EUGENE - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs had some misinformation. He knew the results of the Pac-12 media poll released during media days last week had the Ducks finishing fourth. He just didn't realize that meant fourth in the North Division.
“I thought it was fourth in the Pac-12,” Springs said Sunday during Oregon's media day at Autzen Stadium. “Wow. Fourth in the North? That’s kind of sad, that’s real sad. But I guess they had to do that based off last year.”
Yes, they kind of did. And although such predictions aren't worth much more than the paper they are written on, the reality that those who follow the conference the closest have such a low opinion of these Ducks, 4-8 last season, is telling.
Few are buying that new coach Willie Taggart will return this program to its championship ways in year one, which begins today with the team's first fall practice. Not many believe sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior running back Royce Freeman can compensate for a defense that finished 128th in the nation last season. And don't try to sell the idea that new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can in one year elevate said defense to championship levels.
For the first time in a decade, few believe the Ducks are championship contenders of any kind. Yet, Oregon's players are mostly concerned with how they view themselves.
“It hurts to be ranked fourth like that,” redshirt sophomore guard Shane Lemieux said. “It’s basically kind of like a slap in the face. But at the same time a lot of us don’t care.”
The Ducks are embracing the underdog role.
“I think we’ve kind of had that mentality that we’re just going to try to surpass the expectations,” Herbert said.
Not having a target on the team's back could prove to be a bonus, according to sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, and it's something he sees Taggart using to fuel the team's energy.
“You have no expectations," Dye said. "So you can go out there and play every game like it’s your last and just try to take somebody’s season away and build on top of yours.”
Springs agrees: "It’s great. For the first time we don’t have any expectations. We can’t do anything but go up.”
What's truly realistic for this team? Could the Ducks overcome Washington State to finish third? Probably. But is it realistic to believe that Oregon could pull off upsets at Stanford and/or defending champion Washington to truly contend?
Oregon certainly believes so.
“Guys won’t settle for being fourth,” senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said. “We want better.”
It's all a matter of believing in the process.
“At the end of the day we’re going to end up with the Pac-12 title if we just follow the course,” Dye said. “So we don’t really care about what people project.”
Senior wide receiver Charles Nelson said last season won't impact the team's mentality regarding 2017.
“We feel like every other team does,” he said. “Every other team feels like they’re the best and we feel like we’re the best.”
Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James took things a step further.
“I see this team at the very least winning the Pac-12 but at the maximum going all the way,” Brooks-James said.
All the way as in to the national title game. That prediction might be a tad out there, but why not?
“We did have a really bad year last year," Lemieux said. "But this is a totally different team, a totally different coaching staff and a totally different atmosphere.”
The reality is that very few players remain that had an impact on the 2014 team, which won the Pac-12 and reached the national title game. Maybe, in the end, it's best that the newer Ducks aren't treated as if they had already accomplished what their predecessors had.
“It’s good for a lot of new guys,” Springs said. “Most of these guys weren't on the championship team. So, it’s all new for them. They are really just trying to prove themselves.”
And, prove the doubters wrong.