It’s the label that everyone associated with the University of Oregon football has long been waiting to use. It narrowly escaped their grasp in 2011 (thanks a lot, Michael Dyer), and also recently with the Bowl Championship Series system fiasco in 2001 … but this year it’s looking like it could all come together.
We all were watching Saturday as No. 7 Michigan State fell to the favored Ducks. Now, with the (currently) best-ranked opponent behind them, many would look toward the first game of the college football playoff for the Ducks as their next possible defeat.
It’s not just a matter of ranking, though. With that in mind, here are the five reasons why the Ducks should be national champions in January.
- Alabama and Florida State’s recent struggles.
The Seminoles opened up their season in a primer against a less talented Oklahoma State team. The reigning national champions didn’t exactly crush their unranked opponent, and the ‘Noles escaped with a 37-31 win.
‘Bama, known for its defense, was mostly fooled by the fast-paced Mountaineer offense (look forward to a possible Oregon-Alabama matchup if both teams make it to the playoffs, Oregon fans). The Crimson Tide escaped with a 10-point win, but never let West Virginia out of it.
Both teams played Football Championship Subdivision doormats last week, after these aforementioned performances.
- Oregon can win a grind-’em-out game.
The announcers were heralding Michigan State as this “grinding” team all throughout the game last Saturday. After being criticized for not being physical – by losing to Stanford during the last two years – the Ducks finally got a win against a similar opponent.
Having to come back after trailing at halftime — and winning — made it seem like Oregon was mentally tougher than I once thought, too. No losing to a team by three after a blowout win the previous week. I liked this from the Ducks. A lot.
- They helped their own playoff case by beating another school from a Power-5 conference.
The Pac-12 as a whole benefited from the Duck’s win Saturday, in that whoever is champion will probably be seeded higher than the B1G champ. (I’m assuming Washington will take care of Illinois this week as a home favorite, although the team has been inconsistent to start the season.) And if the Ducks are the team to come out of the Pac-12, they have the chance at being the No. 1 seed, which would not happen had they lost to the Spartans.
- Stanford has glaring weaknesses + Oregon doesn’t have to play USC or Arizona State.
Duck fans should have been keeping tabs on the Stanford-USC game before Oregon played. Stanford had obvious offensive and special teams troubles (400+ yards yielding only 10 points). Two fumbles and missed field goals resulted in a 13-10 USC win.
The Ducks, thankfully, won’t have to face the Trojans – good news for a team that lost to the USC just two years ago. Arizona State, like USC, is currently ranked in the Top-25 and would definitely give the Ducks their best game if they were to play each other.
- Oregon has all three phases of the game working for them.
Much like in 2011, Oregon’s defense is potent enough to let their quick-paced offense flourish (and vice-versa). No more Tyler Gaffney or Kadeem Carrey going up the gut, for what seemed like 15 yards a pop. The turnovers created by the Duck defense were huge, too, as Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s interception sealed the game.
As for the special teams unit, which always features great returning, Matt Wogan looked spotless as a kicker. For the field goal kicker to be used in the red zone is unlike the Oregon teams of the recent past.
As for the third phase, the team notorious for their offense is never lacking. Marcus Mariota is a definite Heisman candidate. Enough said here …
So yes, this Ducks team is elite. Could they go undefeated? Yes. As of now, they’ve trumped their best opponent per the rankings, and Duck fans such as myself are especially hyped after such a huge win.
However, it’s not all unicorns and bunnies for the Ducks. Five reasons why the Ducks won’t win the championship are provided below — fair-weather fans and extreme optimists, look away.
- The run game in-between the tackles.
Michigan State’s run defense isn’t average — it’s superb. That being said, the Ducks weren’t very successful in changing that in the first half (14 yards on 13 rushes).
Running in-between the tackles was actually ineffective the whole game. Mariota and Royce Freeman got loose on the outside running the ball. (Oregon had 130 of the 160 rushing yards in the game outside the tackles. Thomas Tyner had more carries than yards in the first half because he rarely went to the outside.) So if there is an area to improve, it is between the tackles. Expect future foes to recognize this weakness in Oregon’s game.
If Oregon faces, say, an Alabama in the playoff, the Crimson Tide will definitely be looking back to the MSU game to see how the Spartans were effective on defense. From that, they would be able to execute against the rushing attack just as good as — if not better than — Michigan State.
- Most preseason favorites are still holding suit.
No Top-25 team — except Ohio State — has lost to an unranked foe yet. That’s almost unheard of, after two weeks of college football.
Don’t get me wrong; Oregon is a great team this year. They’ve beaten what could be the eventual B1G champion. However, Texas A&M creamed South Carolina, another Top-10 team at the time, which is just as impressive a win as Oregon has, especially since it was at South Carolina.
My point is, there are other teams out there capable of beating Michigan State as badly as Oregon did. Many of which surround Oregon in the polls.
- A dark horse.
Auburn in the 2010 and 2013 seasons, Boise State in 2006 and 2009, Notre Dame in 2012, Oklahoma in 2013, Utah in 2004.
All these teams made BCS Bowl Game appearances and either won them in an upset or were too under the radar at the beginning of the season for anyone to put them in the discussion, to be at their respective bowl games.
A bad game against either a currently shaky-but-talented Washington team at home or against a commonly underrated Utah team in Utah could yield a dark horse from within the conference to take the Pac-12 crown. (If you think I’m wrong, UW hosts a team they’ve always played well against in Stanford as well as Arizona State and UCLA … whereas Utah hasn’t put up less than 56 points their first two games.)
Likewise, a team could go 12-1 or even 13-0 from another conference after being previously unranked, and defeat the Ducks in the postseason.
- The mid-range pass defense.
I know I wasn’t the only one who witnessed the eight- to 20-yard passes that Connor Cook was seemingly completing at will in the first half on Saturday. Cook completed a career-high eight passes for 15 yards or longer according to ESPN. This is a glaring hole in the Duck’s D.
Even South Dakota scored on their opening possession against Oregon, in a drive that featured a nine-yard pass along with a 10-yard pass on third down later in the drive, both of which earned the Coyotes a fresh set of downs.
5. UCLA on the road + Stanford.
It would be easy for one to be confused about the usage of the Cardinal in both lists, but considering recent history, the Stanford-Oregon game decides who wins the Pac-12 North.
In the game against USC, it could be argued that Stanford’s miscues were by chance. Don’t get me wrong, fumbles and missed field goals are both careless mistakes, but Stanford was a couple of misfortunes away from victory against a formidable opponent.
The Bruins are feared in their own right. Of course, two victories by only one possession each against Memphis and Virginia isn’t what most were expecting – although, we all know what UCLA is capable of.
Wrapping it up …
Considering all of the impressive gains the Ducks have made, it would be hard to imagine them missing the college football playoff, even this early in the season. The Ducks made a statement Saturday, one that I was worried they wouldn’t make, and one that hopefully sets the tone for the rest of the season.
The season is only two weeks in, so a lot can and will happen. The only thing that I’m sure of is that the Ducks are lucky that the two South Division opponents they don’t have to play — Arizona State and USC – could be the best and very likely would face off with one of them in the Pac-12 championships.
If the season ended today, though, the Ducks would be in the college football playoff and sittin’ pretty. I’d have money on them as eventual champions, too.
Let’s hope this stands.
Top photo by Kevin Cline