The expectations for the Oregon Ducks in the Big Ten begin with the national title
There's no more dancing around it: If Oregon wants to stand on the national stage, it's time to earn its place.
Oregon found itself in a weird place for a few years there.
The Chip Kelly era gave the Ducks an unheralded four-year run where they were (almost) as good as anyone in the country. It raised Oregon’s profile to that of a national brand, one known for its uniform combinations, up-tempo offense and a growing list of on-campus amenities.
It also raised expectations to a point where a large faction of the fanbase echoed the sentiments of players like De’Anthony Thomas, who viewed a potential Rose Bowl berth in 2013 through a different lens than just about any other era of Oregon football.
“It’s not a big deal at all,” Thomas said then. “We already won a Rose Bowl, so I feel like it’s whatever.”
But the Ducks weren’t quite there yet, which made for an interesting marriage between the fans who thought they knew what Oregon could be with the fans who knew from where Oregon came. The contrast played out over the ensuing years, which brought the highest peaks (2014 national championship game) and unexpected valleys (the 2016 debacle) for a program trying to permanently move out of college football’s upper-middle class.
While it hasn’t always been linear, the Ducks have progressed in that pursuit since Kelly’s departure and there’s always felt like a possibility of truth when ensuing coaches like Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal spoke of Oregon and titles.
“It’s our job to win. We want to win a championship…I’ve never had the opportunity to have the kind of resources we have here,” Taggart said in Dec. 2016.
“I’m completely convinced,” Cristobal said the next year in the same room. “[Alabama taught me] every single phase of the program, from Day 1 to Day 365, and the restart button that goes with it — how to manage, how to elevate, how to adjust to every single thing that comes in the way of winning a national championship. We plan on applying a significant amount of that here at the University of Oregon.”
In 2024, Cristobal and Taggart are vilified in Eugene for the ways in which they left town. But both also recognized two key elements during their time here:
1. Oregon had a lot going for it that other programs didn’t.
2. Oregon had a lot of room to grow before it could become a program that could peak between the years it had a generational quarterback or game-changing offense.
Cristobal deserves a lot of credit for changing the philosophy and landscape of Oregon’s recruiting operation to match how other top programs were compiling talent. And to be fair to his Oregon legacy, the Ducks never got to see what his deepest roster could have done: Remember, starters Penei Sewell, Jevon Holland, Brady Breeze and Thomas Graham Jr. opted out prior to a 2020 season that saw the Ducks win the Pac-12 title and fall to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Cristobal liked to say throughout his four-year tenure that the Ducks were “just getting started.” The roster he built felt like it was just about to get there as he hopped on a plane for Miami in Dec. 2021.
Later that month, Dan Lanning said “championship” eight times in the first five minutes of his own Oregon introductory press conference.
“This program is staged to compete and to win championships,” said a coach with a 0-0 career record before talking about the work ahead.
“None of this happens over night.”
In the 755 nights since Lanning was introduced at Oregon, the Ducks are closer than they’ve been in a decade to winning a national championship.
Lanning is now 22-5 as a head coach with a New Year’s Six bowl game win and has spent the last week watching key pieces from a two-loss team announce their returns for a final ride.
Receivers Tez Johnson and Traeshon Holden are coming back. Jordan Burch and Jeffrey Bassa, stalwarts of the front-seven, are in, too. So is tight end Terrance Ferguson, tackle Ajani Cornelius and linebacker Jestin Jacobs.
Those returners will be paired with Oregon’s incoming talent from the transfer portal, which Lanning has utilized to Oregon’s benefit as well as anyone in the country the last two seasons. It’s where the Ducks got Heisman finalist Bo Nix and it’s where they got his replacement, Dillon Gabriel, who has 20 more career touchdown passes than Marcus Mariota and will be throwing to a group of receivers with more returning production than any in program history.
What he’s done and what he’s expected to do landed Lanning on College GameDay’s set Monday. Rece Davis called the 37-year-old one of the best defensive minds in college football, and they certainly wouldn’t have had the coach on the air to break down the championship game without the big wigs at ESPN viewing Lanning and the Ducks worth elevating.
But there’s also this: No coach in the country had better first-hand experience to how the Huskies could beat you.