With BCS title in sight, Ducks turn focus from style points to winning
Oregon offense has set impossibly high standard but hasn't been sufficiently tested
Ducks enter three-game stretch to decide BCS fate starting this week vs. Stanford
Plus: pregame adjustments, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, college football list, more
It's pop quiz time. Ready?
Without performing a Google search, name the quarterback who leads the nation in passing efficiency. Judging by my Twitter feed, where a spat broke out Thursday between Kansas State and Texas A&M fans touting their own guy for the Heisman Trophy, it's the Wildcats' Collin Klein or the Aggies' Johnny Manziel. Well, it's neither. Klein ranks No. 8 (167.4), while Manziel ranks No. 25 (151.2).
The correct answer is Oregon redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota (177), who completes 71.7 percent of his passes and has thrown 28 touchdown passes against five interceptions. Meanwhile, Oregon tailback Kenjon Barner ranks second in the nation in per-carry average among players with at least 100 carries. Barner has carried 199 times for 1,360 yards (7.25 yards a carry). Only Tulsa's Ja'Terian Douglas, who has gained 808 yards on 106 carries (7.62 a carry), has averaged more.
So why are Klein, Manziel and USC receiver Marqise Lee getting all the Heisman run when these two Ducks have been every bit as dominant? For the same reason we can watch Oregon score 50 points and think the Ducks had an off game. Chip Kelly's offense has been too good this season for our tiny brains to comprehend. (The exception to this is Smart Football's Chris Brown, who wrote an excellent breakdown of the offense this week at Grantland.com.)
That's why Kelly seemed so incredulous Thursday when a reporter asked him what Cal did to slow the Ducks' running game so effectively. "We still ran for 180 yards," Kelly said. "I think sometimes we've maybe been spoiled here. People expect us to run for 400 yards every game, expect us to score 60 points in the first half of every game. And if we don't, there's something wrong with us."
The Ducks have set an impossibly high standard for themselves. Because we've been conditioned to expect offensive explosions, Oregon probably couldn't score any style points unless it cracked 100 scoreboard points. But the next three games aren't about style points for the Ducks. They're about winning.
The offensive numbers may drop a little, but if Oregon can survive the next three weeks unscathed, it will earn more respect from the BCS computers and solidify its hold on No. 1 in the human polls that help determine which two teams play for the national title. Among the top 10 teams in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings, Oregon currently has the lowest strength of schedule rank at No. 45. That's about to change. Saturday, the Ducks face 8-2 Stanford in Eugene. A week later in Corvallis, Oregon will face an Oregon State team that likely will enter the game 9-2. If Oregon beats Stanford, six days after the Civil War it will play for the Pac-12 championship against UCLA (currently 8-2) or against USC (currently 7-3) for a second time. Alabama faced its three-game crucible (Mississippi State, at LSU, Texas A&M) and was found wanting at the end. Can Oregon, which is severely banged up on the defensive line, survive three tests in rapid succession?
Oregon has grown accustomed to getting every team's best shot, but with the exception of USC, the teams on Oregon's schedule to this point haven't had a best shot capable of testing the Ducks. That changes Saturday. Stanford has lost to Oregon by an average of 22 points each of the past two seasons, but Oregon's defensive injuries -- safety Avery Patterson was lost for the year last week, and the Ducks' top five defensive linemen are dealing with various degrees of injuries -- should allow the Cardinal to hog the ball and limit the touches of Mariota, Barner and company. The game could turn on whether Stanford's aggressive front seven can sack Mariota, force him to throw interceptions or force Oregon's ballcarriers to put the ball on the ground. Stanford defenders know this is the only way to beat the Ducks, and they also know they can't fall into the same traps others have fallen into when trying to stop Oregon's offense. "A lot of people will attempt to play side-to-side, and that's where you'll get gassed because it's not a horizontal game," Stanford defensive tackle Terrence Stephens told the Cardinal's official website. "They want to hit you vertically and score points. It's important for us to get penetration and disrupt that timing. Defensively, that's what it'll come down to."
Stanford coach David Shaw knows that's easier said than done. "The thing is, it's not complicated," Shaw told Stanford's website. "It's just complicated during the game. The adjustments they make are so subtle that you don't realize it until they've scored three touchdowns on you. You change to try to cover what they're doing, and they make another change. They spend a lot of time looking at you. They run simple plays and however you're stopping their simple plays, Chip takes advantage of what you're doing, which is the brilliance of the simplicity."
The calculus of men in the box versus men in coverage may be complicated for Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, but the BCS math for the Ducks is absurdly simple. Win three, and they play for the national title.
Florida State at Maryland: When a team has to play a linebacker at quarterback because of injuries, that team also has to rewrite the playbook. That has been the job the past few weeks for Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who has had to create a playbook converted defender Shawn Petty can master quickly. "I venture to say we haven't been very creative," Locksley told the Baltimore Sun. "We're trying to do what our quarterback can get accomplished." Don't expect him to accomplish much against Florida State's defense, which ranks in the top five in the nation in every major defensive category and ranks first in total defense (242.9 yards a game).
Iowa at Michigan: It's quite sad that Denard Robinson, who has an injury to his throwing elbow, may not play in the final game with his class at Michigan Stadium. On Detroit's Stoney & Bill radio show on Thursday, Hoke didn't rule out putting Robinson in for a play to honor his contributions to the program. Hoke also didn't put the kibosh on playing Robinson at another position. That might not be a bad idea if Robinson is healthy enough. After all, Robinson will be playing another position in the NFL.
USC at UCLA: Just because one Neuheisel has moved into television doesn't mean the family won't have an impact on this crosstown rivalry. Former Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel's son Jerry played the part of Matt Barkley for UCLA's scout team this week. If the younger Neuheisel gave the defense a good look, then the Bruins might have a better shot at winning what should be a shootout.
Syracuse at Missouri: The SEC has fined Missouri $250,000 for playing an AQ-conference opponent this week. OK, I made that up. But the Tigers are definitely the outlier. Of the eight SEC teams playing out-of-conference games this week, Missouri is the only one that isn't playing an FCS opponent.
Texas Tech at Oklahoma State: Speaking of shootouts, this one should be a doozy. These two teams combine to average 82.6 points a game. We know Seth Doege will be slinging for Texas Tech, but the identity of Oklahoma State's starting quarterback remains a mystery. Because of injuries, Clint Chelf, Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh have all started and won games for the Cowboys. Coach Mike Gundy, who named Lunt the starter coming out of spring practice, will have to choose again.
Ohio State at Wisconsin: With two touchdowns Saturday, Wisconsin tailback MonteÚ Ball can break the FBS record for career touchdowns held by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio). If Ball scores two touchdowns, the Buckeyes had better hope those are the only touchdowns the Badgers score. Hold Wisconsin to two trips to the end zone, and Ohio State is probably 11-0. Any more, and that undefeated season is in jeopardy.
Oklahoma at West Virginia: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen refuses to throw his defensive coaching staff under the bus. The "Fire Joe DeForest" Facebook page had 2,788 likes as of Thursday night, but Holgorsen stands behind his oft-maligned defensive coordinator. "They might as well fire me if they're saying stuff like that," Holgorsen said on his radio show Thursday night.
Cal at Oregon State: While Stanford and Oregon play for the Pac-12 North title 42 miles to the south, an era may come to an end in Corvallis. Eight years ago, Cal coach Jeff Tedford was one of the hottest names in college football. He was mentioned in the same breath as Urban Meyer. Saturday, Tedford's Bears will probably lose to the Beavers to fall to 3-9. Sunday, Tedford will probably be fired.
When Vanderbilt started 2-4, we wrote off the Commodores' first-year improvement under coach James Franklin as anomaly. That was a mistake. Three of those four losses came to teams that could finish the season in the top 10. Since losing to Florida, Vanderbilt has ripped off four consecutive wins. And with extremely winnable games against Tennessee and at Wake Forest, it's quite possible the Commodores could win an unthinkable eight games this season.
Such a feat probably would make Franklin so attractive that another school will break the bank to try to hire him, but for now, the Commodores should enjoy the ride. Franklin certainly is. After Vandy rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to squeak out a one-point win at Ole Miss last week, Franklin carried the mascot into the locker room (5:30 mark of the video below).
Why is Alabama the most demanding coaching job in America? Because when you lose, even the governor will criticize your playcalling. After the Crimson Tide called three passes on four plays inside the six-yard line in their loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, Alabama governor Robert Bentley was asked if he would have run the ball on fourth-and-goal from the two instead of calling a pass -- as Alabama did. The Paul Finebaum Radio Network has the audio of Bentley's answer.
The downfall of Cal's Tedford is stunning considering just how hot he was back in 2004. Let's take a look at the "it" coaches of that year (as they would have been ranked at the end of that season) and see what has happened since.
5. Greg Robinson, Texas (defensive coordinator): Robinson probably wishes he had stayed in Austin, because the next six seasons were brutal. After going 10-37 as the head coach at Syracuse, Robinson was fired. Rich Rodriguez hired Robinson in 2009 to run the defense at Michigan, and for two seasons, Robinson's defenses were a laughingstock in the Big Ten.
4. Les Miles, Oklahoma State: After going 30-21 in four seasons in Stillwater, Miles was hired by LSU to replace Nick Saban. Since, Miles has eaten grass, won a national title and two SEC titles and learned to bend space and time.
3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Had Urban Meyer turned down Florida, Petrino was the guy. Instead, he would stay at Louisville two more years, winning the Big East and the Orange Bowl in the 2006 season. After that, he left for the Atlanta Falcons, where he didn't last a season. He wound up at Arkansas in 2008 and made the Razorbacks an SEC contender in short order. But Petrino's propensity to flirt struck again. It wasn't another job this time. It was another woman. Petrino's decision to hire Jessica Dorrell would ultimately get him fired. It probably will not keep him from getting hired for a job this offseason.
2. Jeff Tedford, Cal: Tedford turned down every overture in 2004 to stay at Cal. Tedford had a few good years, but the Bears have fallen off the map in the past three seasons.
1. Urban Meyer, Utah: After leading the Utes to a perfect record in 2004, Meyer spurned Notre Dame to take the Florida job. He won two national titles, quit, came back, quit again and wound up at Ohio State, where he has the Buckeyes on the verge of an undefeated season.
Those headed to Eugene to see Stanford face Oregon should have a pre- or postgame beverage at Rennie's Landing. There, you can see the spot where, in 2010, former SI.com contributor -- and current SBNation.com genius -- Dan Rubenstein devised the concept for the yet-to-be-produced hit game show Win Ted Miller's Pants.