These are not your father’s Oregon Ducks. After spending much of the twentieth century stuck in a state of mediocrity with stretches of success littered across the years, the Oregon football team has spent much of the new millennium as a college football powerhouse that finishes near the top of the Pac-12 standings year in and year out. However, amongst all of their recent success, the school still has zero football national championships to its name. Mark Helfrich, Marcus Mariota, and company will have the opportunity to change that this upcoming Monday in a National Championship game versus Ohio State in Dallas, Texas.
In just the past two decades, the Oregon football program has completely revamped and reshaped itself and the way it is viewed by the rest of the country. Thanks in large part to handsome donations from Oregon alumni and Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the program has transformed into one synonymous with innovation and speed, while also becoming a very intriguing target for talented recruits. The program has become nationally recognized for its unique jerseys and Star Wars-like facilities, and a National Championship can be viewed as sort of a culmination of all of the program’s efforts and growth over the years.
However, this year will not be the first time that the “new look” Oregon Ducks have appeared in a championship. The Ducks lost on a last-second field goal in the 2011 BCS National Championship to Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers, and if one views a National Championship as a sign of how far a program has come, the Ducks’ loss can be viewed as a sign of a program that wasn’t quite there yet. Several years later, the Ducks go into the championship with the school’s first ever Heisman winner in Marcus Mariota and a competent squad coming off an embarrassment of the undefeated reigning champions. This is arguably the most talented team to play for the University of Oregon, and they will have a chance to prove that on Monday.
While the team has certainly earned a chance, nothing is even close to guaranteed. After previously falling as far as number 23 in the rankings, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State fought their way back up and secured a spot in the National Championship versus Oregon with an upset win over number 1 ranked Alabama. The season appeared to be lost when the Buckeyes lost star quarterback Braxton Miller, and then seriously screwed when back-up quarterback J.T. Barrett went down as well. Despite two potentially season-ruining injuries, the Buckeyes managed to continue their success on the backs of talented third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and record-breaking running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Oregon proved many doubters wrong in their dismantling of Florida State, but they have yet to face a challenge like Ohio State. When comparing the two schools’ statistics to the rest of the country, one finds that the two teams have posted similar numbers this season. Both teams place in the top five in scoring, with Oregon ranking second and Ohio State ranking fifth with 47.2 and 45 points per game, respectively. Along with ranking very closely in scoring, the 27th ranked Ducks are just behind the 26th ranked Buckeyes in points against, with just 22.3 and 22.1 allowed per game. Both offenses place in the upper echelon of college football with Oregon compiling the 11th most passing yards and 18th most rushing yards per game, while Ohio State ranks 52nd in passing and 10th in rushing.
This appears to be a very good match up on paper, and it should prove to be a better game than any statistics can even show. The teams are very similar, yet very different and as vague as that statement may seem, it is filled with truth. These are both teams with very talented coaches that are guaranteed to put points on the board and will live or die based on the performance of their defense. If Oregon hopes to win this game, the defense will have to perform similarly to when it took over the Rose Bowl and forced five turnovers against Jameis Winston’s offense. Similarly, Ohio State will need to shut down Marcus Mariota such as Arizona did earlier in the season if they hope to secure a victory and take home the first every College Football Playoff championship.
The first ever College Football Playoffs should prove to be a great success regardless of who wins this matchup. Had this season’s championship been seeded the previous way, we would likely be seeing a matchup Alabama and Florida State, due to Alabama being ranked 1 and Florida State being an undefeated reigning champion. Thanks to the new playoff system, fans will get to see a likely historic matchup between the country’s true two best teams, as well as a National Championship without an SEC team. Finally.