Marcus Mariota Isn’t Walking Through That Door

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In a tale of two games filled with back-and-forth uncertainty, there was one single moment when it appeared the dam holding back the tide of Oregon’s offense would crumble, that despite all the challenges the Ducks faced beforehand, the points and yards were about to flow downhill.

That moment was punctuated by, arguably, the most miraculous plays Oregon made against the Michigan State Spartans in both editions of their 2014-2015 home-and-home-series.

In 2014, it was Marcus Mariota’s shovel pass to Royce Freeman, that led to Oregon scoring 28 unanswered points en route to a 46-27 victory. In 2015, it was Vernon Adams’s left-handed pass to Bralon Addison, that led to an interception the very next play.

It’s a new year with different challenges, and Mariota isn’t here to carry the team until they decide to meet them.

Taj Griffin and Royce Freeman

Tom Corno

Taj Griffin and Royce Freeman

If fans feel like the season is over, blame the BCS. Sure, it’s been gone for two years, and it has served as a punching bag for everything negative in college football, but still.

If Oregon fans feel bad today, they have my permission to blame that anachronistic, title-deciding relic of a system. After 16 years, its presence has conditioned fans into thinking that any single loss is tantamount to a postseason disqualification, and that the only chance of redemption comes by the failures of other schools.

Fortunately, we no longer live under a BCS regime.

In 2015, more teams get a shot at the title, but the increased gauntlet these teams are forced to run in order to impress the BCS’ successor – The Selection Committee – means nearly every team is going to suffer some hiccup along the way. Every team in college football lost a game last season, and guess who won the national championship? The one that lost a game in Week 2.

Oregon lines up on offense against Michigan State.

Tom Corno

Oregon lines up on offense against Michigan State.

Sure, there’s a laundry-list of concerns that could be rattled off from Saturday’s game, but, 36 hours later, they have been talked to death.

This is not without merit, however. If these concerns aren’t addressed, there is good reason to suspect that this year’s incarnation of the Ducks won’t meet the same level of achievement as their predecessors did. But if they can right the ship, as they did after the Arizona game last year, there’s no reason to assume anything is lost yet.

They will have some time to solve these problems, too. Their next four games are against Georgia State, Utah, Colorado and Washington State, with the only reasonably formidable opponent, Utah, coming to our home. If they can clear things up before their October 17th game at Washington, they will add Darren Carrington and, potentially, Devon Allen into the offense for the rest of the season.

Although last season was the first time the Ducks played for a national championship after losing a game, early losses in 2001, 2007 and 2011 proved only minor setbacks as they still found a way to climb back into the top four, and their chances at a top-four finish in 2000 and 2013 were hampered only by late-season losses.

Of course, all that was under the BCS, a system that we are, again, blaming for all the current anxiety Oregon fans are experiencing. Point is, this season is far from over, and the Ducks are still very capable of reaching the Playoffs for these reasons:

If You’re Going to Lose, Lose Early

Byron Marshall catches a TD.

Tom Corno

Byron Marshall catches a touchdown pass from Vernon Adams.

The universal rule for getting to the college football postseason is, if you are going to lose, do it as early as possible. We have to go all the way back to … oh, last season for an example of that, with Oregon losing early in Week 6 before going on to play for the title.

In fact, the final order of playoff teams – Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama, then Florida State, if one considers that the Seminoles finished below the Crimson Tide by virtue of being eliminated sooner, as a result of the Rose Bowl’s earlier start time than the Sugar Bowl’s — coincidentally corresponds to the order in which each team lost during the regular season.

If You’re Going to Lose, Lose to a Good Team — and Preferably on the Road

Michigan State QB Connor Cook

Tom Corno

Michigan State QB Connor Cook

In a four team playoff, there will be one-loss teams that get selected based on the merit of their schedule. The deciding factors are what team that one loss came against, and the strength of their conference.

Losing on the road to a top-five team, especially one as impressive as Michigan State was last night, is as explainable as a loss gets. Michigan State might not stay in the top-five all season, and they might not even win their division with Ohio State in their way, but they will be a ten-win team unless they somehow manage to lose at Ohio State, at Michigan, and at Nebraska – or some other lesser opponent on their schedule. Based on the team we saw yesterday, that doesn’t appear likely.

Conference strength should help the Ducks here. Despite the early hits to the Pac-12’s reputation, the conference should rally in standing by the end of the season.

It is the only conference with teams that play 10 conference opponents — as both division winners do — and if Oregon finds a way to the conference championship, it will have five games against the Pac-12 South, which is arguably the toughest division in college football, while avoiding Arizona and UCLA. Any team who emerges undefeated from that conference schedule will be a presence on New Year’s Eve.

But Don’t Lose Again

Ducks celebrate a late touchdown

Tom Corno

Ducks celebrate a late touchdown.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the margin for error is gone.

People will point to LSU as a two-loss champ in 2007 as a cause for hope, but A) that came in a year when there were few one-loss teams, B) LSU never dropped out of the top five, C) they are an SEC team, and we all know what that means, and most importantly, D) prior to LSU in 2007, the last national champion with two losses was Minnesota. In 1960.

There just have not been many two-loss teams that end the regular season in the top four, let alone ones who went on to win it all. For the Ducks to make the Playoffs, they have to be done with losing.

Whether or not that happens could come down to the game against USC on November 21st — it’s happened before. In 2011, fresh off a title game appearance, Oregon’s early loss to a top-five LSU sent them tumbling down the rankings to 13th.

No fear, the plucky Ducks won their next nine games, the ninth coming as a 23-point upset on the road over Andrew Luck and third-ranked Stanford.

The following week, the fourth-ranked Ducks played USC at home, only to find themselves in a 38-14-sized hole they weren’t able to climb out of, and so were forced to wave goodbye to their National Title hopes as Matt Barkley sadistically played conductor to the USC marching band. Way to rub salt in the wound there, Matt.

In 2015, after playing for a title last year, Oregon loses a game to a top-five opponent, tumbles down to 12th, plays Stanford on the Farm, and plays USC at home in back-to-back mid-November Saturdays.

It’s a particularly cruel omen, especially after such a crushing loss last night. But the season’s not over, and if the Ducks can run the gauntlet unscathed, they will have truly earned their way into the College Football Playoff.

Go Ducks!

Top photo from this hilarious video.

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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to nroholtfd@gmail.com.

  • Nate Haas

    It’s a bit ironic to see how Matt Barkley plays now and can’t quite make the Eagles’ roster, but I remember that game in 2011 when he was nearly flawless. The Ducks were somewhat somnolent that night, but Matt was just on fire. It seemed like he couldn’t miss. Games like that happen, and that one snuffed the Ducks’ playoff hopes that year.
    Lots of lessons for the Ducks in the MSU loss this weekend, and I agree with the author’s main points here. A “W” is a “W” for the Spartans, not quite the “revenge” as claimed, but decent validation nevertheless. They did their homework and played well. I don’t agree with the superficial analysis that the old school tough guys beat they new fangled shifty types, but MSU got a win on a good Ducks team that is still forming.
    Meanwhile, redemption is totally possible for the Ducks. There is never any guarantee in college football, but it’s reasonably likely that the elements will come together for the Ducks as the season progresses. They have the talent, great (and improving) coaching, and the right team culture to get back to where they were in December last year. It’s not going to be dancing on the edge of a razor blade to get there, but the Ducks will need to show up every game.
    I’ve watched the 2014 Oregon-MSU game several times on my DVR and I will take exception to the author’s statement that the Mariota shuttle pass “led to” the Oregon comeback. Sorry, but that’s a bit too simple. There is an important difference between a trigger and a cause. The defense put the offense back in the game last year. They cold-stopped Cook and the Spartans on several series in the 3rd quarter. Then the front seven stopped MSU on a critical 4th down and inches. After that, Ifo’s diving interception of the deflected Cook pass stifled the up-to-then-successful MSU drive. It was a team win. I love Mariota and was very pleased at his great play against Tampa yesterday, but the narrative of Mariota being the key to Oregon football is too simple.
    It won’t be an easy season. Cal could surprise; Utah will play tough; Washington could come together; Stanford – admittedly sorry looking now- could pull off an tOSU-style improvement, and USC… ok, no. I’d worry more about Oregon State losing all their remaining games and still rising to the Civil War grudge-match spoiler occasion. Adding talent to the team and more lumens to the spotlight probably won’t change Sark’s record against the Ducks. In any case, it’ll all be fun to watch. Go Ducks!