So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
After Oregon’s week 1 collapse against Auburn, and a couple of ugly wins against Stanford and Cal, fans weren’t even sure if the Ducks would win their division, let alone be College Football Playoff contenders.
Yet here we are. What looked to be a pipe dream just a couple of weeks ago is actually attainable. Losses by Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Wisconsin in recent weeks have opened the door for Oregon, which has quietly continued to take care of business since its opening-week loss. While projecting how the standings will end up is typically a fool’s errand, it’s safe to say that the Ducks, at the very least, will have a strong argument to make the playoff if they win out.
But let’s pump the brakes a bit.
Oregon has been good — really good at times — this season, and Mario Cristobal is putting the Ducks back on the map, just as he set out to do. But Oregon isn’t playoff-ready yet. While the Ducks’ last-second wins the past two weeks have been a couple of the sweetest in recent memory for Oregon fans, they both reinforce why a playoff appearance is likely out of the picture this season.
Oregon’s Not in Playoff Form
Sitting at 7-1, with a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North Division, all the Ducks have done since losing to Auburn in week 1 is win. With the perception of the Pac-12 gradually improving (especially when contrasted with the dismal ACC), and Oregon continuing to beat the teams on its schedule, more and more prognosticators are viewing the Ducks as a legitimate top-10, and potentially a top-four, team.
However, as impressive as their 7-1 start has been, the Ducks aren’t in the same tier as the true playoff contenders. While every team has close games, and the good teams manage to find a way to win them, great teams leave no doubt.
Look no further than the team that’s playing the best football in the country right now: the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have been ridiculously dominant, winning every game by at least 24 points. They’re one of just two teams with a Top-10 offense and a Top-10 defense, and they have elite players at every level of the field on both sides of the ball. Last Saturday, in a game that was expected to be a B1G Championship preview, Ohio State blew the doors off Wisconsin and its top-ranked defense. The Buckeyes cut through the Badgers’ front seven like a hot knife through butter, barely breaking a sweat in a 38-7 shellacking of the No. 13 team in the land.
LSU is the only team in the country to beat three Top-10 teams. Joe Burrow and the Tigers’ remodeled offense are lighting up the scoreboard against everyone. Yes, LSU has had its share of close games, but those close games have come against elite opponents, and in each of those matchups, LSU controlled the game and was clearly the better team. They’ve won in shootouts, dog fights and straight up blowouts. Even with a potential loss to Alabama looming, LSU is clearly one of the country’s best teams.
And let’s not forget last year’s national title game participants, Alabama and Clemson, who continue to nonchalantly sneak their way to undefeated seasons behind dominant offenses and punishing defenses. Both teams are hitting their strides at the right time, fresh off 40-plus-point blowouts in week 9.
Meanwhile, the Ducks needed all 60 minutes to put away Mike Leach’s decidedly average Washington State Cougars and a good-not-great Washington team. In both games, the Oregon defense that had carried the team all season looked lost and over-matched for large stretches. Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, a guy who had taken his share of criticism for poor performances earlier in the season, looked like a star against the Ducks and their supposed elite secondary. And for the majority of the contest, it was Washington’s less-heralded offensive line that looked like the best in the country, not Oregon’s.
As for the Cougars, you’d think after all these years of getting throttled by Leach and his plug-and-play quarterbacks, the Ducks would finally figure out how to slow Washington State down. Well, apparently they haven’t. Anthony Gordon torched the Ducks’ defense for 406 yards and three touchdowns, capping off his elite performance by driving down the field in less than two minutes for the go-ahead score in crunch time. What’s more, the Cougars actually left points on the table, as one of Gordon’s two interceptions was a perfectly placed pass that bounced off his receiver’s hands and right into Oregon defensive back Verone McKinley III’s. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
True playoff contenders not only win games, they look the part. These questionable performances by the Ducks, coupled with the fact that another contender in their own conference is making quick work of the same foes, suggest that Oregon simply isn’t ready for the big stage just yet.
But the Ducks Should Still Be Commended
Just because Oregon isn’t playing like a playoff team right now doesn’t mean that Cristobal or his team should be admonished. Contrarily, the fact that the Ducks pretty much have the Pac-12 North locked up with four games left to go is remarkable. Entering the season, not many saw the Ducks as a team that would be able to win seven straight games at any point. But when factoring in their late-game debacle against Auburn and some of their underwhelming showings this season, the fact that the Ducks have still managed to go 7-1 is even more impressive.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but Oregon has done what it hasn’t been able to do in quite some time. It’s finding a way to win, and doing so in nearly every way possible. The Ducks are comfortable in shootouts, like against Washington State and Washington, defensive slugfests, like against Stanford and Cal, and they’re perfectly fine with blowing teams out, too, like against Colorado.
Previous Oregon teams assuredly would have faltered more than once this season, as the Ducks have been punched in the mouth time and time again. But this year’s group is resilient and battle-tested, thriving when the stakes are raised. The Ducks’ defensive stand against Washington on the Huskies’ final possession was legendary. Justin Herbert’s game-winning drive against the Cougars with less than a minute left was a career-defining moment. Instead of finding agonizing ways to lose, as has been the case in past seasons, the 2019 Ducks continue to win regardless of the circumstances, despite being outplayed at times.
The latter may be a sign that the Ducks aren’t playoff-worthy. But the fact that Oregon continues to find ways to win in spite of sometimes underwhelming performances is a sign that Cristobal has the Ducks on the right track. Oregon is still a year or two away from having the talent to compete with the blue-bloods; that’s why it’s such a shock that the Ducks have managed to creep their way back into the playoff discussion already. But the seeds are being planted, and most importantly, Cristobal’s Ducks are winning despite that lack of elite talent at a number of critical positions.
There are a handful of teams that can realistically contend for a title in a given season. The Ducks aren’t one of them this year, but neither are about 120 other teams. The Ducks showed plenty of flaws against Washington State, and those flaws may cost them another game or two this season.
But right now, let’s enjoy this Oregon team for what it is: a fun, gritty, ice-in-the-veins bunch that just keeps on winning. If the Ducks stay on this track, they’ll be competing for championships sooner than later.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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