You would think that, when the undefeated Oregon Ducks head to the Coliseum on Saturday to play the USC Trojans (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX), Oregon coach Chip Kelly would want to do more than just squeak out a win against the home team.
You’d think he’d want to obliterate the Trojans. Run all over them on national television. Embarrass the team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. Show all the college football poll voters that his high-scoring, fast-paced Ducks are not just the most exciting team in the nation, but the best team, too.
And perhaps the voters in the Harris and Coaches polls and those six blasted BCS computer rankings — which have determined that Oregon is the fourth-best team in the country, behind Alabama, Kansas State and Notre Dame — would get the hint, too.
Because as we enter November, the Ducks are in one of those college football conundrums that make us wish the playoff system would start right now.
Oregon, the nation’s highest-scoring team with 53.4 points per game, is ranked second in the Associated Press poll but fourth in the BCS standings. If the four top-ranked teams win out and finish undefeated, and if the BCS standings hold, there could be one of those bowl seasons like the days before the flawed BCS improved upon an even more flawed system.
Remember those days? When there were the undefeated teams who never played each other, and the polls split over who was the true “national champion?”
So perhaps Kelly should be worried about how the outcome of this game will affect his team’s BCS ranking. Perhaps the more important thing here is not just that he wins, but how he wins.
“No, not at all,” Kelly said this week. “We’re just worried about our game against USC. If you get caught up and start to worry about what your ranking is in Week 2 and 3, what the BCS is, you’re devoting your energy to something that really means nothing. The only time those rankings matter is in December.”
Of course, Saturday’s game against two-loss USC could affect those December rankings, and not just if the Ducks simply win. They need what pundits call a “statement victory.” Two weeks ago, Kansas State, currently ranked second in the BCS, claimed its statement victory in a 55-14 decision at West Virginia. Notre Dame, third in the BCS, had a statement victory of its own last weekend when it won at Oklahoma 30-13.
Oregon doesn’t have that statement victory. Not yet. A thumping of USC in Los Angeles could be a start, but the victory would have resonated more loudly if USC hadn’t lost last weekend to Arizona and dropped to 17th in the BCS standings. Oregon will have a couple more shots at top-ranked teams — its final two regular-season games are against No. 14 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon State, both Pac-12 North rivals — plus there’s a conference championship game, which neither K-State nor Notre Dame will have.
But as the calendar turns to November, a 2012 BCS Armageddon is looking possible.
This week the Oregon and USC coaches exchanged pregame pleasantries on a Pac-12 conference call. Kelly heaped praise upon USC quarterback Matt Barkley: “He’s really kind of a coach on the field, in terms of getting them in the right protections. He’s really grown as a cerebral player.” Then USC coach Lane Kiffin went one further, calling his Saturday opponent “the best in the country.”
That’s not true. Alabama, undefeated in its stout schedule against fellow SEC teams, tops the BCS rankings and every poll. Beat LSU this weekend, and it will be sailing toward the SEC title game and a direct path to the national championship game.
This weekend, Oregon will begin to make its case for why it ought to be the other team in the BCS title game, and a November-long spell of poll-battling with K-State and Notre Dame will ensure.
But as Oklahoma State taught us last season in its improbable late-season loss to Iowa State, crazy things happen in November in college football.
Notre Dame is playing USC at the Coliseum in its final regular-season game. Kansas State has No. 24 Oklahoma State this weekend and No. 23 Texas in the season finale.
Alabama’s toughest test before the SEC Championship Game will come at the same time Oregon is playing USC, as the Crimson Tide head to fifth-ranked LSU on Saturday.
Yet with each week these four teams continue their undefeated seasons, the BCS picture will look more and more blurry.
On the Pac-12 conference call, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team upset USC last weekend but lost to Oregon 49-0 earlier in the year, was asked about the possibility of BCS chaos come December. What if Oregon goes undefeated and doesn’t make the BCS title game?
“I think it’d be a surprise, first and foremost,” Rodriguez said. “If you go through our league plus whatever games you have non-conference-wise, and you have to win a conference championship — that’s one more game you have to win. You’re undefeated, and you should be playing in the national championship. It’d be a disappointment.”
A disappointment because an undefeated Alabama team, with the nation’s best defense, playing an undefeated Oregon team, with the nation’s best offense, would make a great storyline and a great game: Does defense really win championships in this age of the spread offense?
And a disappointment because it’s one more reason why the college football playoff can’t come soon enough.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.