By JULIAN DICKINSON
This isn’t just another Pac-10 game. Tell me when was the last time ESPN’s College Gameday made the trip to Eugene, Oregon? And how long has it been since serious national title talk about the Oregon Ducks made its way beyond the Cascade Mountains? Funny enough, it was back in 2000 when Joey Harrington was the quarterback and … who was that guy calling the plays for the Ducks? Oh yeah. Jeff Tedford, the current coach of the California Golden Bears and arch nemesis of Mike Bellotti. Any college coach will tell you that you can’t ask for better exposure than what Oregon and Cal will receive as the centerpiece of ESPN’s all-day coverage, but there’s pressure that comes with it, too.
It’s not just because the entire country will be watching, but also because of the implications of winning and losing. This game is injected with the same kind of juice that fueled Michigan-Ohio State last year, and the winner will be set up to compete with USC for the Pac-10 crown and a realistic shot at the BCS title. The loser might as well start thinking about next year. So with all that on the line, Autzen Stadium will be a pressure cooker on Saturday afternoon – and pressure is not something that the Ducks, who are 5-point favorites in the game, have handled well since Bellotti has been on his own at the Oregon helm. If you listened to the rumblings around Eugene over the last few years, you’d know that Tedford gets much of the credit for the Ducks’ success in those winning years and since his defection, Bellotti hasn’t been able to win the big games.
Oregon has had good teams, but since Tedford left after 2001, the Ducks have not won a bowl game – and don’t think that Bellotti isn’t painfully aware of that fact. The Oregonian ran a column this week in which columnist John Canzano shed some light on the effect that Tedford’s legacy at Oregon has had on Bellotti. The article claims the Ducks coach feels slighted by the accolades and recognition given to Tedford and desperately wants some glory for himself. The situation, Canzano claims, has driven Bellotti to thrust himself into the limelight at inopportune times, often meddling with coordinators and play-calling much to the detriment of the team. “In case you've ever sat watching an Oregon football game,” Canzano writes, “where the Ducks were winning, and everything was working, and suddenly, Bellotti inserted himself into the game by calling a trick play, or onside kicking, or changing quarterbacks, or doing something so strikingly absurd that you couldn't help notice him, well, maybe you understand now what that's all about.”
None of this bodes will for Oregon in a game that holds all the pressure and atmosphere of a bowl game. This is a situation where Tedford holds the trump card, not just because of Bellotti's failures in big games, but also because of the memory of last year's 45-24 win over Oregon in which the Bears ran out to an early lead and never let go.
To look at the rosters, the talent level is almost identical. Both teams are stacked with enough playmakers to run up the score on any team and weaknesses are few and far between. All of which indicates that this game could come down to coaching. With the eyes of the college football world focused on Eugene, things could very likely get personal for these two coaches, especially on Bellotti’s end considering his purported complex regarding Tedford and his legacy. Expect this game to be a high-scoring affair with highlights galore. It should also be a close one, but when the pressure is on and the game is on the line, I wouldn’t trust Bellotti to make the right decisions for his team.
Oregon’s dream season could turn into a nightmare this weekend.