Oregon is ranked No. 6 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls. The Ducks began the season ranked 15th. I think at the start of the season only the Ducks themselves believed that they hadn't fallen off 13 points from their season-ending No. 2 ranking last year. Now it's kind of a shame that they weren't ranked higher to start this season. Last year, at the start of the season, they carried in a No. 7 ranking, the lowest preseason ranking in the history of the school. And, only through the quirk of numerous losses from Top 10 teams was Oregon able to climb back into the thick of things following their loss to Stanford in their seventh game of the season. This year, with Miami, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Georgia and Notre Dame all unbeaten and all but No. 7 Notre Dame ahead of Oregon in the polls, it is conceivable that the Ducks could run the table and still not play for the National Championship. Rest assured, if the Ducks do drop a game between now and December 2, it would be highly unlikely that they could crack the Top 5 or contend for the BCS college football title.
Still all things considered, the Ducks have moved up to No. 6 from No. 15 and they are among only 10 undefeated Division 1A teams in the nation. However, word is that when the BCS poll comes out for the first time this Monday the Ducks will be ranked significantly lower in that poll than in the AP or Coaches polls despite the possibility of a 7-0 record.
I believe the Ducks have done the best they can do given their schedule constraints and other circumstances beyond their direct control. Can you imagine where the Ducks might be ranked today if Michigan hadn't backed out of Oregon's original 2002 schedule? Looking at both teams' performance to date it seems perfectly plausible that Oregon might have won that contest. Given how things have unfolded, the Ducks may only play one game this year against a Top 10 opponent (Washington State). This potentially may hurt Oregon as the BCS computers calculate strength of schedule. Remember last year being ranked No. 2 in both the AP and Coaches polls wasn't enough to get the Ducks a date with Miami in the Rose Bowl. No, I expect if Oregon somehow does manage to get through the rest of the season unscathed, they will also require some other higher ranked teams to lose before the Ducks can get a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS National Championship.
Pac-10 Conference: A+ (The biggest target, all away games, but a perfect score0
The Ducks are not only the highest ranked team in the conference but also the only undefeated team in the conference. The Ducks have achieved these standings despite being picked to finish no better than third by the Pac-10 Media in the preseason behind Washington State and Washington. Now, there are only three teams remaining without a conference loss, Washington State, Oregon and Arizona State. Oregon plays Arizona State this Saturday, and with Washington State facing a bye, there will only be two undefeated teams left standing come next week. My hunch is Oregon will be one of them. Oregon gets Arizona State in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium. And the Sun Devils really haven't shown much this season. They have lost handily to now-unranked Nebraska and unranked North Carolina. And, the teams they have beaten don't exactly make a big impression- Eastern Washington, Central Florida, San Diego State, Stanford and Oregon State, the latter two taking up space at the bottom of the Pac-10 Conference standings.
Oregon is the only Pac-10 team thus far who has not yet played a conference game at home. That means through the first quarter of the league schedule, Oregon's prevailed despite being exclusively on the road. Consider also that Oregon is presumably the biggest target in the conference. They are the defending conference champions, the highest ranked. Arizona and UCLA were highly motivated to play the Ducks and exact their revenge from last year. Oregon took their best shots and won (we'll argue about UCLA's best shot on another day.)
If you don't count the Pac-10 teams that currently have two losses or more, there are only six teams left who may contend for the league title, Washington State, Oregon, Arizona State, USC, UCLA, and Washington. With the exception of Washington State, and UCLA who Oregon already beat, the Ducks get all of these teams at home - a big advantage. Furthermore, Oregon doesn 't play California this year, a team that has already proven they can play the spoiler this year by beating Washington in Husky Stadium. Only Washington State has perhaps a more favorable schedule having to play only Arizona and UCLA away with bye weekends prior to its games with Washington and UCLA.
At the midpoint, I'd say Oregon has stacked up pretty well in the conference. It's demonstrated it can win on the road, that it can win against one of the four other nationally-ranked conference teams, and that it can beat teams decisively, such as its 31-14 win over Arizona, or prevail in a nail-biter, such as its 31-30 win over UCLA.
The Assumed Strengths: A- (I guess to start the season at No. 15 you have to do some things right)
The Running Back: A
Junior tailback Onterrio Smith has gained over 100 yards rushing in every game played by Oregon thus far this year. He is ranked eighth nationally in rushing, averaging 127 yards per game. But, do you know what the big news is? Just as the competition gets tougher and the Ducks are playing conference games away, the O-man gets better. Against Arizona, Smith averaged 5.2 yards per carry equaling 145 yards on 28 carries. Against UCLA, Smith averaged 6.1 yards per carry equaling 152 yards on 25 carries. Smith only gained 124, 124, 104 and 115 yards respectively against Mississippi State, Fresno State, Idaho and Portland State. He also averaged fewer yards per carry. Now for the big surprise: Smith has yet to break a single run over 31 yards. You know it's going to happen; it's just a question of when.
The Receivers: B
Look out, just as the competition is improving so are the Oregon receivers. Senior Keenan Howry has come back from injuries to record 171 all-purpose yards against UCLA including two touchdowns. Junior Samie Parker has recorded 26 total receptions for 426 yards and four touchdowns throughout the season. Junior tightend George Wrighster has contributed 232 yards on 19 receptions for four touchdowns and senior Jason Willis has provided 201 yards on 12 receptions. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement. Oregon is currently only ranked 52nd in the nation in passing offense averaging 229 yards per game. This is not characteristic of Bellotti-coached teams and as Oregon junior quarterback Jason Fife continues to gain experience, I expect these numbers to improve particularly if Smith continues to provide balance with the running attack.
Special Teams: A
Sophomore Jared Siegel kicks a school record 59-yard field goal against UCLA; true freshman defensive tackle Haloti Ngata blocks a UCLA point after try; Howry runs back a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown; true freshman Aaron Gipson stops UCLA's faked field goal attempt with a brilliant one-on-one tackle against a tight end who has over 50 pounds and eight inches on him; UCLA misses a 45-yard field goal attempt to take the lead with 1:49 remaining in the game. Are you getting the idea? However, at times, Oregon's coverage teams could use some improvement and there have been some instances where penalties have hurt the Ducks on returns. But, overall special teams play has been a strength of the Ducks this year. Siegel is ranked No. 2 in the nation in field goals completing 12 of 13 attempts.
The Ducks look prepared and deep. They don't lose their heads. They appear well conditioned particularly in the second half. They rank 6th in the nation in turnover margin. However, they have amassed 60 penalties for 479 total yards. But, against UCLA they were disciplined enough to reduce their penalties for the game to six resulting in only 35 yards.
The Supposed Deficiencies: B+ (Some folks really need to eat crow here)
The Quarterback: A-
I got to tell you, I love this stuff. On August 10 of this year I wrote the following: "The media has made too much of the loss of quarterback Joey Harrington to the Detroit Lions. The fact is Oregon has reloaded at quarterback consistently over the last 15 years dating back to Bill Musgrave. Furthermore, Jason Fife is a fourth-year junior in a system that has put its last five starting quarterbacks into the professional ranks. Finally, the featured minutes Fife has received, whether in the past two spring games or in clean-up duties, has shown he has the ability to carry on the Oregon quarterback tradition." Well now, let's just add to that that Fife is currently ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 88 of 147 pass attempts for 1326 yards and 12 touchdowns and only one interception. He has brought his team back in the fourth quarter twice to win, against Fresno State and UCLA. He has more than demonstrated he has the ability to effectively lead his team.
The Cornerbacks: B
They are short. Not one of the four or five players in rotation measure six feet or taller. They are young. The graybeard of the group is junior starter Steven Moore. The other starter is Gipson with another true freshman Marques Binns, sophomore Charles Favroth and red shirt freshman Justin Phinisee serving as nickel backs and back-ups. Moore has three interceptions, Gipson two, and Binns one. Moore and Gipson rank among the team's top 6 tacklers. Moore has 25 solo and four assisted tackles and nine pass break-ups. Gipson has 20 solo and 10 assisted tackles and one quarterback hurry. Oregon's defensive secondary is ranked 91st in the nation in passing defense but 48th in pass efficiency defense where it really counts. But, the trade off may have not been so bad as the Ducks have also stacked the line of scrimmage not allowing teams to run on them as evidenced by their No. 6 national ranking in rushing defense. The Ducks' approach to systematically making their opponents one-dimensional in offense has really paid off dating back to when defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti rejoined the team in 1999.