Remember the last time ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to Eugene?
It was Sept. 6, 2014. No. 3 Oregon against No. 7 Michigan State. Lee Corso wore the Duck head, Marcus Mariota flipped a pass to Royce Freeman and the home team rolled 46-27.
Funny how four years can feel like a lifetime.
ESPN is back in town for this week’s game against Stanford, and the popular narrative is that the Ducks are emerging from the college football wilderness. Having Corso and Co. on campus feels like an endorsement that Oregon matters again, that all the painful rebuilding of the past three years hasn’t been a waste.
“It’s why you come to Oregon, to have an opportunity like this,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “We told the players yesterday, ‘Look, we’ve created this opportunity for ourselves by playing good football’.”
Without disagreeing too strenuously, I’d point out that this premise is based more on hope than on facts. Yes, the Ducks earned this spotlight by getting back in the top 25 and developing a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. But does that mean they deserve to be admitted back into college football's upper echelon?
In the words of someone: Not so fast, my friend.
The 2018 Ducks are an intriguing story, with hometown kid Justin Herbert slinging passes and Cristobal as the first Cuban-American head coach at a Power 5 school. You can see why ESPN would take a shine to a team like that. But when you look at how they got here, nothing about Oregon's path says the Ducks have turned a corner.
Oregon is 14-14 since the start of 2016 and 1-5 against teams ranked in the top 25. The 14 victories include wins against UC Davis, Southern Utah, Wyoming, Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. Against teams from the Power 5, the Ducks are 8-13 in their last 21 games.
Oregon’s best wins of the past two seasons came against Utah: In 2016 when the Utes were ranked No. 12, and last year at home when the Utes were headed for a 7-6 season. Counting those two victories, Oregon is 4-11 in its past 15 games against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record.
I review those painful facts to say that Oregon’s return to prominence is, at this point, very much a theoretical one. You can argue that the Ducks would have a few more marquee wins if Justin Herbert hadn’t broken his collarbone last season, or that they’re headed for big things based on what they did against Bowling Green and Portland State. But no matter how you build the case, there’s not a lot of meat to back it up.
Before anyone pins this column to a bulletin board, I want to be clear: I have no problem with ESPN propping up Oregon-Stanford as a clash of two heavyweights. I picked the Ducks to win nine games this year, and though I might revise that prediction down a notch or two based on what I saw in nonconference play, I still think Oregon is a good team.
Besides, it’s not like “College GameDay” is the Nobel Prize of football or anything. It’s a goofy pregame show where people dress up in funny hats. It’s as much about highlighting great settings as it is about highlighting great teams, and Oregon checks at least one of those boxes if not both.
I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon here, I promise. I just want to see the Ducks beat a good team before I declare them a national story again.
Saturday seems like their chance, right? Stanford comes in ranked No. 7, with a Heisman candidate at running back, a big-play threat at wide receiver and a nasty defense. Beating the Cardinal would be a statement win for Cristobal and a sign that Oregon football has its mojo back.
If everything we’ve heard about Cristobal’s philosophy is correct, this is where it should show up. Everything Oregon has been doing for the past nine months — the weight room, the offseason program, the emphasis in recruiting — is aimed at preparing the Ducks to compete with a team like Stanford.
“You need to meet a team like this head-on,” Cristobal said. “You have to play your best football.”
Oregon should know as well as anyone that college football is fickle. Four years ago, the Ducks were showing up on the cover of Sports Illustrated and getting the red carpet treatment from ESPN. Two years later, they basically dropped off the map.
Not every program comes back from that. Thanks to Herbert, ESPN and a friendly nonconference schedule, the Ducks have a chance.
What they do with it is up to them.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.