Oregon Alamo Bowl Win Shows That the Ducks Program Has Grown Up in a Big Way

Brandon Oliver@@BOatBRContributor IJanuary 1, 2014

Mark Helfrich and his coaching staff did a great job of preparing the Ducks to play like champions after missing out on the BCS.
Mark Helfrich and his coaching staff did a great job of preparing the Ducks to play like champions after missing out on the BCS.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Once a college football program reaches a certain level, it can be hard for fans to consider the season a success if it doesn't end with a bid to a January bowl game.

No matter how much success a college football program has, a team and its season are defined by so much more than national championships and conference titles.

Once an elite program loses its chance for a championship, it isn't uncommon for the team to pack it in and play uninspired football for the rest of the season. 

That is exactly what happened to the Oregon Ducks in 2013. At least that was the case before they took the field in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas. While it wasn't the cleanest game they have played this year, the Ducks dominated the Longhorns in a somewhat unexpected fashion.

Beating a good team by 23 is nothing new for the No. 10 Ducks, but after the way they finished the season, it might have surprised some when the Ducks completely dominated the Longhorns.

After being unable to overcome quarterback Marcus Mariota's knee injury and the rugged Stanford defense in a highly publicized loss to the Cardinal in early November, the Ducks turned into a shell of their former selves over the final three games of the regular season.

Oregon did win two of its final three contests, but those wins were weren't exactly pretty. However, it was the team's the embarrassing 42-16 loss to Arizona that raised serious questions about the team's leadership and level of motivation.

Then, a last-minute touchdown drive in the "Civil War" against Oregon State saved Oregon from one of the biggest collapses in college football history. The Ducks won the game, but they didn't appear to have the fire to allow them to play to their full potential.

Oregon played inspired defense and shut down the Longhorns.
Oregon played inspired defense and shut down the Longhorns.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Leading up to the game against Texas, many were picking the Longhorns to keep the game close and possibly even beat the heavily favored Ducks. With its longtime head coach in his final game, Texas was expected to play with reckless abandon as the team tried to send Mack Brown out a winner. 

But Oregon didn't allow it, showing up the way championship teams do.

Pac-12 teams have a history of playing flat in bowl games that they consider a disappointment. Look no further than the 2004 Holiday Bowl..

That year Cal enjoyed a 10-1 season in which its only loss came to top-ranked USC. The BCS didn't seem to care, and after being behind Cal in every BCS release of the year, Texas jumped the Golden Bears in the final BCS standings and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.

The Longhorns went on to win a thriller over Michigan in Pasadena. Meanwhile, Cal played just like it felt and lost 45-31 to unranked Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

The following season, Oregon found itself in the exact same position at 10-1, with its only loss coming to No. 1 USC. After being left out of the BCS, the Ducks played poorly and lost to a seven-win Oklahoma team, 17-14.

Arizona State suffered the same fate in this year's Holiday Bowl. The Sun Devils were blown out by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and missed out on a trip to the Rose Bowl. Instead, they headed to San Diego and were blown out by a 7-5 Texas Tech team which was coming off five consecutive losses.

Nick Aliotti's retirement helped inspire the Ducks on defense.
Nick Aliotti's retirement helped inspire the Ducks on defense.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Perhaps the Ducks learned their lesson from previous letdowns, or perhaps they wanted to win it for Nick Aliotti, their longtime defensive coordinator who was coaching his final game before retiring. 

Whatever it was, the Ducks made as big of a statement in the Alamo Bowl as they did in any of their BCS appearances from 2009-2012. The Ducks played with the heart, fire and determination of a championship team and should be applauded for their effort in all phases of the game.

The Ducks may have lost focus after the Stanford loss, but there was no quit in the Ducks this season.

No one would have blamed the Ducks for suffering a loss to a motivated Texas team, which had much more talent than its record indicates. The Longhorns were trying to win one final game for their well-liked coach in a game less than 100 miles from their campus. 

With nothing really left to play for and the emotional and geographical odds stacked against them, the team that many called the biggest disappointment of the season went out in a way that should make all of its fans proud.

Being a champion isn't always about winning the final game of the college football season. But by winning their final game of 2013, the Ducks showed everyone that they are still a championship program that has staying power.

The Ducks responded to criticism and adversity with a big win and should help build momentum for 2014.
The Ducks responded to criticism and adversity with a big win and should help build momentum for 2014.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff rallied the troops during a time in which many thought they might be losing control of the team. The program's leadership had been called into question in previous weeks, but that won't be the case heading into the offseason.

A young roster loaded with talent is coming back in 2014, and a gutty performance to end the 2013 campaign should provide plenty of confidence for the program as it looks toward the future.