A great quarterback isn't enough. Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck were all terrific college football players, but none won a national championship. Same for Joe Montana, Drew Brees and John Elway. It's the most elusive goal in sports, the championship of a 120-team league. Yet Danny Kannell and Chris Weinke have one, and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady don't.
A deer outrunning the headlights: Marcus Mariota strides to a 71-yard touchdown run against Virginia in the Ducks road opener last fall. When healthy, he's the most dangerous quarterback in college football (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports images).
The hope of Duck fans in 2014 centers around Marcus Mariota, as stellar a citizen and singular a talent as the PAC-12 has ever produced, Elway and Jim Plunkett included. Hopes are high that he can achieve the elusive double, the Heisman and the National Championship, befuddling defenses with his dual-threat magic the way Vince Young did in 2005-06, or Dennis Dixon did as a senior before the agony in the Zona Zoo. Defenses couldn't stop Dennis Dixon as a senior. He combined his smooth ball fakes, exquisitely-timed scrambles and deft passing to an 8-1 record and #2 ranking before crumpling to the turf without being touched, just a few plays after cruising to the end zone on a 39-yard touchdown run.
It was an ill-fated night. Besides the specter of Dixon's heart-breaking injury, Jamere Holland bounced a pass off his shoulder pads in the end zone, and Kwame Agyeman fumbled at the end of a 40-yard rumble with a fake punt. Reserve quarterback Brady Leaf misfired badly, 22-46 for 163 yards and a couple of picks. Jonathan Stewart was hobbled by a turf toe injury, gamely toting the rock 28 times for 131 yards, but without his usual explosion. The 34-24 loss was a lesson in how dreams can go to die.
Boise State and Stanford 2009. Auburn 2010. USC 2011. Stanford 2012. Arizona 2013: for six years the Ducks have been the Buffalo Bills of college football, highly-ranked, in the mix, making it to number one or number two then falling away on one night everything goes wrong, a handful of field goals and a couple of injuries from the ultimate.
The 2014 Ducks are deeper at running back and tempered by the resilience of all those near-misses. There isn't any adversity this coaching staff and fan base hasn't seen in six years of lurking in the top levels of college football, having one game each year that crushes the dream.
Championship seasons are hard and improbable. Marcus Mariota, sleek, smart and fast, has the talent, leadership ability and resourcefulness to win it all, as he did as a senior at St. Louis High in Aloha Stadium. He was born to do this, shaped into a champion by a loving family, blessed with gifts of speed, reaction time and grace under pressure that have pro scouts salivating and mock draft analysts expectorating. He can win a championship, because no one in college football can stop or outscore him when he's healthy, not now, not after another off-season of superb preparation and a greater level of comfort with the pressures and demands of stardom.
All he needs is a little luck. A year without a night that haunts the memory. Oregon fans have waited patiently, and he is the Moses of their football myth.