With the college football playoff making its debut in the 2014 season, the speculation has long since begun about which four teams will have the shot to play for the national championship. At this point it's no secret what type of team Oregon is. The Ducks have won 10+ games in each of the last six seasons, three of those posting 12 wins, and finishing in the top 10 all but one of those six years (finished 11th in 2009).
Oregon is an obvious candidate for the long-overdue playoff. They bring to the table the most high-powered, up-tempo offense in the nation and boast one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Marcus Mariota. Oregon comes in ranked #3 in the preseason AP poll, behind the two most recent national champions Florida St and Alabama. This year the Ducks, perhaps even more so than 2012 and 2013, come in as favorites in the Pac-12, although the conference is growing from top to bottom and quickly becoming one of the top two conferences in college football.
Looking at last year, and I guess every single year before that, offense hasn't exactly been the problem. They have scored over 45 points per game each of the last five seasons and with Mariota back and Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall leading the running game, they have nothing to worry about, forget about the O-line also putting on a collective 100 extra pounds this off-season. Expect the Ducks to have an even bigger season on offense.
The issue, as it was against Stanford, will be on defense. Particularly, the Defensive Line. The Defense finished 2013 37th in Total Defense; 21st in Pass Defense and a painful 67th in Run Defense. This will be the key and likely the difference between a third straight second place finish in the Pac 12 north and a trip to Pasadena for the Playoff.
The schedule, however, certainly has its challenges.Each month has one key game for the Ducks to overcome. They games could be grouped into easy wins, challenging games, and difficult games.
At the level Oregon has reached, these are all gimme games. Colorado is moving forward and could make a push at 5-6 wins this year but at home, the Ducks should have no problem storming through.
at Washington St
at Oregon St
These days, there aren't any easy games in the Pac-12. Three of these games are on the road, and the game against Arizona is an opportunity for the Ducks to avenge a very bad loss last year. Luckily, the games are spaced out nicely so that none of these game could be labeled as "trap" games. The Utah game is right before a must-win against Colorado, and Washington St and Arizona are the first two conference games of the season, so they shouldn't sneak up on Oregon. Oregon St is the last game of the year, and a rival game that obviously Coach Helfrich will have no problem getting his team to show up for. Upset-minded Utes are one of the scarier threats, as Rice-Eccles stadium is very loud, and Utah has a history of taking down top ten teams at home. If Oregon is as good as we are anticipating though, they should have no problem going 4-0 here.
Here are the big ones. The first big test comes against Michigan St. Coming off their fairy tale Rose Bowl season, they are hungry for even bigger and better things as serious contenders and perhaps the favorites in the Big Ten. They provide a powerful threat to the Ducks' little-hid secret weakness at Defensive Line. They play traditional Big Ten football with power running backs and will be a big test in week 2. With Oregon at home, I think they come out on top, but only by a hair.
The showdown in Los Angeles against Bret Hundley will be against a very, very good UCLA team. They are seen by many as the second-best team in the Pac 12 and the most likely team to win the Pac 12 out of the south division. Hundley is a Hesiman frontrunner and his arm, coupled with the Rose Bowl crowd, will provide a great test for the Ducks. Oregon had no trouble handling the Bruins last year at home, but this year certainly could be a different story. UCLA is hungry, and the last few years of success have only whetted their appetite for what could be a monster season in LA. I think this could be the toughest game for Oregon all year.
For all the hype the Washington game got last year, it ended up being ALL Oregon, in a blowout. I would say this year should bring much of the same but it is a rivalry game and Chris Peterson is 2-0 against the Ducks and will be motivated in his first season in Seattle. It is a home game, and Oregon has a lot more talent and experience offensively so I would expect them to find a way to win this one, and potentially win it big.
Then comes November and the face-off with Stanford. It will likely be the most anticipated game of the Pac 12 season and like the Michigan St and UCLA games, could very likely feature two top 10 teams. The last two seasons, Oregon had nearly perfect seasons that were destroyed only by losses to Stanford. The Cardinal have really had their number and their grind it out style running game and toughness up front has proven too strong to overcome the last two years. This year, Oregon's strength upfront and experience at the skill positions should be more than what Stanford can handle.
Overall, with the schedule I think it will be very challenging for Oregon to go 12-0 and guarantee a spot in the playoff. I see Oregon at least making it 11-1 and hoping the committee sees their load of work as enough to make the top four.
The Verdict: Oregon will make the playoff. They have the offense and the talent to go undefeated, with Mariota back and superstar CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu staying another year to anchor a defense, and perhaps most importantly a Head Coach Mark Helfrich who now has a year under his belt. The truth is though, with the strength of the Pac 12 and this schedule, they could probably lose a game and still make the cut to College Football's final four. The defensive line will be the key, but I think the Ducks break the Stanford curse and make the trip to Southern California to play for a chance at the Crystal Trophy.