There were about two hours remaining until kickoff on Saturday in Salt Lake City. It was a bright and sunny morning, but the air was still crisp and cool in Rice-Eccles Stadium. While event staff milled about, preparing for a top-15 matchup between the Oregon Ducks and Utah Utes, Dan Lanning walked alone up and down the home team’s sideline.
Still wearing the dark-blue sports jacket he donned on ESPN’s ‘College GameDay’ a couple of hours prior, the 37-year-old head coach was subdued. Ahead of him was among the biggest tests of his young head coaching career; a road matchup against a ranked opponent in a brutal environment — the type of game that Lanning has yet to win in his two years with the Ducks.
After his quick field walk, Lanning went back into the locker room with his team. It would be several hours until he would walk back into that locker room again, high-fiving the Oregon faithful while carrying the biggest win of his coaching career in hand.
Coaches don’t typically get introspective after a big win but rather choose to focus on the moment, the team, and the future. I figured I would give Lanning an opportunity to look within, though. After the victory, I asked him about his pregame walk and the significance it holds for him.
At first, he was unsurprisingly technical.
“I’m just picturing what the game’s gonna look like,” Lanning said. “I always talk about playing the game before the game ever happens and trying to assess where the play clocks at. ‘Okay, where are the timeouts? Where’s the board?’ I want to make sure that I’m at my best for our players. So how do you do that? You’ve got to know where the clocks at. What’s the environment? When you’re out there on the field, you don’t want to be surprised.”
Coach speak precluded the rumination.
“For me, once I walk out on the field, I’m thanking everybody who ever helped me get here,” Lanning continued. “I don’t belong here any more than anybody else, but am lucky to be sitting in the seat. There’s a lot of people that helped get me here.”
Lanning’s pregame visions of what’s to come certainly help him on the field. I have to wonder if he envisioned himself finding this much success so early in his career at Oregon.
As of now, the Ducks are ranked as the sixth-best team in the nation. They have established themselves as one of the top two teams in the Pac-12 with an inside track to the conference championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff should they win every remaining game on their schedule, something they’re favored to do. They are the only team in the nation ranked inside the top 10 when it comes to both passing offense and rushing offense, and one of three teams in the nation that boasts a top-15 rushing defense, and top-15 sack rate. A Heisman candidate leads the way at quarterback, a Rimington Trophy leader spearheads the offense at center, and a likely Biletnikoff finalist is holding it down on the outside.
The balance is there. The ceiling is there. The expectations are high.
Did they arrive sooner than anticipated? That depends on who you ask. I think that over the past year, many Oregon fans have allowed themselves to believe in a world where this type of domination was possible for the Ducks, be it in 2024 or 2025. There’s been a conviction in Eugene that their brash and bold head coach would be the first to deliver a championship trophy to Phil Knight, making good on years of promise, and billions of dollars invested in the program.
I’m not sure many people pegged 2023 to be the year, though.
Since Lanning showed a willingness to reflect on Saturday evening, I followed up, asking if the outcome vs. Utah went as he envisioned it while walking to the field on that chilly morning, several hours in the past.
“We gave up six points — I was hoping to give up zero,” Lanning said with a smile. “So, similar.”
Similar enough to get the job done, and dominant enough to convince the college football world that the Oregon Ducks’ championship window is coming, and it’s running ahead of schedule.