It took all of 32 seconds in Oregon’s Saturday night match-up against Arizona for the Ducks to confirm something that seemed so unlikely just a short time ago, and it’s almost strange to put into words. With two weeks to go in the regular season, the Oregon Ducks control their own playoff destiny.
Let that sink in.
Of all the blue-blood, New Year’s Six perennials that are currently “in the hunt,” it’s Oregon that now has the clearest path and best shot to make the College Football Playoff. Just as recently as a couple of months ago, an Oregon playoff run was thought to be a long shot at best. But now, after steamrolling Arizona in a game that was over as soon as it started, the Ducks are just three games away from an improbable trip back to college football’s biggest stage.
Oregon Handles Its Business
Plenty of craziness had to take place on Saturday for the Ducks to control their own playoff destiny, but the first and most important of business was to dispose of a reeling Arizona squad. Coming off of four straight losses, minus a recently fired defensive coordinator, the Wildcats were significantly out-manned and over-matched. It was a match-up in which anything less than a thorough, convincing Oregon win would be a disappointment.
Luckily, Oregon didn’t disappoint.
The Ducks throttled Arizona, making sure to quell any rumblings of a potential upset. Oregon made quick work of the Wildcats, scoring on its second play from scrimmage: a 73-yard bomb from Justin Herbert to Johnny Johnson III. The play was a perfect encapsulation of the game, as the Ducks were clearly the better team, and they controlled it from the get go.
The Ducks have clearly found their rhythm on offense, scoring 30 or more points in five straight games. Herbert showed off his arm talent on a number of occasions, including one of his prettiest passes all season: a 53-yard strike to breakout star Juwan Johnson on a well-designed flea flicker. And speaking of well-drawn plays, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo once again impressed, dialing up creative plays to get the ball to Oregon’s fast-improving playmakers in space. His scheming led to a couple of explosive plays on screen passes to Jaylon Redd and Travis Dye, the latter of which resulted in a touchdown.
But it wasn’t just the offense that came to play. The Ducks defense looked to be back to its old ways after a few head-scratching performances. Oregon impressively held Arizona to its lowest point total of the season, surrendering just six points to what had been a top-15 offense. Furthermore, the Ducks sacked the Wildcats seven times and held them to just 240 yards — more than 250 less than their season average.
All in all, Oregon out-gained Arizona by over 230 yards and came away with a lopsided victory. The Ducks did leave a few plays on the field, and they’ll have to clean up some things if they want to beat a surging Utah team in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But on a day where many top contenders lost in one way or another, the Ducks didn’t have to be perfect. They just needed to win, and win comfortably. And that they did.
The Ducks Get Some Much-Needed Help
Entering Saturday, Oregon’s biggest obstacle to making the playoff, aside from the teams on its schedule, was Alabama. Of all the hypothetical, end-of-season scenarios, the most probable involved a one-loss, non-SEC Champion Alabama versus a one-loss Pac-12 Champion for the final playoff spot. Both sides would have compelling arguments in this scenario (Alabama has been dominant against its always-daunting SEC West schedule, but the Pac-12 Champion would have an extra win and a conference title). But at the end of the day, it would be hard to justify not having Alabama as one of the four best teams in the country.
The Ducks no longer have to worry about that debate, due to the most unfortunate of circumstances. In a devastating moment for Alabama, college football and overall sports fans alike, superstar and Heisman-contending quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending dislocated hip in Alabama’s blowout of Mississippi State. The injury put a somber mood on the rest of Saturday’s action, and everyone across the country is rooting for Tagovailoa to come back better than ever from the catastrophic event.
While Tagovailoa’s health and recovery are obviously the focus, the injury does have major playoff ramifications, as well. It will take an incredible effort from Tide backup Mac Jones to not only beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl to end Alabama’s season, but to show that, if it wins out, the Tide is unequivocally one of the four best teams, despite not winning its conference and minus its best player at the most important position. Technically speaking, Alabama’s still in the hunt, and crazier things have happened (like Ohio State making it to the playoff with its third-string quarterback). But it’s facing an uphill climb, as it has to both win out and do so in such dominant fashion that the committee is comfortable putting Alabama in with a second-string signal caller.
Then, there’s the case of the Big 12.
For a while on Saturday, it looked like Oregon would have some unexpected competition for the fourth playoff spot from Matt Rhule’s Baylor Bears, which looked like they were about to run Oklahoma out of Waco, going up 28-3 to start the game. But in the end, perhaps the best outcome possible for the Ducks occurred.
Oklahoma pulled off a comeback for the ages, somehow rallying to top Baylor in a 34-31 thriller. Unfortunately for Oklahoma, falling behind 28-3 on national TV against a Baylor team that many believe to be much worse than its record indicates isn’t a great look. Likewise, Baylor suffering a loss effectively eliminates them from Playoff discussion, as its schedule has been chopped liver. Again, both Baylor and Oklahoma are still technically alive for the playoff, but they both need some help to get in.
So, with Oregon doing its job, and everything else falling into place, here sit the Ducks at 9-1 with the playoff at their fingertips. While it might be a tad too early to start booking flights for New Year’s Day weekend, an Oregon trip to the playoff is more than just a “nice thought.” It’s a probability. And now, if Oregon wins out, it will be reality.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Tom Corno
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
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