That’s right, it’s Oregon’s first road game of the year, and with it this season’s first opportunity for an underdog opponent to “shock the world.” The Ducks have become that team. The team that’s circled on the schedule, the team that gets everyone’s best effort, and the team that used to come into Autzen – like Michigan, Oklahoma, etc. – as a marquee adversary worthy of a tear-down-the-gold-post moment.
Virginia was picked by CBSsports.com to finish sixth in a seven-team Coastal Division. They offer a relatively formidable challenge on the defensive front, but appear weak in the backfield. They’re also inexperienced under-center and lack senior leadership across the board.
There’s my expert analysis of a team Oregon should beat handily.
Saturday’s game isn’t about the Virginia Cavaliers personnel, but more so about a somewhat mysterious Oregon team and a Virginia team with nothing to lose. While Oregon’s No. 2 ranking, coupled with its sustained success of the past four years, affords the Ducks – and rightfully so – a perceived level of confidence, there are questions yet to be answered regarding a team most consider a legitimate contender for the college game’s biggest prize.
Mark Helfrich remains a mystery; the Oregon running game remains a bit of a mystery; and the leadership void left with the departure of linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso remains one of the primary concerns for outsiders like myself, looking in.
You can like Mark Helfrich, but that in itself doesn’t make him a good coach. You can love De'Anthony Thomas, feel good about Byron Marshall, and froth at the mouth concerning the potential of Thomas Tyner, but what they offer as a package for a team who – at least in recent memory – always had one, is cloaked in the unknown. While Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have game experience, they’re still Daniel LaRusso, to Alonso and Clay’s Mr. Miyagi. There are things we need to see from this team, and a road game 3,000 miles from home might be just the litmus test necessary to answer the questions surrounding this year’s squad, looking to finish the business Chip Kelly spoke of more than a year ago.
It would be easy to push Oregon through games like this and look forward to “formidable” tests the likes of Washington and Stanford, but traveling 3,000 miles to play a game against a rebuilding team, building momentum, with essentially nothing to lose should nary be taken lightly. I assure you between Head Coach Mike London and the sold out crowd welcoming the highest ranked team since top ranked Florida State visited Scott Stadium in 1999 – which by the way Virginia won - the Cavaliers will put their best foot forward at least initially, making it imperative that the Ducks play clean early, keeping Virginia from creating the type of momentum from which potential upsets tend to stem.
I hope to see Marcus Mariota shake-off a bit of the rust he showed early last week, De'Anthony Thomas get in the open field, and Colt Lyerla allowed to become everything he appears to be, but for reasons unbeknownst has yet to fully become. I also hope to see early signs of a defense undefined, write the initial lines of a definition for which history will show kindness. But what we expect to see, what we hope to see, and what we’ve been told we’ll likely see by pundits of the game, often fall victim to the unknown that few things besides sport can deal you on a dime.
What we’ll see this afternoon? Likely more of the same success Oregon fans have been witnessing for the better part of four years, but it’s how that potential success occurs that has my interest piqued, and the impossible “if” that has Virginia dreaming of 1999.