Is Oregon the new USC?

With 18 starters coming back from a 10-3 team that won the 2009 Pac-10 title by two games, the only significant question for Oregon entering 2010 was at quarterback.

Of course, that's a big question. Experience at quarterback, traditionally, has been extremely important in the Pac-10. A notable recent exception would be when USC rolled to a second-consecutive conference title -- as well as the national championship -- in 2003 with sophomore Matt Leinart as a first-year starter.

What year is Darron Thomas again? For that matter, what year is LaMichael James?

No, we're not going there. We're not going to throw out the notion of Oregon stepping into the void left by the crumbling of USC's dynasty. That would be silly.

Wouldn't it?

Come on! Oregon doesn't have the recruiting base. It doesn't have the history. Its stadium is rowdy, yes, but it doesn't seat 90,000-plus like all the superpowers' stadiums do.

Heck, Oregon first needs to win a Rose Bowl in the modern era before anyone starts thinking about writing epic poetry about it. And in any event coach Chip Kelly is all about the present moment -- "Win the day!" -- which even has its own crest. There's nothing in "Thus Spoke Kelly" about building dynasties.

What we do have is this: Oregon was ranked No. 2 and a national title contender in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. Oregon finished the 2008 season ranked 10th. It finished 11th last season after losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. It presently is ranked No. 3.

The Ducks are building toward their best run in modern program history. And they are just a few clicks from becoming one of those PROGRAMS.

As we said, the question entering the season was how good could the Ducks be after losing a quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, who was a two-year starter and was considered a short-list Heisman Trophy candidate. At some point in the 52-31 win over Stanford on Saturday, the story moved decisively away from who Thomas wasn't to who he is. And who he could become.

"He's definitely coming along," center Jordan Holmes said after the game. "And I can't wait to see how far he can go because he gets better and better every week. He's just a kid. He's got a lot more football to play. I'm really looking forward to see what he becomes in the future."

With Thomas at present, Oregon might have the best offense in the nation. It ranks No. 1 in scoring (56.6 points per game) and total offense (569 yards per game). It doesn't give up sacks (one in five games). It runs the ball (No. 2 in the nation with 331 yards per game).

But Oregon also plays underrated defense. You've all heard the "one second-half TD surrendered in the first five games" factoid. But the Ducks are 15th in the nation in scoring defense -- 15 ppg -- and fourth in pass efficiency defense.

Have the Ducks given up some yards? Yes. But they surrender only 4.73 yards per play.

Whoops. That's not right. The Ducks surrender only 4.58 yards per play. Alabama's defense gives up 4.73 yards per play. My bad.

Oregon is never going to do well in total defense because opponents get to run a lot of plays against it due to the Ducks' offensive tempo -- see a rank of 98th in time of possession.

Folks say defense wins championships. The Ducks defense is good enough to win a championship.

Obviously, it's premature to contemplate Oregon stepping into the void left by USC's decline. Before USC's ascension, the Pac-10 was the most unpredictable conference in the country: See nine different teams at least earning a share of the Pac-10 title from 1993 to 2001.

And Oregon fans know that seeming juggernauts can fall hard. The 2007 Ducks were rolling with Dixon. Without him, they lost three straight and went to the Sun Bowl.

Still, at this point, the Ducks have looked like the best team in the conference as well as national title contenders. If those midseason perceptions end up being accurate in January, and the Ducks manage to win a Rose Bowl or -- gasp -- play for a national title, then Oregon will no longer just be a nice program.

It will become one of those PROGRAMS.