Oregon's rapid rise into the national elite has turned on three major themes: a) An endless supply of ever-evolving space-age uniforms, b) Blinding speed on offense, and c) Complete dominance on its home turf. Really, "complete dominance" may be selling the Ducks a little short: Not only have they not lost in the "Autzen Zoo" in Chip Kelly's two seasons as head coach; they've barely broken a sweat.
Last year, Oregon's closes call in Autzen was 19 points, in a rainy, 48-29 win over Arizona in late November; a few weeks earlier, Stanford had the Ducks on the ropes early, before succumbing to a 49-10 run and eventually losing by three touchdowns. UCLA in Eugene by 47 points, with Oregon basically taking the fourth quarter off; two weeks later, Washington was crushed by thirty-seven. Over the entire course of their ongoing, 16-game home winning streak, the Ducks have dispatched visitors by an average of 24 points per game.
It was in Autzen that they first laid claim to national ambitions with back-to-back wins over USC and undefeated Arizona State in 2007; it was in Autzen that they violently overthrew the Trojans as the reigning Pac-10 power two years later. At some point in the streak, every conference rival has limped out of the Zoo a loser, all but one (Oregon State, a mere 37-33 victim in 2009) stamped with a double-digit defeat.
All of which makes it much more difficult to explain why Oregon's ascent has yet to include a really big win outside of Eugene. As nightmarish as the trip to Autzen is for opponents, the Ducks' most high-profile road trips under Kelly have all fallen into the same genre: Horror.
At Boise State in 2009, Kelly's prolific spread offense was shut down completely in a 19-8 trouncing that wasn't nearly as close as the final score, and the best player on the team was suspended for the season for an embarrassing post-game meltdown. At Stanford later that year, the Duck defense was ripped to ribbons in a 51-42 shootout that announced the Cardinal's arrival as Pac-10 contenders. In the 2010 Rose Bowl the following January, the same defense played victim to the best performance of Terrelle Pryor's career in a 26-17 loss to Ohio State. And in the BCS Championship Game a year later, the offense was manhandled by Auburn's defensive line, held to a season-low yards rushing and shut out on six different trips into Tiger territory in an excruciating, 22-19 loss on the game's final snap.
Not that the Ducks are especially inept away from home; at 6-0 in other teams' stadiums last year, far from it. But their path to an undefeated regular season and the national title game certainly had the fortune of avoiding any really dangerous road traps. USC, while "high profile" in primetime, was a shadow of the Trojan teams that dominated the West Coast for most of the previous decade, and played like it in a 53-32 loss. Tennessee was so far down in early September that the most lopsided Vol defeat in the history of Neyland Stadium seemed only fitting. Cal was down and still managed to give Oregon its only legitimate scare of the regular season. Of the Ducks' six road victims for the year, only USC ended up with a winning record, 8-5, and the Trojans only beat two teams (Hawaii and Arizona) that finished above .500 their own selves.
The luck of the draw for their repeat bid in 2011 is not so kind: Right out of the gate, the Ducks will be thrust into a neutral-site broiler against LSU in Dallas, and later must return to the scene of their last conference loss, at Stanford, where the first Pac-12 championship — and maybe more — will be in the balance down the stretch.
Two consequential trips away from home, two showdowns with fellow national contenders, two situations Oregon will have to overcome for the first time to earn another shot at the crown that so narrowly eluded it.
In LSU, the Ducks are running head-first (literally) out of the chute into another talented, deep defensive line of the same vintage as the Auburn front that gave the offense so much hell the last time out — and will be doing it with a far less experienced offensive line, down three senior starters from the 2010 front that finally met its match in Glendale, in front of an overwhelmingly purple-and-gold crowd. (Trust me: Cowboy Stadium will be about as "neutral" on Sept. 3 as a New Orleanian in a debate over hot sauce.) At Stanford, they're running into a balanced, physical offense led by the best quarterback in America, who has already bombed the Oregon defense for 593 yards and four touchdowns through the air in their last two meetings, and another touchdown rushing. The last time the Ducks were in Palo Alto, they were beaten to a pulp, and the Cardinal offensive line hasn't gotten any friendlier.
Obviously, neither has Oregon's path to a national championship, for reasons that have nothing to do with its ongoing pas de deux with the NCAA. If the Ducks are in New Orleans for another title game in January, it won't just be a return trip: It will be another significant step forward, through significantly more hostile territory.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.