When the four-team College Football Playoff was formally approved by the NCAA in June 2012, teams, analysts and fans alike rejoiced in the reformation of the BCS — a system which had been previously criticized for not being fair to all teams. The Playoff, which runs through the 2025 season, reduces the likelihood of a deserving team getting left out of a chance to play for a national championship. Surely there will be very good teams that miss the boat in the years to come, but the hope is that this new structure will provide more clarity to a system that has been cloudy in past years.
Because the NCAA has taken so much heat for decisions made in the prior BCS format, the new College Football Playoff selection committee will use very careful and thorough consideration in deciding the top four teams to compete for a championship. As a result, strength of schedule will be a crucial tool in the evaluation of contending teams — perhaps more so than ever before — according to Tom Jernstedt, a former NCAA executive and member of the new selection committee.
“Strength of schedule will become such an important factor that if you want to be under consideration, you need to have a more meaningful schedule than perhaps you’ve had in previous years,” Jernstedt told ESPN.com in late 2013. This philosophy will favor teams that schedule at least one non-conference game against a power conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) and also play in a conference that is competitive top to bottom.
Fortunately for the Ducks, their scheduling timing couldn’t have worked out any better. Their September 6th matchup with Michigan State, which is coming off of a 24-20 Rose Bowl win over Stanford, will be one of the most significant non-conference games the Ducks have participated in. Their 2011 loss to then-No.4 LSU at Cowboys Stadium was the Ducks’ last non-conference game in which both teams were ranked in the Top-25. But, it hasn’t been since 2006, when the Ducks infamously defeated then-No.11 Oklahoma, that the Ducks have played a ranked team from a power conference (outside of the Pac-12) at Autzen Stadium.
Why is this early season game so significant? For starters, any shortcomings in the strength of the Ducks’ schedule will be more than compensated for if they beat the Spartans. While the selection committee considers the soft non-conference schedules of other elite teams, the winner of this game will have a signature non-conference win on their resumé. A win for the Ducks over a physical, grind-it-out type of football team would also give them some much needed confidence to defeat Stanford, the Ducks’ kryptonite of late.
Even more significant is the fact that the Ducks get to play Michigan State in the comfort and familiarity of Autzen Stadium. Behind an expected near-60,000 deafening fans, the home field advantage will certainly give the Ducks a boost. This is especially crucial because in recent memory, the Ducks’ reputation in ranked games played away from Eugene is mixed at best.
And if the Ducks were to drop a game to either Michigan State or Stanford, they would still have a chance to fight their way back into the national championship conversation since the number of teams playing for a title will be four rather than two starting this year.
To get to the Final Four this season will be no easy task — by any means – but the Ducks are in a great position to play in the first-ever College Football Playoff. Mark Helfrich has gained experience. The running back corps is as deep as ever. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and likely Marcus Mariota‘s final seasons will give the team extra motivation.
The Ducks have a chance to make history. With a tremendous opportunity at hand, they must seize it.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck