It’s been over 20 years since Oregon faced four consecutive teams nationally-ranked.
When No. 12 Oregon travels to No. 25 Washington State on Saturday, the Ducks will be facing just that; trying to improve upon their 2-1 record against the top-25 this season.
The Ducks suffered a heart-breaking loss to Stanford in week four before rebounding with a dominating win over Cal. After a bye, Oregon secured its biggest win in years as it beat hated rival Washington in overtime last week.
Four games in five weeks against top talent, it’s reasonable to think the Ducks might enter Saturday’s matchup with the Cougars short on their mental makeup. Having to “get up” and “rise to the occasion” so many times in a row is extremely taxing, and it wears on the players and coaches over the course of a game, let alone a season.
That’s why Oregon’s biggest obstacle on Saturday won’t be the Cougars passing offense or their fierce defense. It’ll be the Ducks’ mentality, and where they’re at with it.
Right now, the Ducks are 2-1 and tied for first place in the Pac-12 North with Stanford, Washington and Washington State.
“I think that's something in the offseason that you talk about so that they understand it but once you get into the season you are going week to week,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said about being in contention late in the season. “But (we) immediately bring it right back down to Earth and to the focus that we use every single week… understanding that we need to win tomorrow' practice.”
With the conference race heating up, there’s no room for error. If the Ducks were to lose to the Cougars this weekend, it’ll make last week’s resounding victory over Washington obsolete.
But it begs the question; how does Oregon stay mentally tough and strong for all of these big games?
According to Cristobal, he understands that Oregon probably wasn’t expecting to be in this exact position considering the Ducks are on their third head coach in as many years. But, here they find themselves, accepting the position they’re in and keep taking it one day at a time.
“The Tuesday/Wednesday practice for us is the ultimate difference maker for us in our process and our program. It really is that simple,” Cristobal said. “I know it sounds boring and certainly not interesting at all but for us, because of where we are and how we're developing, it's completely tied into how we play on Saturday.
Not only does Oregon have to worry about mental fatigue, the Ducks find themselves in a position they haven’t experienced in a few years; favorites.
Last week’s victory over the Huskies was huge because it signaled that Oregon was back on the national stage, one of the better teams in the country capable of playing in the College Football Playoffs (even if it’s a longshot).
No one expected Oregon to be this good this soon under Cristobal so the expectations that come with being a top-tier in college football hadn’t yet reached Eugene. All year long, the Ducks were flying under the radar, a team dealing with adversity after a tough loss or not good enough to be considered elite.
But last week’s victory over Washington changed all of that. The nation knows what type of team Oregon is when it’s the underdog. But with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance again, the nation will find out who the Ducks are when they’re the hunted and no longer the hunter.