a reminder that, when the Oregon offense is clicking, there might not be anything more beautiful about the game of college football.
Basically, Oregon did to a top 10 Stanford team what they did to quite a few lesser teams in 2010. The 2010 team benefited perfectly from a combination of both injury luck and weak scheduling. The scheduling part wasn't intentional, obviously. The Ducks didn't know when they scheduled New Mexico that the Lobos' program would disintegrate, and they probably didn't know when scheduling Tennessee that the Vols would be on their third coach in three years. It wasn't their fault that USC and California took demonstrative steps backwards, or that almost nobody in the conference would offer a serious challenge.
Oregon rolled through Stanford at home, then watched as the path cleared to the national title game. They racked up ridiculous raw statistics that may have struggled to hold up against the test of opponent adjustments, but that didn't change the fact that they came within seconds of overtime in the national title game. If they had won, the rings wouldn't have featured a "Yeah, but they really weren't that amazing" asterisk.
Still, the 2010 squad would have struggled to keep up with either the 2007 squad or this one. In 2007, Chip Kelly's first season as offensive coordinator in Eugene, the Ducks unleashed a combination of innovation and freakish quarterback play on an unsuspecting world. Despite a slip-up against California (you can get away with losses in some years, but not in others), Oregon was in position to take home both the national title and, potentially, the Heisman until Dennis Dixon went down with a knee injury. (Despite the three-game losing streak that followed, Oregon still finished the year ranked fifth in the F/+ rankings.)
In 2011, meanwhile, Oregon is better on both sides of the ball despite a small rash of injuries. They are doing similar damage to better defenses, and despite losing a host of playmakers, the Ducks' defense is as good or better than last year's underrated unit. The Ducks are statistically better, even without the benefit of pace. Opponents are going out of their way to slow the Ducks down in this regard, and it just hasn't mattered. Oregon has still scored 41 points or better in all but two games this year.
We tend to believe in linear growth. A new coach takes over, and he makes his team a little better, and a little better, and when a big group of special players hits their senior season, it all comes together. In real life, however, it doesn't necessarily work like that. Tim Tebow, for instance, won a Heisman as a sophomore, a national title as a junior, and neither as a senior (when he was expected to win both). Your opportunities come when they come, not when you think the script will deliver them.
Oregon may be a better team in 2011, but they now must wait to see if Oklahoma State will lose to either Iowa State (Tessitore magic!) or Oklahoma, or if LSU will lose to Arkansas or Georgia. They must navigate through some tricky computer and poll rankings to position themselves ahead of either (or both) Alabama and Oklahoma. The schedule that aligned perfectly last season, offered up a resurgent, dominant LSU squad in the opener, and even though the Ducks proved more in losing to LSU than they did in most of last year's wins, they are now bystanders to the national title process. Such is life in the world of just a two-team playoff.