Chip Kelly's mantra for the Oregon football program is not "Win a national championship" or even "Win the Pac-10." It's "Win the day." And that's not just about Saturdays. Or Thursday nights. It's also about Mondays and Fridays and Sundays. And even days during off-weeks, which Kelly scoffs at the very notion of.
"We don’t have a week off," he harrumphed during the Ducks, er, week without a game last week.
So being ranked No. 1 in both major polls for the first time in school history and No. 2 in the BCS standings feels like an abstraction that has little immediate and concrete value today. Or next Monday. Or on Nov. 17.
Kelly did note he might be more effusive about it on Dec. 5, the day after the final regular-season game.
It was a mild surprise during Kelly's media sessions this week, however, that he actually opted to fully entertain the topic of his team's new, lofty standing. Yes, he's aware of it. Yes, it's pretty cool. Yes, he knows it's fun for his players. Yes, there is some value to being ranked so highly at midseason. No, it doesn't have anything to do with winning the day. And, no, he doesn't plan to talk about it with his players.
"Obviously, it's out there," Kelly said. "It's not like we're trying to avoid it. Or let's not talk about it because it's a jinx. Really, what it is is it's nice to be ranked. Obviously, it's beneficial to us because we don't have to go far [up in the rankings]. But we still have to win. And if we lose one -- that's something unique about college football now -- if you lose one you're probably out of it."
The Ducks have one Thursday night against a baffling UCLA team that was good enough to win big at Texas and bad enough to get crushed by California. And, yes, if the Ducks lose this one they are almost certainly out of the national championship race.
The burden of being No. 1 appears real. Alabama seemed to have a stranglehold on it until it lost by two touchdowns to a mediocre South Carolina team. Ohio State then fumbled it away at Wisconsin. If the Ducks should go rear-end-over-tea-kettle against the Bruins, we might have to start wondering if it's 2007 all over again, when a top ranking served mostly as a bull's-eye for an ax stroke between the eyes.
Senior receiver Jeff Maehl has had a front-row seat during the Ducks rise to the elite of college football. They were ranked No. 2 in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down with a season-ending knee injury. They finished ranked in the top-10 in 2008. They ended USC's seven-year run atop the Pac-10 last fall. The unexplored territory of No. 1 isn't actually that shocking to the Ducks system.
"It's cool," Maehl said. "It's something the school is never experienced before. It's something this program has been building to for a while now. You got to give a lot of credit to the past classes that came through here. We're excited to see what we can do with it."
Kelly said he's confident that his locker room culture will prevent players from getting drunk on fawning praise from media and fans. He turns the notion back onto itself toward the potential effects of negative outside appraisals, recalling the outpouring of doubt and derision the Ducks' rotten performance in the 2009 opener at Boise State inspired.
Folks, you might recall, suggested that Kelly, in his first year as head coach after replacing Mike Bellotti, was in over his head. It's possible that no second-year coach has seemed less "in over his head" than Kelly, who just got a contract extension and raise, but that was a popular impression one game into his tenure.
"We learned a really valuable lesson in the opening game of 2009," he said. "We lost to Boise State and if we had listened to outside influences we might as well have canceled our season. We were done for the year. It was, 'Oh, my God, we're the worst football team ever assembled!' Our guys didn't pay attention to it when it was obviously negative in that situation. So therefore you can't just flip the switch and say, 'Well, now it's positive -- let's listen to it!'"
The target, however, is now squarely on Oregon. UCLA is beaten up with injuries, including the decidedly questionable status of starting quarterback Kevin Prince, but has shown itself capable of playing well on a big stage against a highly ranked foe. The Bruins are fast, too. The Ducks' speed advantage, so obvious against Stanford and Tennessee, won't be as dramatic Thursday.
Maehl said he thinks a fast start, which the Ducks haven't produced often this year, is a key. Stepping on the gas early might leave the Bruins hopelessly lost in the fumes.
"One of the biggest things is when they get down they start to lose focus a little bit," he said. "I think if we can jump on them pretty quick, it's going to be an advantage for us."
If the Ducks do overcome the Bruins, that sets up a marquee showdown at USC on Oct. 30. The Trojans, who are off this week, looked like their old-school selves while poleaxing Cal last weekend. But, after that, things don't get any easier trying to maneuver through a deep Pac-10. The home stretch of Washington, at Cal, Arizona and at Oregon State is not a schedule conducive to perfection.
But Kelly isn't concerned with those challenging days ahead. He only wants to win today.
Of course, for his players -- and here's a guess for some coaches, too -- it's difficult to completely block out the scintillating potential endgame, which is only the pinnacle of college football. Oregon, after all, has never won a national championship.
"That's a hard thing to not think about," Maehl said. "I know guys do their best to try not to think about it, to try to focus just on the week. But definitely, if you're in position to play for a national title, even if you know, it's just halfway through the season, it's hard to not think about it. To me, it should just make us more confident coming out each week. The best I can do is to treat each game like it's the national championship, because if we lose we understand those hopes go away."
In other words, if you keep winning days, the last one will come with a crystal football.