PHOENIX -- Lining a red carpet next to a mariachi band, a group of fans broke into a cheer as the door to Oregon’s plane swung open. Sensing a chance to get a bit of the spotlight for himself, an airport worker in an orange vest raised his arms in mock triumph and mouthed sarcastic thank yous as he made his way down the temporary staircase.
The real stars came next.
Following the brief moment of levity, Oregon’s players filed off the plane, arriving in the desert Sunday with a serious task ahead: facing top-ranked Auburn and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton on Jan. 10 for the program’s first national championship.
The second-ranked Ducks landed about 45 minutes early and were greeted by a decent-size crowd of Oregon fans and bowl personnel, the cheers and waving pompoms a nice welcome for what figures to be a difficult eight days of preparation and trying to avoid distractions.
“We’re excited to be here,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said inside a white tent next to Sky Harbor Airport’s executive terminal.
“The amount of support we get everywhere, it’s an exciting time to be a Duck. And we’re going to meet them all on the 10th.”
Auburn is scheduled to arrive this afternoon.
The Ducks had few problems with the relatively short flight from Oregon, other than defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti needing to get wanded because of his titanium hips.
Now comes the biggest week in the program’s 115-year history.
Oregon (12-0) had a fairly easy run through the regular season, crushing teams with an uptempo offense that had opponents feigning injuries in an attempt to slow it down. The Ducks had one close game -- 15-13 over Cal -- and led the nation with 49.3 points per game while averaging nearly 540 yards.
Auburn, though, is nearly as potent on offense and has Newton, the multitalented quarterback who overcame a pay-for-play plot by his father to run away with college football’s most prestigious individual award.
It’s also a bigger a stage than the Ducks have ever been on before.
Oregon has been in the national spotlight before, just last season in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. But the Ducks lost that game and this one has an even brighter glow, with media from around the country descending on the desert and an entire nation of football fans watching every their every move.
To avoid his players thinking about the weight of trying to win the program’s first national title and potential distractions in a winter vacation destination, Kelly and the coaching staff outlined a detailed schedule almost immediately after earning the title-game bid.
After busing from the airport, Kelly said the players would go over administrative details at the team hotel Sunday afternoon and will get going in earnest with team meetings Monday morning, followed by the first outside-of-Eugene practice.
If everything goes right, the apex of Oregon’s preparations will hit about 8:30 p.m on Jan. 10.
“Every day for us is extremely important,” Kelly said.
“Our players’ mindset since they got back at it after finals has been the same way. We got a real good amount of work in while we were in Eugene and now we’re down here to get six or seven days of work here and we’ll be ready to play the game. No day is more important than tomorrow and that’s where it starts.”
It ends in a week, with everyone watching and everything on the line.