Orange Bowl

Oregon Is Without Question

 
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De'Anthony Thomas emerged as the Ducks' top weapon last year on their way to a third consecutive Pac-12 Championship.
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By Ted Miller
ESPN.com


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- Oregon coach Chip Kelly was ready to duel with reporters at Pac-12 media day on Tuesday. He was ready for questions that he would flick away with a smirk. He knew they would get little out of him ("Who's your starting quarterback, Chip?" Yeah, right) but it had been a pleasant summer and he mildly enjoys busting the chops of the scribes who have been around for his 34 victories in three seasons.

But the Ducks' session lasted just a few minutes. "That's it?" he said.

He later observed, "No one had any juice."

The biggest reason Kelly's questioning ended quickly is the Ducks went last. That happened because the defending Pac-12 champion -- Oregon has won the conference three consecutive seasons -- goes last at media day.

Kelly quickly realized he immediately had an angle to motivate his team: "Make media day easy for the rest of us by winning a championship again. Then we get to see some real tired reporters," he said.

The other reason things went quickly for Kelly and running back Kenjon Barner and linebacker Michael Clay is the Ducks don't have many questions to answer, at least any that Kelly was going to answer at Universal Studios before fall camp begins. The Ducks are overflowing with talent on both sides of the ball. They are again heavy favorites in the Pac-12 North Division. And more than a few media sorts have already mapped out the season.

See, Oregon is going to be 8-0 when it heads to Los Angeles on Nov. 3. And so will USC, the heavy favorite in the Pac-12 South. Only then will the true leader of the Pac-12 -- its national title contender -- be revealed.

At least, that's the plan laid out by reporters. The Trojans and Ducks both received 117 No. 1 votes from 123 voters to win their divisions in the annual media poll. It felt like those who didn't pick the Ducks and Trojans to win were just trying to be cute. You can be certain none of those voters would lay money on their contrarian picks, such as three inexplicable votes for Arizona State.

The Ducks didn't seem too concerned either that a strong majority -- 102 voters -- believe USC will end the Ducks' run atop the conference. Nor, by the way, did the Trojans. Reporters may write out a pair of 8-0 scenarios, but the coaches and players are well aware that taking success for granted is the best way not to experience it.

"Hopefully we never get to a point where we think we've arrived and it's just going to run itself," Kelly said of his program, which has gone 25-2 under him in conference play. "We win because of our preparation and we've got a bunch of kids who buy into that. If we start to lose sight of that or start to pat ourselves on the back because we think we've arrived, we're going to get passed pretty quickly."

Both the Ducks and Trojans are almost certain to be top five in every major preseason poll. USC, which welcomes back 19 starters from a team that won at Oregon in 2011, may be No. 1.

"That has nothing to do with how well we will play next year and whether we will win games," coach Lane Kiffin said. "But I think it is exciting for our university and our fans to be in those discussions."

Neither team is flawless. Kiffin said he's worried about depth at running back. The Trojans also lost three starters on their defensive line. The Ducks also lack depth at running back and must replace a number of mainstays on both sides of the ball, including running back LaMichael James, tight end David Paulson, linebacker Josh Kaddu and safety Eddie Pleasant. Oh, by the way, they still don't have a starting quarterback, even if the confidence level is high with Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett.

Kelly said he's in no hurry to name a starter but he feels good about the position.

"The one thing I am pretty confident about is whoever is going to be our QB when we take snaps on Sept. 1 is going to be pretty good because both those guys have a great skill set," he said.

USC has no questions at QB. Matt Barkley, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate, likely would have been top-10 pick in last spring's NFL draft if he'd not opted to return -- to the surprise of many -- for his senior year. Barkley has made no secret about why he's back.

"When [safety T.J. McDonald] and I decided to come back, we knew that we had a great time at USC, and we have had a lot of fun playing football, but we hadn't maximized our potential here at USC," he said. "I think that phrase 'unfinished business' is to do with finishing at a top level and finishing where we're capable of as a team."

That, of course, is winning the national title. But, to do that, the Trojans must knock Oregon out of the conference throne. And out of the coveted final position in Pac-12 media day.

 

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