Oregon appears to be hurtling toward the national title game, No. 1 in the polls, No. 2 in the BCS, overwhelming teams with an intimidating blend of speed and depth.
Rick Bowmer/AP Top-ranked Oregon running back LaMichael James (21) and the Ducks still must face USC on Saturday, No. 15 Arizona and in-state rival Oregon State this season.
But between the Ducks and their first national championship stands the hardest part of the season: a five-game gauntlet of tough teams, all vying to be the one to knock the Ducks off.
Let up even for a moment and everything Oregon has accomplished this season will go up in a puff of dust, just like it did for Alabama and Oklahoma the past two weeks.
“You can get knocked out in the seventh round,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “All you can do is be ready to battle each week and make it to the eighth round.”
The first seven rounds have been relatively easy for the Ducks (7-0, 4-0 Pac-10).
Oregon has the nation’s best offense at a staggering 569.14 yards a game and is tops in scoring at 55.4 points – nearly seven more than the next closest team. The Ducks won their first seven games by an average of 39 points and have done it quickly and efficiently, ranking 114th in time of possession at 26.28 minutes per game.
The road figures to get tougher from now on, though, starting Saturday at No. 24 Southern California.
The Trojans, despite sanctions and a subsequent lack of depth due to defections, are still plenty talented. Their defense has struggled at times, but seems to be gaining momentum under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. The offense has been good since a shaky start to the season, led by maturing sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley.
“USC is the most talented team in our league, by far,” Kelly said.
But get by the Trojans and the schedule doesn’t get much easier. A look at what the Ducks have left this season:
► Saturday, at USC. The Trojans had been the Pac-10′s dominant team, winning seven straight conference titles heading into last season. Oregon ended that run last Halloween in a game the fans dubbed Fright Night, a 47-20 rout at Autzen Stadium that was fourth-ranked USC’s worst since 1997. The Trojans would love to return the title-ending favor.
► Nov. 6, vs. Washington. The Huskies have been inconsistent this season, beating USC and Oregon State, getting routed by Nebraska and Arizona. Washington’s defense will likely have a hard time matching up with the Ducks – 98th in total defense – but quarterback Jake Locker has the arm and legs to keep the Huskies in the game.
► Nov. 13, at California. The Bears have made Washington seem consistent with their up-and-down season. Other than a one-point loss at Arizona, Cal has been the router or the routee, the latest a 50-17 blasting of Arizona State last Saturday. Catch the Bears on one of their good days and the Ducks could be in for a shootout.
► Nov. 26, vs No. 15 Arizona. This matchup is potentially the most dangerous of the closing gauntlet. The Wildcats have an explosive offense led by the nation’s most accurate passer, Nick Foles, and an athletic gameplan-altering backup in Matt Scott. The defense, once the side holding Arizona back, has caught up to the offense and keyed Arizona’s rise up the polls this season.
► Dec. 4, at Oregon State. The Civil War is always a tough game, two rivals who don’t like each other giving everything they’ve got. The Beavers were close against the three top-10 teams they faced this season and have extra motivation against Oregon after the Ducks prevented their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1965 with a win in Eugene last year.
Oregon State won’t be the only team with incentive to knock off Oregon.
Being the nation’s No. 1 team, the Ducks have a target on their jerseys. No matter how a team has played to that point in the season, they’ll be up for Oregon more than any other game this season.
“It’s tough to be on top when everyone’s gunning for you,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
The Ducks better be ready.