Kirby was right: Oregon — and everyone else — needs better players
Oregon got thumped by the best team in college football history -- just like everyone else did.
Remember 49-3 back in September?
Oregon fans should, but after what happened to TCU Monday night, the fans in the green jerseys might just be the only ones. Georgia beat the Horned Frogs 65-7 in a
non-conference matchup against an FCS opponent national championship game that was every bit as dominating as it was five months ago when Oregon flew into Atlanta and got steamrolled by one of the best defenses it’ll ever play, a tight end who throws defenders away like Metal Mario and a veteran quarterback in Stetson Bennett who people pretend is some cunning game-manager instead of the Heisman-caliber assassin he’s become.
But Monday Georgia did that to TCU in the final game of the year. It was the largest margin of victory in any bowl game in history.
So Oregon gets off the hook, in a way. The nation knew Georgia was great in September. The nation knows Georgia is great in January. It’s been two years of this and you could see it in Nick Saban’s face during halftime of the ESPN broadcast when Dave Pollack said “Georgia has taken over college football.” The best coach in the sport’s history didn’t look pleased. He also couldn’t muster an argument.
Good luck everyone else. The Dawgs are playing a different game.
And it makes you realize Kirby Smart was right back in September when he said Dan Lanning’s Oregon roster, simply, wasn’t good enough. It seemed a little brazen at the time and ruffled a few feathers locally, but Georgia’s coach’s no-punches pulled analysis still rings true today.
“[Lanning] knows we have better players,” Smart said. “He’ll never say it, but he knows we’ve got better players.”
Lanning, of course, defended his own roster later in the week saying, “I’m taking our team. I’m taking our players. We have to do a better job as coaches of coaching our guys…” and that’s not false, but also the Ducks could have had Saban on the sideline, Chip Kelly calling plays and Bear Bryant up in the box and the game still would have been over by halftime.
I was on the phone with former Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell during the half. He coached in a pair of national title games with Oregon teams that never cracked the top 10 in national recruiting rankings. They had talent, certainly — even a Heisman-winning quarterback. But those Oregon teams were often filled with players who fit a system. That might still win some games in 2023, but it’s barely a fly on the windshield to a team like Georgia.
“There’s a difference in the quality of player,” Campbell said. “The talent shows up — especially in games like this. A team like Georgia, they can move guys around. They have such great athletes that they can move them how they want and do whatever they want.”
Georgia had 15 5-stars on its roster this season. Oregon, the seventh-most talented team in the country per 247, has 15 5-stars in the entire history of the program. If you ever wonder why Lanning assembled a coaching staff whose strength leans heavier on talent acquisition than it does on developing the players in the building, that’s your answer. Even this recruiting cycle as Lanning and the Ducks sit with a class that ranks among the best in Oregon history and warranted a stogie-filled tweet from the coach, the talent gap is only widening between them and the team that smoked cigars at SoFi Stadium Monday.
I don’t know how you overcome that.
Now, this isn’t to suggest the Ducks throw in the towel next year. In fact, watching Monday’s game left me feeling like the Ducks were actually closer to playing in the national championship game this season than any of us really thought. TCU? Give me a healthy Bo Nix and that Oregon team that rattled off eight consecutive wins after Week 1 while averaging 48 points per game. In fact, I think Nix is a national championship-caliber quarterback. He’s a savvy veteran like Bennett, he improved throwing down field this season and has the foot speed that is now required to not get flattened by 300-pound defensive linemen who run like gazelles. Nix cut down on his mistakes in 2022, he has a future NFL receiver in Troy Franklin to throw to and Bucky Irving reminds me more of LaMichael James’ than any running back who’s come after the soon-to-be College Football Hall of Famer.
But that’s just one side of the ball.
Oregon’s defense only got worse as the season went on in 2022 and is losing its three best players in Christian Gonzalez (cornerback), Bennet Williams (safety) and Noah Sewell (linebacker). Sewell, the lone five-star of the trio, just had the worst season of his career while he and fellow five-star linebacker Justin Flowe often looked lost in Lanning/Tosh Lupoi’s defense. The Ducks will seek to replace that level of talent through the transfer portal/recruiting, but, again, they’re fighting the likes of Georgia and Alabama now for the type of players needed to contend. And if a player doesn’t work for Georgia, it generally doesn’t have to look past its two-deep to find another.
Right now the Ducks feel like CJ McCollum while Georgia’s out there windmill dunking and chasing down shots on the other end like prime LeBron.
And there’s nothing wrong with CJ McCollum. He can be really fun to watch. But with the moves Oregon has made over the years — the firing of the entire 2016 staff; the millions of dollars invested in facility upgrades — the goal is to chase rings, not be eliminated in the first round.
The Ducks will contend for a playoff spot in 2023. With an upgrade at quarterback, I think Oregon State will, too. And with the playoffs expanding to 12 teams in 2024, the days of the 2016 Huskies team breaking out a bottle of Washington Merlot to celebrate being the last Pac-12 team to crack the playoff seem numbered.
"I think it’s great,” Lanning said last year of expansion. “It’s great to have opportunities to go compete at the end of the year and it makes things important.”
The playoff — and conceivably a postseason run — feels closer now for the Ducks than it has since Marcus Mariota’s days. Strangely enough though, that elusive first national title seems as far away as ever.
Because while this Georgia team, the one that should go down as the best in the history of this game, is going to lose its own helping of players to the NFL, this is college football.
And in college football, the best teams get first pick of the best players.
— Tyson Alger
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Not enough focus on just how poorly the Ducks performed in 2/3 of the game. Yes, Nix’s skills and Dillingham’s schemes gave us consistent high level offense. But, special teams and defense were unwatchable. It was painful. And, no one on the outside is putting enough emphasis on that. No one knows what’s being said inside the program, but those two coordinators should be gone. Coaching is demonstrated by improvement over the season. We saw zero improvement from game one to game 13.
Tonight was just one game, just like the one in September. GA barely beat tOSU just last week. The same tOSU that lost to Michigan, that lost to TCU. What you say about talent being important now was true 30 years ago, with the same dynamic in play - haves and have nots.
But the talent pool and talent acquisition are way different now, as you know. The portal has changed everything. Coaches no longer need to win the recruiting battle to win the recruiting war. That kid you just missed out on could be back in a year.
College football has gotten a lot more interesting - and competitive - than I think your column takes into account. When 12 teams get access to the playoff it's going to be off-the-charts good. Big upsets will happen. Teams we wrote off will march through the playoffs.
It's gonna be sweet.