The Oregon Ducks’ 2005 football season is turning out to be a reminder of what a fragile house of cards the pursuit of a great season can be.
Right now the team has a very impressive 7-1 record and they are ranked #14 in the AP Top 25 college football poll. In the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings, which determine placement in the top-tier bowls, Oregon is ranked even higher at #11. What’s more, until recently the Ducks looked to be favored going into their last three games against Cal, Washington State and Oregon State. A 10-1 record, something the team has only achieved one other time (during the magical 2001 season) certainly has seemed to be within reach.
But then, in last Saturday’s game against Arizona, quarterback Kellen Clemens suffered a broken leg, and now he is out for the season.
Clemens was the lifeblood of the offense, with the experience of a senior who has spent four years in the program, virtually all of which since his sophomore year came as a starter. After the disappointment of a 5-6 season in 2004, Oregon’s first losing season in more than a decade, Clemens’ career was rejuvenated this year by the spread-option offense of new coordinator Gary Crowton. He was on pace to become Oregon's all-time leading passer. This season his passing was so proficient that he routinely threw the ball to receivers who hadn't even made their cut. And Clemens has run the ball with great success as well. He's also been a mature leader who knows not only his own position, but others' around him. Lineman have said he even gave tips with their blocking assignments in the huddle.
Of course a 10-1 record wouldn’t have been a given even with Clemens healthy all season, and no one argues that USC is the best team in the Pac-10 Conference (if not the nation) anyway. But before his injury was not at all absurd to consider the glory Clemens might lead Oregon to. Even if it was unlikely, The Oregonian had just featured him as a Heisman Trophy candidate a few days earlier. More pragmatically, Oregon would have at worst been in the Holiday Bowl, the most prestigious of the pre-New Years’ Day bowl games. Beyond that, it’s certainly possible 10-1 could have seen Oregon could have been called up to one of the BCS bowls, such as the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe.
But now, it’s quite possible that Oregon could wind up losing all three of their remaining games. If that happened, they’d still go to a bowl game at 7-4. But it would be the Las Vegas Bowl or the Insight.com Bowl, each of which could alternately be known as a toilet bowl.
I realize these seasons happen to just about every team sooner or later. It’s certainly happened to Oregon before. And these are memories branded on my brain.
In 1988 Oregon had a 6-1 record before quarterback Bill Musgrave (who has come to symbolize the program's resurgence in the 1980s) broke his collar bone against Arizona State - a game I was at. The team proceeded to lose their final five games that year for a 6-6 record. They didn't go to a bowl game, despite how the Rose Bowl, to which the team hadn’t been in 31 years at that point, had at midseason seemed within reach. I remember the week after the catastrophic ASU game, Oregon played UCLA on national television. The Bruins boasted Troy Aikman at quarterback, and with Musgrave down we had...Pete Nelson.
In 1998 the team began with a similar flurry of wins only to see tailback Ruben Droughns break his leg against UCLA in a nationally televised matchup between two Top 10-ranked teams. Oregon lost that game in overtime after Droughns went down. While the Ducks still finished with an 8-3 record (and Holiday bowl trip) that year thanks largely to the heroics of quarterback Akili Smith, that team I will always remember for being capable of much more.
Of course Oregon's post-Clemens era hasen’t even begun yet - mercifully they have this week off. Perhaps this time an injury to its most valuable player won't be as catastrophic to the team as I'm steeling myself for. (Fatalism is a common tendency for me as a Ducks fan.) Sophomore quarterback Dennis Dixon has looked good if inexperienced in mop-up duty for Clemens. He was a blue-chip recruit two years ago and he’s enormously talented as a dual run-pass threat in the Michael Vick mode. Crowton’s offense should provide lots of opportunity as well. But again, Dixon is young and will almost certainly make mistakes. And Oregon can’t afford many of those. Against Arizona last week it was the defense and special teams that saved the victory after Clemens got hurt, but don't think one can expect them to do that week in and week out.
With a winning season guaranteed and the future bright with an enviable talent base and first-rate facilities, as a Ducks fan I can’t complain very much. That said, teams of the caliber of that Oregon had this year under Clemens are exceptionally rare, even as the Ducks have virtually always had winning records under coach Mike Bellotti. This year there was reason for almost boundless optimism. Now, as is decidedly more the norm, I’m not so sure.
Time and time again with the sports teams I love, I obsess, however futile I know it to be, over what might have been. Sports are unique because they engender such great emotion, yet the results are completely out of our hands. It's not that I don't cherish the moments of joy and achievement. Certain memories of Duck seasons past are among the most prized of my life. Yet I think you have to remember all of it--the dreams, the nightmares, and the attendant peaks and valleys coming in between. Committing this season to history, Clemens' injury will always be there, burning. But along with it I hope to always keep in mind that even if it was for eight games and not eleven, this was a uncommonly thrilling and capable football team.