The notorious pathway that leads past the Willamette River through Alton Baker Park was overwhelmed with fans walking to Autzen Stadium last Saturday. That was no surprise. Football at the University of Oregon was back, and the atmosphere in Eugene was as chaotic as it has ever been on gameday.
But, for all of the excitement in and around the stadium as the seventh-ranked Ducks prepared to start their season against FCS mainstay Eastern Washington, one particular feeling was present throughout.
"People were anxious," said Spencer Johnson, a sophomore majoring in public relations.
Since Oregon reached its first national title game in 2010, "championship or bust" type expectations have followed. The Ducks have lived up to the hype for the most part, reaching the first national title game in the College Football Playoff era last January.
But, as any rational fan understands, it's difficult to repeat a national championship run in the subsequent year—especially after losing a Heisman trophy winner in Marcus Mariota and three of four starting defensive backs.
"There's a sense of we're not the machine we were," Johnson said.
It appeared that way too. Last Saturday, Oregon beat Eastern Washington, but surrendered 42 points and 549 yards of total offense. Now, heading into its matchup with No. 5 Michigan State, losing appears to be a much more understandable outcome around Oregon's campus—a fierce contrast to the feeling heading into this matchup a year ago.
"If we were to lose, most of the campus, most of the fans would look at it as more of a respectable loss than in recent years," said Aaron Nelson, a junior journalism major.
Fans and pollsters alike understand that a loss to Michigan State as well as a loss to one Pac-12 opponent is a realistic expectation for the 2015 season.
It portrays at least a tiny step back from the extraordinary expectations at Oregon the last few seasons, when losses to Arizona and Stanford in 2013 and the Wildcats again in 2014 felt unacceptable.
It is why former Oregon defensive coordinator and current Pac-12 Networks analyst Nick Aliotti told The Oregonian last October that the expectations were a "little bit harsh and too tough on any coaching staff."
But, as Oregon heads to East Lansing this week, it appears as if the fans understand that this time they will be the underdog.
As the Ducks exemplified last year, though, a loss in September will not push a team out of national championship contention. With Vernon Adams looking like everything he was advertised to be and a deep pool of talent on both sides of the ball, fans still have high hopes for this season.
Justin Wise is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.