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Oregon is Two More Wins from Being a True Powerhouse Program

Mark Helfrich

Mark Helfrich

LOS ANGELES — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher probably didn’t mean anything derisive in the way he described Oregon and how it's become an attractive destination.

The reasons are clear why it’s cooler to be a Duck in 2014 than it was in 1994 — it’s the offense, it’s the uniforms, it’s the Nike-fueled facilities. It’s not necessarily because kids from Texas and California can’t wait to live in a dorm in Eugene, Ore.

But Fisher probably wouldn’t use the word “niche” to describe Nebraska, Tennessee or Notre Dame  — other programs that have to recruit nationally.

“What you have to create is a niche,” Fisher said. “For people who want to come from long distances to come to a university, why are they coming there?  There's something that you have that someone else, if you're bypassing all these places, could it be facilities? Could it be uniforms? They also win a lot of football games.”

But Oregon hasn’t won the game.

The Ducks have been on a steady rise since Rich Brooks took Oregon to the Rose Bowl two decades ago but a national championship is still unchecked on the to-do list.

Oregon doesn’t have the most wins in college football history without a national title to show for it (that would be West Virginia at 719 wins).

But in the last 20 years, they’ve reached major bowl games with four different coaches. They’ve won Rose Bowls. They’ve won the Pac-12. They added the school’s first Heisman Trophy when Marcus Mariota did it less than a month ago.

They’ve even been involved in a recruiting scandal.

In other words, Oregon has done all the things the nation’s powerhouse programs do except win a national title.

The Ducks enter the College Football Playoff as the only team without a national championship. During the BCS era, the other three teams in this year's playoff combined for five.

It’s strange to say Oregon’s program needs validation. The Ducks are indeed one of the powers of college football, the top program right now in the West.

But even second-year coach Mark Helfrich acknowledges perception might change if Oregon can win two more games this season.

“It would validate things externally a lot more than I think internally,” Helfrich said.

Anyone who remembers the pre-Brooks era in Eugene would probably agree that the program is plenty validated. Oregon has done something remarkable in the last 20 years. Think about the powerhouses in college football — programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and a handful of others.

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All of those programs have a history that stretches back to the eras of leather helmets and single wing football.

Oregon didn’t start trying in earnest to field a perennial contender until the 1990s.

The Rose Bowl will feature a team trying to repeat as national champions and a team seeking its first national title. Recent history suggests that Florida State has the easier task.

Since the last time a program won its first national championship in school history (Florida, 1996), a team won back-to-back championships twice (Alabama, USC).

It's funny, then, that Florida State was once in Oregon’s shoes.

Before the Seminoles won their first national title in 1993, the Seminoles were close to a national title but couldn’t quite reach the summit. Bobby Bowden led six consecutive teams to the top four in the AP poll before finishing No. 1 in ’93.

“There’s pressure,” said quarterback Danny Kanell, who was a sophomore on the ’93 title team. “I remember being there with Bobby Bowden, and he got knocked for not being able to win the big game or being able to win the championship. There was a big sigh of relief for him and the program.”

Kanell is hearing the same things about Oregon that he heard about FSU.

“Right now people are saying they can win the Pac-12, they can run around, they can look good in their uniforms, they can put up a lot of points, but they can’t hang with the big boys, big physical teams like Florida State has,” he said.

That perception changes with a trophy.

If Oregon wins a national championship, the Ducks won’t have to answer for being a finesse team (yes, that still happens). Instead, they’ll be a true power player.

“It separates you from everyone who hasn’t,” former Texas coach Mack Brown said. “The day after we won the national championship, I asked Coach (Darrell) Royal what does this mean. It means you’ve done something that very few people do. It means when you speak, people will listen to you differently than they did before. They will look at you differently than they did before. And for the fans, the expectations will be higher.”

The Ducks are already one of the nation’s most unique powerhouses. They rarely change leadership or philosophies on a whim. Ever coach since Brooks has been an internal hire. Assistants tend to stay for decades rather than jumping from job to jobs.

Helfrich hardly carries himself like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Fisher. The job doesn't seem to consume him. He's almost a normal guy, for a college football coach.

So what will change for Oregon if they win a national championship, whether this year or in another season? 

"I'm sure a lot, and I'm sure not much,” Helfrich said. “I think nationally, hopefully, the perspective of not only our team but our conference would elevate, and the SEC has had that right to puff out their chest and with very good reason for the past several years, but we think we're doing a lot of the right things on this side of the country.”