Sports is not a serious business, and thus it doesn’t often attract the most sophisticated commentary. Narrative gets simplified and broad observations get turned into oversimplified truths. The thing that makes sports appealing –there is a winner and a loser- can, in clumsy hands, turn victors into unassailable titans and losers into the worst caricature of people’s preconceived notions of them. Sometimes great teams lose, and sometimes bad teams win. But, even that level of nuance escapes sports pundits. So, after a sleepless night, I find myself in a mental state informed still by last night’s alcohol and this morning’s coffee. So, I thought I’d write this defense of my beloved Oregon Ducks in the vain hope that perhaps I might correct a bit of the record.
Let me begin by saying something that, as a proud graduate of the University of Michigan, is hard to say: this was an exceptional Ohio State football team. They are obviously talented and well-coached, and in the last four games of their season they played at a level that I’ve rarely seen in college football. They earned this win and this championship. But, in rightly praising the Buckeyes, let us not feel the need to disparage the Ducks with the same vigor that we praise Ohio State. Though Stephen A. Smith and his donkey sidekick might tell you otherwise, not every contest must be a fight between a legend and a bum. Last night two exceptional teams played, and the more exceptional team won.
What chafes is the developing narrative that the Oregon Ducks are either a soft team or cannot compete at the highest levels. What is probably more true was that Ohio State’s offense simply was operating at a level that no team in college football was going to stop. As Dave Ubben at FoxSports pointed out, the runs weren’t so much a matter of Oregon getting blown off the ball as Ohio State making a schematic shift (weakside counter plays with two-TE backfield blocking) that Oregon did not have an adjustment for.
Consider, the following four box scores taken from Ohio State’s games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. For the record, those other three schools are the 1st, 19th and 4th rushing defenses in the country. They’d be much higher, actually, if they hadn’t all taking a whompin’ from Brutus. In fact, before its game against Ohio State, Alabama actually was the top-ranked run defense. Looking at the four box scores, it’s pretty tough to pick out the big, bad SEC bruiser from the supposedly lightweight soft Ducks.
The point is that Oregon wasn’t soft so much as Ohio State had hit a hot streak and was just truckin’ everybody. Moreover, the application of the “soft” label points out just how silly the narrative machine within mainstream sports media can be. After all, just last week, weren’t we treated to a bevy of headlines declaring that Oregon had killed the “soft” label after reeling off 300 yards running against big’ol FSU? Oregon wins: they’re the best team ever and aren’t soft! Oregon loses: they’re a bunch of soft bums! TCU should’ve gone instead!
Of course, the obvious reply is that the critique of Oregon takes place within a larger narrative (that damn word) of failures. It is true, Oregon has not yet won a national championship, and the perception is that it has failed in its biggest moments. Moreover, when Oregon loses, it tends to get beat at the line of scrimmage. Taking the last criticism first, that statement has always annoyed me. To say that when Oregon loses it’s because it gets beat at the line of scrimmage is an empty statement that pundits attempt to infuse with broader meaning. I would defy you to point to *any* team in professional, college, or high school football whose losses can’t be pinned in large part to the fact the other team beat them at the line of scrimmage. It’s a truism in football in the same way that “the team that pitches best tends to win in baseball.”
The idea of failure on the big stage is sure to get pinned on Oregon until they win it all. It’s important to remember, though, that Oregon is attempting to do something exceedingly difficult. Consider: every national champion since 1996 has come from a university that’s won a national championship before. Before that, you have to go back to the mid-80s Hurricanes to find a team that popped its national championship cherry, and before that to the early 1960s. It’s an exclusive club with all sorts of impediments preventing the nouveau riche from ascending to the top. Moreover, the label of “can’t win the big one” tends to be one that people lazily affix to people or teams with the idea that it’s somehow a permanent mark. In my lifetime, here are the teams and people that the press have proclaimed eternal bridesmaids: Duke basketball, Michael Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Coach Roy Williams, Lebron James, Payton Manning, Steve Young, Tony Dungy, Detroit Pistons (Bad Boys), Spain National Soccer Team, and on and on. That group has, collectively, something like 35 championships.
Losing sucks. There’s no two ways about it. But, Oregon fans, take some perspective. We had a fantastic team with a quarterback who is among the best ever to play college football and who never, even for a second, comported himself with anything but class. We got beat by a great team that spent the last two months of the season steamrolling everyone. We got steamrolled too. Reject the lazy narratives that we’re too soft, too small, too weak. This was a good team, a tough team, and a team that another day may have done better. Soon, these wounds will heal and we’ll look to spring ball in hopes of better days. Maybe we’ll even talk about that Tennessee squad from 1998 that found a way to replace Peyton Manning and win it all. No matter what happens, though, let’s support the squad, insist that we improve, help them improve, but never waver.
We’ll get there.