Oregon and Nebraska are simultaneously studies in contrasts and portraits of similarities. Oregon loudly announced its presence as a playoff contender with a thumping of Stanford last Saturday. Nebraska has been as quiet as a church mouse, ignored by the national press while Ohio State and Michigan State prepare for their defining duel this week in East Lansing. Yet, both schools have only one loss. They’re both in contention for conference championships. They both feel they can be in the conversation all the way through the regular season and become the subject of (welcome) scrutiny on the morning of Sunday, December 7.
The Student Section editors discuss these two teams.
Question No. 1: Is this Oregon team finally the one built to win a national championship? Why or why not?
On Twitter: @SectionMZ
There are two important points to be advanced here, and they cut directly against each other.
First, the College Football Playoff provides a postseason in which the teams that play in the national title game will be coming off breaks of roughly 10 days, not the 35 to 42 days which generally preceded the BCS National Championship Game the past several years. Oregon’s tempo-based offense did not thrive — and was not likely to thrive — in a BCS title game situation. The playoff, on the other hand, would give Oregon a far better chance to play well in a national championship game, provided that the Ducks can get past the semifinal. That’s point number one.
On the other hand, the Ducks’ defense looks soft. Stanford consistently moved the ball between the 20s on Saturday; the Cardinal, who have been struggling against just about everyone in the red zone this season, couldn’t solve their problems in Autzen Stadium. If the Ducks have to face a top quarterback, they’re likely to get shredded.
Just to be clear here: Point number two wins out over point number one. The Ducks will likely lose in the semifinals if they get there. If they reach the title game, though, I’d probably pick them if Florida State isn’t standing in the way.
On Twitter: @SectionTPJ
No, this year’s team isn’t the one that’s built to win the national championship.
Make no mistake about it: Oregon has a solid team. The Ducks currently rank sixth in scoring offense (45.4 ppg) and fifth in total offense (533.8). Considering that UO’s lowest output of the season was 446 yards, it’s safe to say it’ll be in every contest it plays this season.
However, defense is what wins championships, which is why the Ducks won’t win a crystal football this year.
Let’s be honest: Oregon’s defense hasn’t stopped anyone all season long. In conference play the Ducks’ defense is allowing 475 per contest and a whopping 537 on the road. They’ve surrendered three 300-yard passing games, while giving up over 200 in the ground on others. To make matters worse, Oregon ranks 115th nationally in third-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert on 46.2 % of their chances.
That last number is why the Ducks will be the bridesmaid again this season rather than the bride. While their high-octane offense will keep them in the game, the inability to slow down their opponents will ultimately spell their doom. Remember, Arizona beat Oregon because it went on scoring drives of 8, 9, and 15 plays in the second half.
No offensive scheme in the world can score when it’s on the sideline.
On Twitter: @TheCoachBart
Oregon is in the “you keep telling me you’re not going to cheat anymore, but every Friday night you’re at the strip club” territory at this point. You need to see it to believe in the Ducks. They need to settle down, get a good job, and be in bed by 10 p.m. — at least in the house if nothing else — for you to feel like the corner has been turned.
I like Oregon. There’s not another program more consistently on the doorstep of greatness every year — but not over the hump yet — for the last 20 or so seasons. At some point, it’s going to happen; when that is, we don’t know.
Offensively, yes, the Ducks probably are built to get over the hump. There are questions along the offensive line that would dog them, however, in a playoff-style scenario and potentially end them. Marcus Mariota is as advertised, but again, what would happen against a team that smacks the Ducks in the mouth and can disrupt their oft-impeccable timing?
Matt is worried about the defense, but I don’t share the same concerns in full. Defense is about the points you give up. Everything else is just fodder for statistical people to comb over. I get his point, I just happen to shrug a bit on it. The goal is to keep points off the board. Give me shutouts and I’ll let you have 700 yards per game.
The only team that really has been able to gut the Oregon defense has been Cal. The issue for Oregon will always be whether or not its offense can play the game at the pace it wants, because no, Oregon isn’t winning a title based on its defense no matter how good or flexible it may or may not be.
Built to win a title? I don’t know yet. A game at Utah this weekend will tell us a little more. A tilt against (ideally) a one-loss Arizona State team in the conference championship game would reveal more about the Ducks.
The story isn’t really written quite yet, but Oregon has as good of a chance as the next guy. I’m not sure this is the Ducks’ white-picket-fence year, but start buying the fence posts just in case. The teams at the top of the playoff race don’t feature overly stout defenses, so this would be the perfect year for the Ducks to prove they’ve grown up.
Question No. 2: Can Nebraska get into the College Football Playoff? In a watered-down Big Ten West, the Huskers are probably going to play for the conference title having one loss, yet no one is talking about them. Why?
No, the Huskers have no chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff this season.
Let’s be honest: even if Nebraska wins the Big Ten, it still has a weak resume compared to other teams. After all, the Cornhuskers have faced a grand total of one top 10 team this season – a 27-22 loss to Michigan State (which wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate). Even if NU were to win out, the best that it could hope for is a 1-1 record against ranked opponents.
That’s not going to cut it in a system that’s supposed to factor in strength of schedule.
Of course, the last two paragraphs assume that Nebraska is going to run the table. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Remember, in the Cornhuskers’ loss to Michigan State and its near-miss against McNeese State, the defense had trouble stopping the run. If it struggled against those units, how will it stop Melvin Gordon and David Cobb, who both rank in the top six nationally in rushing yards per game?
It won’t, which is why the Badgers will represent the West in the Big Ten title game.
The short answer (which Matt has covered below) is “yes.” If you go through your schedule with only one loss and win the Big Ten, the odds are good that you’re getting in. All of this, of course, is under the pretense that the Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 have one champion with multiple losses. If not, yeah, it gets a bit dicey.
The more interesting part of this is the curiosity with how we’d view Nebraska if the Huskers were still in the Big 12. The Big Ten gets run over, mostly unfairly, in terms of how vociferous the negativity is.
Nebraska, by virtue of entering the conference, gets to pay for the sins of Ohio State and Michigan losing bowl games in 2007. It’s a lot like saying, “Oh, you hung out with Jim when you were 10-years-old? I saw he robbed a bank. You must be a bad seed, too. I’m staying away,” a decade after the fact.
The best-case scenario for Nebraska is that no one is talking about the Huskers because they really don’t play anyone (“anyone” defined as a team on the national radar, such as Michigan State or Ohio State) from here on out, and not because they have no chance at getting into the playoff. The loss at Michigan State is forgivable and if they happen to meet in the title game and avenge it, you’ve got to cancel out that 5-point loss.
To me, it’s unfathomable that a titanic name like Nebraska can potentially go 12-1, avenge its only loss against what is likely to be a top-five-ranked Michigan State team or defeat what will be a close to top-five Ohio State team … and not play for all the marbles.
It won’t happen if it happens. Bo Pelini can pet his cat knowing cooler heads will prevail if the Huskers force them to. The key is forcing them to, which is easier said than done.
I generally like longer answers to questions. They flesh out the essential details of an issue, providing layers of necessary context and background that make it easier to see a situation in full.
A longer answer is not needed here, however.
Why is Nebraska not in the Big Ten conversation the way Ohio State and Michigan State are? The answer is simple and requires no explanation: Bo Pelini vs. Mark Dantonio or Urban Meyer in high-stakes poker.
That’s it. Don’t look for a better answer — you won’t find one.