— No. 1 has been a dangerous place to be during the past couple weeks, but now it looks like we have a top-ranked team with some staying power.
Oddly enough, it’s a newcomer.
Until Sunday, Oregon had never been voted to the zenith of the Associated Press Top 25. It joins 42 other schools that have spent time at the top of college football’s most illustrious poll, including Virginia — yes, Virginia — which had been the last first-time No. 1 way back in 1990.
No one would blame the Ducks for waddling on egg shells.
Two weeks ago, Alabama tumbled from the No. 1 perch it had occupied since wresting it away from Florida in last season’s SEC championship game. The defending BCS champion Crimson Tide had spent eight weeks at the top and had the look of a longtime resident before absorbing a 35-21 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 9.
Ohio State promptly slid into the AP’s catbird seat, but didn’t even warm the cushion. The Buckeyes weren’t able to survive Saturday’s trip to Wisconsin, dropping a 31-18 decision at Camp Randall Stadium.
We won’t have to wait long to see if Oregon (6-0, 3-0 in Pac-10) is comfortable it its new role as the leader of the pack.
(If you haven’t sensed it by now, we don’t give a hoot about the silly BCS Standings . . . and won’t for about another month.)
A fortunate quirk in the schedule means that the Ducks will play in the national spotlight on Thursday night, hosting UCLA (3-3, 1-2) at Autzen Stadium.
The Bruins don’t figure to pose a threat to Oregon in Eugene. UCLA did put together a three-game winning streak earlier this season, highlighted by a 34-12 stunner at then-No. 7 Texas, but that run of fortune was sandwiched by a 35-0 disaster at home to Stanford and a 35-7 embarrassment at California in its last outing on Oct. 9.
After rolling over the Bruins, the Ducks will get their crack at the other L.A. school when it travels to USC (5-2, 2-2) on Oct. 30. The Trojans, who have this weekend off to figure out how to throw a monkey wrench into Oregon’s season, didn’t have many answers last Halloween, getting spooked 47-20 after carrying a No. 5 ranking into Autzen Stadium.
Lane and Monte Kiffin’s defense was impressive in a 48-14 dismemberment of Cal on Saturday, but USC’s body of work on that side of the football in 2010 doesn’t say much for its ability to slow down Chip Kelly’s “Quack Attack,” which has exhibited top form in its biggest games, rolling at Tennessee 48-13 and overwhelming Stanford 52-31.
The Ducks’ next two opponents — Washington (3-3, 2-1) and California (3-3, 1-2) — are even less capable. The Huskies are a longtime bitter rival, but have lost six in a row to Oregon by an average margin of 25 points. The Golden Bears scored a grand total of three points against the Ducks last year.
It’ll get much tougher in the final two weeks of the regular season when Oregon hosts No. 15 Arizona (5-1, 2-1) and closes with the annual Civil War at Oregon State (3-3, 2-1).
However, you have to wonder about the stability of the Wildcats and Beavers. Arizona is hoping for a quick return by quarterback Nick Foles, who was sidelined by a sprained knee in Saturday’s 24-7 win at Washington State. Oregon State, which came up just short in a 35-34 double-overtime thriller at Washington on Saturday, certainly could have used the services of wideout James Rodgers, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago.
That could just be the start for the ‘Cats and Beavs. By the time they both face the Ducks, the training rooms at Arizona and Oregon State could be bursting at the seams as each squad has to face Stanford and USC in back-to-back weeks before playing Oregon. Two of the Pac-10’s most physical teams, the Cardinal and Trojans could easily take some late-season steam out of the Ducks’ final challengers.
For its part, Oregon has shown that it can deal with attrition. The season started with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli at Ole Miss after being jettisoned from Eugene and running back LaMichael James suspended for the opener, but Darron Thomas and Kenjon Barner proved to be more than capable replacements.
Now, Thomas (concussion) and Barner (shoulder) are battling their own health issues, but the Ducks’ depth is far superior to most teams in the country.
When Thomas got hurt midway through Oregon’s last game on Oct. 9, senior quarterback Nate Costa stepped right in and accounted for 237 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 43-23 victory at Washington State. Costa, who has previous starting experience, has completed 23 of his 31 passes this season.
James has never been better and appears to be a horse that Oregon can ride for a long time. The sophomore averages 7.4 yards per carry and is part of the Heisman Trophy conversation.
We’re certainly not handing the crystal football to the Ducks. They’ve got a long way to go. But it does appear that their path to the BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., is a manageable one.
Since you only need to finish first or second in the final BCS standings to participate in the Big Enchilada, let’s put aside any heated discussion of whether No. 2 Boise State or No. 4 TCU will make it and take a quick look at what Oregon’s fellow contenders from “Big Six” conferences have left on their plates.
No. 3 Oklahoma still has to play a pair of regular-season road games against ranked opponents, beginning Saturday at No. 18 Missouri and concluding with the Bedlam game at No. 17 Oklahoma State on Nov. 27. Then, the Sooners presumably would have a Big 12 championship game against Nebraska to navigate.
In the SEC — home of the last four BCS champions — you’ve got a logjam consisting of No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 LSU and No. 7 Alabama. That trio still has to play round-robin with each other, beginning with Saturday’s titanic “Tiger Showdown” with Les Miles visiting The Plains. Then, after that bloody trilogy determines the West Division, the survivor has a hurdle to clear in the SEC championship game.
It’s a similar story in the Big Ten, but the “four teams enter; one team leaves” Thunderdome situation involving No. 8 Michigan State, No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 13 Iowa doesn’t figure to produce the league’s first BCS title game participant since the 2007 season.
Obviously, quite a bit of sorting out will take place over the next seven weeks. It just doesn’t look like Oregon will be one of the ones sorted out.