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September 10, 2010

Mailbag: Could this finally be Oregon's year?

Postgame celebrations at Oregon's Autzen Stadium have become quite common.

The Ducks have posted 15 winning records over the past 16 seasons. Five times this decade, they had seasons with double-digit victory totals. But it wasn't always that way.

In the '70s the Ducks endured a six-year period in which they managed only 15 wins. They waited 27 years between bowl appearances in 1963 and 1990.

And even in victory, the Ducks often were disappointed. They finished 11-1 in 2001, but were denied a shot at Miami in the BCS national championship game. Instead, Nebraska played for the championship even though the Huskers didn't even win the Big 12 North and were pummeled by Colorado 62-36 in the regular-season finale.

Oregon then blew out Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yet that season wasn't as disappointing as 2007. That year, the Ducks were 8-1, ranked second in the nation and appeared bound for the championship game. But quarterback Dennis Dixon, the leading contender for the Heisman, wrecked his knee and the Ducks lost three of their last four games.

That magical season always seems just out of Ducks' grasp.

Could it finally come this year? That's a topic for this week's mailbag.

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Finally the year?

With Oregon's win last weekend, why is no one talking about Oregon and the possibility of a magical season? Before Jeremiah Masoli left, the Ducks were regarded as a top-five team.
Thomas in Fayetteville, N.C.

The Ducks' 72-0 season-opening victory over New Mexico was impressive, but keep it in perspective.

New Mexico was 1-11 last season and ranked 113th in the nation in scoring defense, so Oregon was expected to post a decisive victory. A blowout of New Mexico doesn't necessarily signal an impending championship season. After all, Tulsa beat the Lobos 44-10 last season but finished 5-7.

That said, Oregon is ranked No. 7. That in itself is a strong indicator that this could be a magical season in Eugene.

The Ducks have explosive running backs in LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, a proven, experienced offensive line, a solid group of receivers and an experienced defense.

Yet there was understandable apprehension after Masoli was suspended, then dismissed from the team during the offseason. That left the Ducks going from a potential Heisman candidate to a little-used replacement at the most important position.

But third-year sophomore Darron Thomas, who beat out senior Nate Costa for the starting quarterback job, is a terrific athlete who may be Masoli's equal as a runner. As a freshman two years ago, he was pressed into emergency duty because of injury and passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns while nearly leading the Ducks to a come-from-behind victory over Boise State.

Oregon was considered a bona-fide national championship contender before Masoli's departure and still could be. But it has to prove it against better competition than New Mexico.

Saturday, the Ducks face Tennessee, which will poses a much greater challenge than New Mexico did. A convincing victory in Knoxville would further prove that Oregon is a serious national championship contender.

Bigger BCS?

On the long shot that the Mountain West Conference becomes an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl, will the BCS add another bowl, like the Cotton Bowl?
Shane in Fort Collins, Colo.

The Cotton Bowl once was included, along with the Rose, Orange and Sugar, as one of the four major bowls. But that was before the Southwest Conference (whose champion hosted the Cotton Bowl) weakened, then collapsed. The weather also was a factor in its diminished role.

But now that the game is played at plush Dallas Cowboys Stadium, which may be the finest football facility in the country, there is some talk (and hope among Cotton Bowl officials) that it eventually will be added to the BCS roster and put into the rotation for the national championship game.

Really, it makes sense. The Big 12 has lamented not having a BCS bowl within its footprint. And if you divided the country into five parts, the Cotton Bowl would fit into an area where there isn't currently a BCS game.

The Rose Bowl is in California, the Fiesta Bowl is in Arizona, the Sugar Bowl is in New Orleans and the Orange Bowl in Florida. The Cotton would fit right in the middle of that.

Should the MWC be given AQ status -- which I believe it currently deserves but may not after Utah and BYU leave -- that could boost the Cotton's chances of regaining its status as a major bowl game.

But nothing is assured. As it is, there are four bowls involved in the BCS, and every fourth year, a bowl host its traditional game as well as the national championship. That's a lucrative double-dip every four years.

Add the Cotton Bowl to the mix and that double-dip would come every five years. That might not seem like that big a difference, but where big money is concerned, the suits want the paydays as often as possible.

Because of its significant history, its excellent venue and its accessibility to the rest of the nation, the Cotton Bowl should be included among the BCS bowls. Here's hoping the BCS officials eventually will agree.

Kiffin's two points

What did you think about USC coach Lane Kiffin going for the two-point conversion on four different occasions against a Hawaii team that was clearly overmatched from the start? I can't help but think that if Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Mack Brown or Urban Meyer did that against the cupcakes they opened with, there would be an outcry of near-Biblical proportions from the media.
Clay in Vicksburg, Miss.

That might be right. Meyer received a lot of flak in '08 for kicking a late field goal in a 26-3 victory over Miami, and that's a team he has to recruit against.

Kiffin said he wanted to send a message to his team about being aggressive. He probably also wanted to score as many points as possible to draw more attention to the Trojans, who are ineligible for the Pac-10 championship but still can be ranked in the polls.

Kiffin showed in his one season at Tennessee that he'll draw attention to his program by any means necessary, be it trash-talking, accusing rival coaches of cheating and even by putting together a solid game plan in big games.

But against Hawaii, he was facing an overmatched opponent. You don't trash-talk an underdog and you shouldn't need a brilliant game plan to subdue an athletically inferior opponent. A lopsided victory would have brought some attention. Instead, Hawaii showed it wasn't so overmatched after all.

Match them up

I know with South Carolina it's hard to tell about the season, but with the talent this team has, where would you rate them against coach Steve Spurrier's teams at Florida?
Henry in Sumter, S.C.

This season's Gamecocks do have the look of being the best team Spurrier has had in his six seasons in Columbia.

Quarterback Stephen Garcia looks to have matured. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has the potential to be as good as any receiver in the SEC, freshman Marcus Lattimore figures to boost the running game, cornerback Stephon Gilmore has All-American potential and coordinator Ellis Johnson will field a formidable defense.

The Gamecocks are legitimate challengers in the SEC East, so South Carolina fans should be enthusiastic about this team's chances.

But don't take that enthusiasm too far.

Spurrier coached 12 seasons at Florida and every one of his teams there posted at least nine victories. Seven of his teams played in the SEC championship game. One won the national title and another lost in the national championship game. Spurrier never had a team at Florida that finished ranked lower than 13th, and 10 of his teams finished in the top 10.

South Carolina figures to be good this season. Maybe the Gamecocks will be excellent. But I'd still rank them behind all of Spurrier's teams in Florida.

It would be interesting to know how he'd rank these Gamecocks against any of his Gators teams, but coaches never bite on that question.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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