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Road to national title
goes through ... Oregon

Page 2

Harold Stassen has been elected president. Keanu Reeves has won an Oscar. Bob Uecker is Hall of Fame-bound.

Dennis Erickson
Oregon State hadn't had a winning season in 28 years until Dennis Erickson showed up.
Well, why not? Nothing seems quite so ludicrous anymore. Not now. Not when you pick up the copy of Sports Illustrated's college football preview and find Oregon State picked to win the national championship.

Yes, The Oregon State Beavers. Yes, those Oregon State Beavers. Yes, the team that once made Texas-El Paso feel like swaggering is SI's pick as the finest football team in the land.

The national champion Oregon State Beavers? What next? People magazine names Don Zimmer its Sexiest Man Alive?

Souls commuting to the sixth level of hell are advised that ferry service along the River Styxx has been temporarily halted due to ice floes ...

The Beavers aren't alone in the polls, though. The University of Oregon is right behind OSU, following the Beavers as closely as the Workers Rights Consortium tailing U of O alumnus Phil Knight. SI picked the Duck seventh and put quarterback Joey Harrington on the cover of its preview issue along with OSU running back Ken Simonton.

A Duck and a Beaver on the cover of SI? That's almost as unlikely as finding a woman on the cover who isn't wearing a bikini or ripping off her jersey.

Joey Harrington
Joey Harrington and the Ducks lost two games last season -- and one came at the hands of rival Oregon State.
We all know about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but SI isn't the only one touting Oregon's virtues as emphatically as the Portland Chamber of Commerce. The ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll ranks Oregon eighth and Oregon State 12th. ESPN Magazine picks Oregon fifth and put Harrington on one of its regional cover. The Associated Press ranks Oregon seventh and Oregon State 11th.

The state of Oregon hasn't received this sort of glowing scrutiny since Lewis and Clark canoed down the Columbia River.

True, preseason polls are about as reliable as an Oregon weather forecast in November that doesn't include the word rain. But still. This is a beautiful thing for Oregon, Oregon State and college football fans everywhere (well, maybe not in Washington, California or Arizona).

Northwest fans who can't remember their cash-machine PINs can easily remember those not-too-distant days when autumn was the cruelest season of all in Oregon. Granted, Oregon has had a good, competitive program and been a frequent bowl participant for the past decade, but there were many lean years before that when it was best known for its track program and as the site of Faber College in "Animal House."

Ken Simonton
Oregon State's Ken Simonton can become the first Pac-10 player to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons.
Oregon State, meanwhile, had been college football's favorite punchline since Joe Paterno's clothes were last in fashion. The Beavers went 28 years without a winning season, until coach Dennis Erickson arrived two years ago.

The state's rich football history was best symbolized by the 1983 Civil War game between the two schools. They tied 0-0. Civil War? Not even Ken Burns could have made that annual game interesting.

Now, however, all that has changed. Oregon State and Oregon finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in last season's polls, and this year's matchup is so anticipated that they moved back the game two weeks to Dec. 1 at the request of national television.

These are wonderful times for Oregon fans, whether they identify with Corvallis or Eugene. The Oregon and Oregon State campuses are separated by just 37 miles, and right now that little slice of the Willamette Valley appears to hold the greatest concentration of college football talent since Herschel Walker dined alone.

Joey Harrington billboards
Billboards featuring Joey Harrington, like this one in downtown Portland, are popping up all across the country.
After all these years, the state is finally in the college football spotlight. Of course, it's paying for the visibility.

As part of a Heisman Trophy campaign, Oregon paid $250,000 for a 100-foot-high billboard of Harrington in New York City, the sort of honor usually reserved only for our nation's finest underwear models. It might sound like a bit much, but then again, maybe not. After all, did Mark Wahlberg ever lead the Pac-10 in touchdown passes while directing his team to 14 wins in 16 starts, as Harrington has?

Harrington isn't even the state's best player though, let alone the nation's. Challenging him for both honors is OSU's Simonton, who could become the first player in Pac-10 history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He's one of 11 starters returning from last year's team that went 11-1 and whipped Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Beavers haven't been to the Rose Bowl since the 1964 season, and they won't play there this year unless they're in contention for the national title. That's because the ridiculous BCS set-up has the Rose Bowl serving as the site for the national championship game.

Then again, the Beavers just might be one of those teams. If they can get past Oregon, that is. Which might be as difficult as getting past Bluto Blutarsky in the buffet line.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for

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