Ironwood Ridge's John Klass, left, celebrates Division II state title after a 27-3 victory over Centennial at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. (Ralph Freso/For the Daily Star)


A few strokes before midnight Sunday, a motorcycle policeman turned on his red and blue lights and led four Oregon Ducks buses from Arizona Stadium to the airport.

It was the only time all night that anything red and blue had a step on the Ducks.

I had been sitting on a cement bench near Sixth Street, watching as the Ducks and their entourage shared small talk and their sense of place in college football.

There was no frivolous behavior, but rather a collected air of entitlement. After all, the Ducks have become so good that the Rose Bowl is almost a secondary goal.

Phil Knight, the benefactor of Oregon football, attracted a crowd. So did Chip Kelly, the UO coach who has gone 25-5, absurdly successful at any level, and especially in a conference that had been owned by USC and Pete Carroll as recently as 2009.

Knight is the money behind Oregon's ascension and Kelly is the brains. Outside the SEC, no organization in college football exceeds their star power. After Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, they are the two ranking personalities in the conference.

Arizona has nothing remotely close to what Oregon football has become. The Ducks have beaten the Wildcats 56-31, 48-29, 44-41 and 55-45 the last four times they've met, and the gap isn't getting any closer. It has become frighteningly wide.

Thirty minutes earlier and about 100 yards away from the Oregon gathering, UA coach Mike Stoops talked about Arizona's place in college football. He did so with a tone of solemnity, almost resignation, as he spoke about being "overwhelmed" in a "humiliating" game.

College football is not a game that plays nice. It feeds on young and inexperienced teams like Arizona and gives them little space and less time to recover. If you string together two or three substandard recruiting years, as Arizona has, you get stepped on.

Down 35-9 at halftime Saturday, humbled and embarrassed, Stoops described the predicament in evocative terms.

"We were either going to get better or fall in a dark hole," he said. "To me, it wasn't an option."

The place that Arizona now occupies in Pac-12 football is indeed a dark hole.

The Wildcats have gone through a stretch so tough it could bleach the red out of those Zona Zoo T-shirts and turn them pink.

"We haven't even played half of the schedule yet," UA senior receiver David Douglas said Saturday night. "We haven't played our best football yet. A lot remains on the table for us."

But that's the optimism of youth. The sobering truth is that Arizona doesn't have enough good players to win much more than a game or two the rest of the conference season. How many of the Wildcats could start for Oregon? One man, receiver Juron Criner.

Nobody else.

Remember when Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino dealt with the ebb of that proud franchise by saying former stars Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale weren't going to be "walking through the door any more"?

In a UA football sense, there are no young and developing Tedy Bruschis, Ricky Hunleys or Chuck Cecils on the roster.

Criner is the only all-conference-type player on the team. To compete at the top of the Pac-12, you need five or six Criners.

Although the immediate schedule isn't as menacing as it has been, Arizona isn't equipped for the long haul. Stoops made a reference to the 3-8 UA teams he coached in 2004 and 2005 - he called them an unkind word that rhymes with bitty - which might've been a precursor to what some could soon be calling the 2011 Wildcats.

Not pretty.

Thirteen years ago on the same turf where Oregon's LaMichael James gained 288 yards Saturday, Trung Canidate ran for 288 yards as the Wildcats won their 11th game of the season, hanging 50 points on the Sun Devils. It was probably the greatest offensive performance by a Wildcat in the history of the old stadium.

Arizona went 12-1 by deploying a lineup sprinkled with future NFL players Chris McAlister, Yusuf Scott, Marcus Bell, Dennis Northcutt, DaShon Polk and Edwin Mulitalo.

There seemed to be no end to the thirst for Arizona football.

Trung Canidate was LaMichael James. Arizona was Oregon.

Arizona has since gone 63-84.

And the future doesn't look any better.