Why Oregon’s first loss likely won’t be its last and what it means for Pac-12, playoff
We spent all week looking ahead to Saturday’s packed slate of games. We never anticipated that the most impactful result of the season to date would come two nights early.
Three-touchdown underdog Arizona’s stunning upset of No. 2 Oregon is the first game so far that truly shakes up the College Football Playoff picture. Mind you, one loss is no longer a national championship deal-breaker — especially for a potential Pac-12 champion running that league’s nine-game conference gauntlet. But based on what we’ve seen from the Ducks in their past two games, this most likely won’t be Oregon’s last defeat. In fact it’s got to turn around and visit UCLA next week. Which begs the question: Who is the Pac-12’s best playoff hope now?
Linebacker Scooby Wright and the Wildcats further exposed holes in the Ducks that first surfaced in a sloppy win over Washington State two weeks ago. Even a transcendent star like Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota can’t overcome a patchwork offensive line and a subpar defense, and in fact, the game ended on a flustered Mariota’s rare fumble. Injuries have decimated the Ducks’ offensive line — they’re now playing without both preseason starting tackles and one of those tackle’s replacements — and not coincidentally, Mariota has now been sacked 12 times the past two games. Coordinator Scott Frost’s lack of confidence in his pass protection showed when Oregon twice ran the ball on makeable third-and-longs.
But the Ducks have just as many issues on defense as well. They came in ranked 84th nationally in yards per play allowed (5.72), and Arizona ran over them in the second half to average 5.76 on the night. It marked the second straight year that Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcats had their way with the Ducks’ rushing defense.
Much will be made of the officiating. It was exactly the kind of game that turned #Pac12Refs into a hashtag. But the excessive celebration penalty against Oregon’s Tony Washington for taking a bow that allowed Arizona to march in for its decisive touchdown no more cost the Ducks the game than a similarly ridiculous first-half unsportsmanlike conduct call against the Wildcats. Arizona certainly caught a break on the late-game flag, but even without it the Wildcats were in position to kick a go-ahead field goal, and Wright’s strip of Mariota on the ensuing Oregon drive ultimately proved the game-winning play.
So here we are, not fully six weeks into the season, and Arizona, not Oregon, is now one of the Pac-12’s two remaining undefeated teams, along with UCLA. The Wildcats won more convincingly on the road against the No. 2 team in the country than they did in their last game, a 49-45 win over Cal that came down to a Hail Mary. Arizona may well wind up playing for the Pac-12 championship, but as of now it’s still a team that’s hard to feel confident in from one week to the next. UCLA was much the same way prior to its Thursday night rout of Arizona State a week earlier.
Oregon certainly has time to recover. It still has that committee-wowing 46-27 win over Michigan State on its resume, and it’s expected to get back a couple of those tackles at some point this season (though Oregon is ultra-secretive about injuries, so who knows?). But it’s asking a lot of that mediocre Ducks defense to hold up against opposing quarterbacks like UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Cal’s Jared Goff and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. And Mariota is thus-far oh-fer against Stanford.
Suddenly, the Cardinal’s game Saturday at Notre Dame takes on added interest. The Cardinal, with their stingy defense, may be in as good a position as anyone to win a third straight Pac-12 title. But Stanford already has one loss; a second would severely damage its playoff hopes. You’ll also want to keep an eye on UCLA on Saturday against Utah. A playoff-caliber team would stomp the Utes, but the Bruins have been inconsistent enough to have many pinpointing that game as a possible upset.
It’s hard to imagine the Pac-12 won’t have a team in the playoff. It’s a league that acquitted itself as well as anyone not named the SEC in non-conference play. But it may be that the league is comprised largely of very good teams that are all just a little too flawed to be elite. Oregon certainly falls in that category right now.