SAN ANTONIO - Oregon’s run toward the 2014 national title begins now, here in San Antonio against a storied but beleaguered Texas Longhorns program.
Lose Monday night’s Alamo Bowl and the offseason will be brutal for Oregon and coach Mark Helfrich.
Simply put: Lose and The Ducks’ swagger will have been staggered by a hard right hook of reality that the program is in decline after losing three of its last five games.
The No. 10 Ducks’ intentions of winning a national title this season were obvious.
Their potential: impressive.
Their positioning: enviable.
Their collapse: mind-boggling.
But for the second consecutive season the Ducks fell on their collective faces after putting themselves in position to control their own destiny toward winning a national title.
Players preached following a 26-20 loss at Stanford that they couldn’t allow the Cardinal to beat them twice.
Now, the Ducks (10-2) need to avoid allowing their inexplicable late-season decline to derail them twice by extending into next year.
It might be an overstatement to suggest that losing to Texas (8-4) would mean the Ducks have no shot at winning a national title in 2014. But let’s go there anyway.
The Ducks would never admit that their confidence waned after losing at Stanford, falling at Arizona (42-16) and then needing a last-minute touchdown drive to defeat mediocre Oregon State, 36-35 in the Civil War.
But there’s little argument to be had that some self-doubt has crept in.
It’s not simply that Oregon has lost twice its how it lost with its offense taking a nosedive back to the 1970s by scoring 30 combined points on offense in those two defeats.
Oregon is not going to eek its way to a national title by winning games 27-24.
The Ducks are built to destroy, not plod. They are constructed to play fast, score fast, light up the scoreboard and then let a fast defense wreak havoc.
Take away even a smidgeon of confidence that Oregon can put 40 or 50 points on the scoreboard at will and the Ducks become a perennial 8-4-type team overnight.
They resemble that right now.
Lose to Texas and Oregon would have a whole offseason to not only ponder what happened but wallow in doubt that the problems can be fixed before Michigan State comes calling Sept. 13 in the third game of next season.
The Alamo Bowl might not be the ideal setting for BCS-or-bust Oregon but Texas is the perfect opponent.
The Longhorns’s defense has trouble with fast-paced teams. The offense doesn’t score with consistency and has quarterback issues.
The last time Oregon faced Texas was the 2000 Holiday Bowl. That season, Oregon fell flat in the Civil War blowing shot at a Rose Bowl berth.
The Ducks responded with a 35-30 win over Texas in one of the most important victories in program history.
UO built off that win by going 10-1 the following year and were seated fourth in the BCS standings heading into the postseason before destroying Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
Should the Duck end up ranked in the top four at the end of next season they would have a great chance at being selected to participated in the first-ever, four-team playoff system for college football.
That route would be a lot easier for Oregon to accomplish should it begin the season ranked in the top 10.
How highly ranked they enter next season could depend on how well they play in the Alamo Bowl and the perception their performance creates with voters.
Furthermore, nobody is sure how the selection committee is going to function.
Should push come to shove between closely ranked teams, a program’s recent track record of success could come into play.
Just how easily could Oregon’s mojo become a thing of the past in terms of national perception? Just ask Heisman Trophy voters.
UO quarterback Marcus Mariota went from Heisman front-runner to out of the top 10 in voting after a couple of average performances. Not horrible. Just average.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch finished third and he couldn’t touch Mariota on the field.
There is a bias against the west that becomes more potent as it travels north.
Oregon’s rapid rise as a nationally recognized program is dependent on continued success. It doesn’t have the historic cache of other programs to be able to stumble but still remain relevant.
Losing three of five and twice to unranked teams such as Arizona and Texas would make next year’s run that much more difficult.
Oregon is at a pivotal juncture as a national contender.
Monday’s game isn’t on a BCS stage but the Ducks had better play like it is.