The first FBS national championship arising from a playoff is Monday night, and it’s difficult to overstate the moment for Oregon and the Pac-12.
Ohio State has won a handful of national titles, and it wasn’t supposed to be here anyway, going all the way back to its September loss to Virginia Tech, which a lot of folks figured killed the Buckeyes’ chances to crash the bracket. It’s unthinkable that a team playing its third-string quarterback could be 60 minutes from a national title. Ohio State is, effectively, playing with house money.
For Oregon, this is the moment. It might never have a player as dynamic as Marcus Mariota, and it might never have another chance like this one. Winning would be the culmination of an improbably long rags-to-riches story.
If it’s big for the Ducks, it’s also a major moment for the Pac-12. Unquestionably, the league has gained respect in recent years, to the point that in most quarters over the breadth of several seasons, it’s considered the No. 2 football conference in the country.
But the naysayers would argue it’s a distant No. 2 to the SEC.
The Pac-12 hasn’t won a title since Pete Carroll’s 2004 USC team did it convincingly against Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl. Then came the Texas/Vince Young classic over the Trojans the next year. And soon after, there were the Reggie Bush revelations that — rightly or wrongly — tainted that USC era, and not long after that, the SEC began its stranglehold on college football.
Only recently has that grip seemed to recede, first with Florida State’s win over Auburn in the BCS title game a year ago — breaking the run of seven straight SEC titles — and this year, with no SEC team in the playoff final.
My read on how the Pac-12 is perceived nationally is, it remains regarded by many as a finesse league, and Oregon can chip away at that image against the Buckeyes, who, even if they’re not necessarily in the mold of classic Big Ten-style teams, are surely an old, respected entity in the college game. Even the fact that the coach is Urban Meyer, who had a dominating run at Florida, brings a bit of SEC-level gravitas to the matchup.
As for the Ducks themselves, my sense is that there’s still a bit of national belief that there’s some gimmickry to them. Indeed, Kirk Herbstreit, who has been generous in his praise for the Ducks, acknowledged the other day he didn’t think they’d be as successful playing at a slower pace, and he said he wouldn’t mind some sort of rule that would tilt the game back toward defense. I think some people believe they’ve gamed the system.
There’s also the line of thought that Oregon doesn’t stand up well against physical defenses with speed. Ironically, that began to take hold with the Ohio State upset of the Ducks in the 2009 Rose Bowl and gained speed the next year when Auburn nipped Oregon, 22-19, in the BCS title game. The idea had become a full-fledged conflagration by the opener of 2011, when a slightly favored Ducks team lost 40-27 to LSU.
So there’s a lot of conventional wisdom that can be reversed in this game.
My pick? It bothers me that the Ducks have lost another receiver, Darren Carrington, who apparently failed a drug test. As much as the physical loss, you wonder whether that constitutes a distraction. This, atop losing fleet receiver Devon Allen on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, and going back to last spring, standout Bralon Addison in spring practice.
But I’ll go with my original instinct. In a game a little less high-scoring than some are forecasting, I’ll side with the Ducks to work one final bit of Mariota magic. Oregon 38, Ohio State 33.