NCF Nation: Football

Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota will try to use his accuracy to hand Jameis Winston his first career defeat.
The College Football Playoff already has epic storylines leading into its inaugural season.

Headlining the No. 2 Oregon-No. 3 Florida State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual is the quarterback pairing of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, creating what has the potential to be one of the best showings of quarterbacks that college football has seen in recent memory.

The strengths of these two quarterbacks are evident in the statistics (which we’ll get to in a bit), but the main thread that runs through both is that they know how to win. Criticize Florida State’s play (specifically in the first half) all you want, but one thing is for sure -- late in a game Winston has been a QB worth having and he has proven that time and time again.

The same can be said for Mariota. Though the Ducks haven’t had as many tight games as the Seminoles -- and they do have a loss, which FSU doesn’t -- Mariota has shown the guts needed in crucial situations to make something out of nothing.

And the numbers back that up. Of active FBS quarterbacks (with at least 15 starts under their belts), Mariota and Winston have the highest career winning percentages -- Winston is 26-0; Mariota is 35-4.

But what is it about these two guys that makes them such winners?

We analyze …

MARIOTA’S STRENGTH: He’s clean.

Mariota’s biggest strength is his accuracy. He has attempted 372 passes this season and only two of those have ended up in the hands of opponents. His 0.5 percent interception rate is the lowest among qualified FBS quarterbacks and his TD-interception ratio of 19-1 is more than double that of the nation’s second best (Cody Kessler, 9-1) and 13 times better than Winston (1.41-1).

Mariota is highly accurate when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers. He has gone more than 300 pass attempts against this kind of pressure without throwing a pick, and guess what … Florida State sends four or fewer pass-rushers on 67 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks.

Additionally, 27 of Mariota’s 38 passing touchdowns this season have come when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers.

WINSTON’S STRENGTH: He’s clutch.

Yes, his statistics aren’t as impressive as they were last year. But, as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pointed out on Tuesday, that can’t always be a very accurate portrayal of how effective any given quarterback is during a game.

“We don’t have the luxury of knowing, ‘OK, Clemson played them this way last year and this way the year before and now it’s that much different or leading up to that game how they defended people,'” Helfrich said of Winston.

Winston’s total QBR has dropped from 89.4 last season to 67.1 this season and his touchdown-to-interception total has plummeted (40-10 in 2013, 24-17 so far in 2014), but he is clutch. And not just in late-game scenarios.

Of all quarterbacks who have started at least one year, Winston leads the nation in third-down QBR (91.6) and has converted 51 percent of his third-down pass plays, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.

In a strange way, considering these two teams have never faced off, this sort of feels like a rivalry game in the fact that tendencies and statistics will probably be thrown out the window as we see some really incredible football unfold.

But would anything less be expected when a field plays host to two Heisman winners? After all, this has only happened three times before. And all three times proved to be very exciting games.

Most recently, it was Tim Tebow’s No. 2 Florida Gators facing off against Sam Bradford’s top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in January 2009. Tebow had won the Heisman the year before, but the Gators took this game 24-14 and went on to win the national title.

Four seasons earlier, it was 2004 Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and his top-ranked USC Trojans who took down the 2003 winner -- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Leinart led the Trojans with five touchdown passes as they cruised to a season-high 55 points.

And the only other time it happened was during the 1949 championship season when 1949 Heisman winner Leon Hart and Notre Dame took on Doak Walker and SMU (though to be fair, Walker didn’t play that game as he was sidelined due to an injury).

In each of these instances, whichever quarterback won the Heisman versus Heisman matchup also went on to win the national title. That could certainly be the case when Florida State and Oregon face off on Jan. 1.

If past be present, both of these quarterbacks are going to bring their best play and the qualities that won each of them the Heisman are going to be on full display. For everyone watching in Pasadena, California, or at home, that means this is going to be a really, really fun matchup. Not only between Florida State and Oregon, but also between Winston and Mariota.
From uniforms to locker rooms, the Oregon Ducks are the definition ostentatious.

And so if Marcus Mariota had wanted a Heisman campaign, Marcus Mariota would’ve gotten a Heisman campaign.

In 2001 Oregon dropped $250,000 to put a billboard in New York for quarterback Joey Harrington. Though it certainly grew the brand nationally for the program, it didn’t do too much for Harrington, who finished fourth in Heisman voting.

Harrington’s statistics in the 2001 season pale in comparison to Mariota’s in 2014. Harrington completed just 59 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,764 yards, 27 touchdowns and six interceptions.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota has let his play (38 touchdown passes, 14 rushing touchdowns) serve as his Heisman campaign.
Mariota passed Harrington’s passing yardage and touchdown total a month ago and in only one game this season was Mariota’s completion percentage at or below Harrington’s. Add to that Mariota’s 669 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns and Mariota would’ve deserved billboards in every major market across the country.

But Mariota didn’t want 12 billboards or even one. He enjoys taking photos with fans after games, but that’s really the only place he wants his face … other than beneath a helmet on the football field on Saturdays.

“I really didn’t want all that attention,” Mariota said. “I’m glad that they were able to accept that and respect that decision.”

To be a fly on the wall during those discussions would’ve been interesting. Certainly, Phil Knight and other donors put in their two cents, but like so much this season, Mariota made his decision based on his family and secondly himself, and those two entities wanted nothing done. It’s hard to imagine a 21-year-old saying no to a room of billionaires, but that’s likely exactly what happened.

The closest his non-campaign campaign ever came was a hashtag (#SuperMariota) that some used on social media, but never enough that it truly gained traction. Or when 12-year-old Charlie Pape asked about Mariota’s eventual NFL decision in a postgame news conference a few weeks ago, explaining to coach Mark Helfrich that all that kids at his all-boys school had been discussing were “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.”

Or maybe when Mariota hit a strikingly similar pose to the Heisman trophy in the Ducks’ 47-19 win over Oregon State in the Civil War rivalry. Mariota accounted for six touchdowns -- four passing, two rushing.

There is some truth to all of these mini-campaigns. If you watch Mariota play long enough, he’ll do something that doesn’t seem humanly possible for a quarterback. He takes off like a running back, stays in the pocket like he has never been sacked (though, ask his very apologetic offensive line and they’ll sheepishly explain that yes, more than once they’ve allowed Pac-12 pass rushers to get through) and throws the ball better than any current dual-threat quarterback.

He is the most dominant player in college football right now … though he’d be the last to say that. And his campaign has happened the only place it should happen -- on the football field.

Though “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota” seems a bit drastic, he has become such a hero for so many people in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest that saying he’s “worshiped” by many isn’t too far out of the ballpark.

And his play on the field -- whether he’s striking the pose or not -- has been enough to make him the front runner all season. Players have come in and out of the conversation, but every time Mariota was the one who stuck. Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott gave Mariota a good run for his money for a few weeks, as did Georgia running back Todd Gurley. But eventually they dropped off. Mariota has not and will not.

There’s something refreshing to Mariota’s boringly spectacular Heisman season. When the craziest thing that happens to the Heisman front runner during the season is a speeding ticket, it’s almost comical.

But of course, even the ticketing officer liked Mariota.

“Mr. Mariota was polite and respectful. He was professional and took the citation appropriately,” the officer told The Oregonian.

As a football fan, there’s nothing to dislike about Mariota. In a time of self-publicity and easy spotlight, he takes the other route. The one where he doesn’t have a Twitter or a website or any campaign outside of his stat line.

As a writer, though, Mariota has been one of the most difficult athletes to cover. At some point the “nice guy plays well” storyline gets played out. It has been written 100 times.

Mariota has given writers nothing new to write about. Which in today’s news cycle, feels like something new to write about.

This is his award to win because he’s the best player in the country, not because it’s a “quarterback award” or anything else. He didn’t need a billboard or a campaign to tell people that. He needed to put his team in position to play 15 games. And he has done just that.
EUGENE, Ore. -- If there were a year for the nerves to show, this would’ve been it for Oregon. The chip on their shoulders was bigger and losses from last season hurt more than ever.

Stanford and Arizona loomed large and on the horizon sat the unknowns of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Yet, there was an overwhelming sense of calm.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsThe Ducks adopted the attitude of their leader, Marcus Mariota.
Because Oregon had Marcus Mariota. Mariota has the pulse of a metronome. Nothing ever seemed to bother him and as the season has worn on it became evident that the team adopted his attitude.

He has led the Heisman race with no ego attached. There has been no campaign or billboards to that effect. And when he breaks records, typically it’s the media that informs him of it first.

So again, it comes as no surprise that the team's young talent has reacted the same. How easy it could’ve been for freshmen Royce Freeman or Charles Nelson to bask in some of the limelight they got. But instead, like Mariota, they passed off the recognition to their teammates and coaches, they looked toward the next game.

It’s certainly easier for both to remain that way when the team leader is the most humble person on the team. Suddenly, two touchdowns or 100 rushing yards in one game doesn’t quite stack up to the accomplishments that Mariota has accumulated during his time in Eugene.

He has been unflappable for this team despite the highs and lows. But when he walked into the postgame news conference after the Ducks lost to Arizona earlier this season and said, “In the locker room, it's positive” it was believable.

Why? Because it’s Mariota. And that’s the kind of leader he has proved to be.

So it was just as unsurprising when the Ducks came out and beat No. 18 UCLA … and then six other teams to earn a spot in a rematch with the Wildcats.

This year Mariota has become a more vocal leader for his team, not because it was what he inherently wanted but because it was what his team needed.

“That’s something that we’ve kind of talked about for a few years now in regard to my leadership and how I can use my voice as an influential tool,” Mariota said. For the most part it was me being more assertive. … I really feel that I’ve come a long way in that sense.”

“Realizing how much that can permeate a team, how contagious that can become,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “Just the realization of ‘when I talk, people listen.’ That’s something that was not natural.”

But the idea of improving himself step by step came naturally.

Ask Helfrich if he has ever seen Mariota rattled and he’ll say no.

But ask one of his best friends, center Hroniss Grasu, and he’ll say yes. There’s one place that Mariota gets rattled -- the golf course.

“I’m not used to seeing him handle something that he’s not good at,” Grasu said. But apparently golf is one of those things.

Even there, it takes a while for Mariota’s frustrations to show, though. When he hits his first bad shot (and according to Grasu it’s when, not if) Mariota will drop a ball in the same spot, analyze what went wrong in the previous swing, and strike the ball again. It’s how he approaches football.

But if Mariota misses the second shot, then the rattled Mariota comes out.

“He says, ‘I need to take a walk,’ and that’s what he does,” Grasu said. “No matter how far or where the ball is, he’ll just go walk to the ball.”

For any normal person, this would almost seem calm for two bad shots in a row. But for Mariota -- who has made a living off being a 5 on an emotional scale of 1-10 -- walking alone and not talking to friends is the ultimate representation of a rattled Mariota.

Lucky for the Ducks, that side of him never comes out on the football field. There, he is unflappable and consistent. For outsiders, it would’ve been easy to say that with a young team, this season could’ve gone any way for Oregon. But the players and coaches know that with Mariota as the leader, this is almost exactly how they saw it happening.

On Friday evening, Mariota will be interviewed following the Pac-12 Championship Game. On mute, based on his facial expressions alone, it’d be near impossible to know which team won the game.

That will play itself out in Levi’s Stadium. But the fact that this is how Mariota is and has been is the biggest reason why the Ducks are there in the first place.
EUGENE, Ore. -- It didn’t take long for Oregon wide receivers coach Matt Lubick to really see Charles Nelson.

Yes, everyone saw how undersized he was, how tough he was. No soft player of any size is able to lay the kind of hits on larger players that he has done at 5-foot-9 (with good shoes on). Coaches saw how he had grit and drew physical comparisons to DeAnthony Thomas and LaMichael James.

But even when Lubick first saw Nelson’s recruiting tape two years ago, he knew that those weren’t the X-factors in Nelson’s game. It was something else, something behind his eyes, and it didn’t take long for that to become evident in Eugene.

[+] EnlargeCharles Nelson
AP Photo/Ryan KangOregon freshman Charles Nelson's competitive fire is earning him plenty of playing time.
During one of the first practices of the year, a few Oregon coaches were debating who was the fastest player on the team.

“I go, ‘Oh, that’s Devon Allen,’ ” Lubick said.

Allen, the reigning NCAA champion in the 110-meter hurdles, also recorded the second-fastest collegiate time ever. He followed up that performance with a win at the USATF Outdoor Championships. He could probably have a lane at the 2016 Olympics if he pursued it.

Most of the coaches agreed -- by no stretch of the imagination would Allen be a bad choice.

That is, until you talk to Nelson.

“He said, ‘I’ll race him in the 40. I want to take him on right now. I can beat Devon,’ ” Lubick said of Nelson.

It’s that fiery side of him that has propelled Nelson from special-teams star to offensive weapon in just a month. It’s that spirit that forced Mark Helfrich’s hand in getting him on the field more and it’s that part of him that has made Helfrich’s decision more than pay off -- Nelson has recorded five touchdowns in four games … on just seven receptions.

But it’s nothing new for Nelson.

During his freshman year at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Florida, his varsity football team went for a team-bonding event to a bowling alley. According to his former coach, Marc Beach, Nelson bowled like he “thought the Super Bowl was on the line.” His teammates thought he was crazy. His coach knew this was what could make a 5-foot-9 player a force.

A year later, Beach took him to a camp -- as a running back -- at Florida. A rainstorm forced the campers into the Gators locker room, but Nelson was still busy trying to find guys to compete against. When none of the other campers wanted to take him head-to-head in a 40 later that day (he had clocked a low-4.3 earlier), he began asking some Gators players, who were around for the summer, if they’d be up for the challenge.

He said, ‘When it stops raining, I’ll take anybody in here,’ ” Beach remembered.

So when Nelson got to Eugene and the coaches said to the young players that learning how to block and hit guys was the key to early playing time, Nelson listened.

“I took that as a personal challenge,” Nelson said.

He was named the special-teams player of the week for the first three weeks of the Ducks’ season. His first punt return touchdown came on the first punt return of his career, and his next -- a 58-yard return against Cal -- came two months later.

Nelson averages 15.6 yards per punt return, good enough for ninth nationally and third-best in the Pac-12. On Tuesday night he was named second-team All-Pac-12 for his kick and punt return efforts.

And while it was those kinds of highlights drawing the attention of fans and viewers, it was everything he did without the ball in his hands that really convinced the Oregon coaches that Nelson was ready for a transition into the offense.

“I’ve never seen a freshman make an impact on special teams -- ever -- in the way he has made,” Lubick said.

Nelson had studied the offensive playbook before he got to campus, but the more practice reps he got -- which have increased as the season went on -- the better he became. They knew once he had a full understanding of the playbook and enough game reps, he’d be a big part of the Ducks’ success.

“It’s one thing to know it on the board and another thing to do it out there 100 mph, when someone’s signaling at you or guys are yelling at you,” Lubick said. “When he knows what he’s doing, he’s fearless.”

That’s the X-factor that Lubick saw in the recruiting film and sees on Nelson’s Oregon game film every day. On film, Nelson has been playing larger than life, even though in real life, most people can see the top of his head.

Lubick jokes that he doesn’t really know what “undersized” means. And anyone who has been hit by Nelson would probably say the same thing, and Arizona is going to be the next team to figure that out.

Because if Nelson is willing to take on a world champion in a foot race, the Wildcats had better believe he’s coming for them, too.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood kind of had to scratch his head.

“I checked myself,” Greatwood joked. “What did I do wrong? Who did I offend? Which one of the gods did I offend?”

It’s not completely ridiculous to believe that someone in Oregon's O-line room might’ve done something to make the football gods mad. After all, the lineman injury chart is starting to look like an Ayn Rand novel at this point.

Case in point:
  • August 11: Tyler Johnstone’s ACL tear is first reported, though he tore it sometime during the previous week. He's out for the season.
  • September 6: Haniteli Lousi misses the Michigan State game after injuring his leg sometime during prep for that game. He returned on Oct. 24 versus Cal.
  • September 6: Andre Yruretagoyena injured his right leg. He returned Nov. 22 versus Colorado.
  • September 13: Jake Fisher injured his left leg. He returned Oct. 11 versus UCLA.
  • October 18: Hamani Stevens left the Washington game with an ankle injury. He returned Oct. 24 versus Cal.
  • November 1: Matt Pierson injured his left knee. He's still out.
  • November 8: Hroniss Grasu injured his left leg. He's still out.
 Silver lining? The plethora of lower body injuries has allowed younger linemen to get more experience and build toward next year, while not losing too much in the run game (though, Marcus Mariota has been sacked more due to the injuries).

For the most part, the Ducks’ patchwork system has worked. Yes, they averaged just 3.5 yards per rush in their loss to Arizona on Oct. 2 (two yards fewer than their season average), but considering multiple position changes and shifts along the line, having only one loss seems pretty impressive.

“We spin the dial and see what comes up,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich jokingly said about his offensive line. “It has been a week to week existence in that position room.”

Until Nov. 8, it seemed as though Grasu was one of the few untouchables among that dial, but the injury bug struck him too, and Stevens stepped into his place. And for the first time in Mariota’s career, he took a game snap from someone other than Grasu on Saturday.

“It was definitely different, but Hamani stepped up and played well,” Mariota said. “He was recruited as a center. So, he just did his thing, did what he does naturally.”

Again, the line was just fine. The Ducks averaged 6.5 yards per rush, scored three rushing touchdowns and allowed two sacks. Greatwood was happy with the performance, but admitted the Ducks did miss some protections and assignments early. However, those problems cleared themselves up as the game went on.

Although Doug Brenner had been the assumed to be the heir to Grasu, Greatwood and Helfrich decided they wanted Stevens -- a redshirt senior -- to bring his leadership and experience to the center position. Brenner played left guard. Yruretagoyena also made his return, and Helfrich was happy to see him “just knocking off that rust.”

If that’s what it takes to get these guys back in the lineup, Greatwood and Helfrich want to see all kinds of rust knocked off in the coming weeks.

Greatwood said he's never dealt with this many offensive line injuries during his coaching career. The key has been keeping the group confident and continuing to push the players, just like he does when there aren't injuries along the line.

“The last thing you do is throw up your hands,” Greatwood said. “No one is going to feel sorry for you. Everybody goes through it. You just have to keep going.”

However, the injuries have changed things a bit for the group. Last week, they didn't have a full one- and two-deep group for practice. That, obviously, affects the tempo of practice because there are guys who are running so many more reps than usual. The hitting has lightened up a bit in practice, but with Oregon still wanting to run full speed, it has been a little more “taxing,” Greatwood said, for members of his offensive line.

But the Ducks have gotten better with the adjustments. Perhaps when Johnstone went down at the beginning of the season, panic may have set in with this group -- the most experienced one of the entire roster -- and they would suffer some kind of setback.

Now, it’s almost surprising to see the offensive line start the same players for two games in a row.

“They don’t blink at it,” Greatwood said of the moves. “It’s like OK this week you’re playing this position. The kids have stepped up and done a great job every time we shuffle the deck.”

The Ducks have three, maybe four, games left in their schedule and chances are the deck will be shuffled once more (though, Greatwood hopes that shuffling only occurs when guys are getting healthy again).

But until then, he’s going to say his Hail Mary’s and do random acts of kindness every day (and maybe put his offensive linemen in bubble wrap) ... just in case.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- No. 2 Oregon kept its national title hopes alive on Saturday with a 44-10 win over Colorado.

How the game was won: Scoring. Lots and lots of scoring. The Ducks put up 44 points and left quite a few other opportunities on the field. With the exception of the first play of the game (an onside kickoff that Colorado recovered), Oregon dominated and controlled the game in all aspects. Quarterback Marcus Mariota -- who was working behind another revamped offensive line -- was nearly flawless. From his first completion (a 7-yard completion to Devon Allen) to his last (a 14-yard TD to Charles Nelson), the game came easy to him.

The defense performed well too, holding Colorado to just 10 points (a season low) on 226 yards of offense. Colorado wide receiver Nelson Spruce, who came into the game averaging an FBS-high 9.9 catches per game, accounted for only two receptions. His 16 receiving yards was also nearly 100 yards less than his season average (109.1 yards per game).

Gameball goes to: Mariota, who most likely made his final appearance as a player in Autzen Stadium. He didn’t take part in the senior day festivities, but all signs indicate that this was the redshirt junior’s final home game. And if he returns, it would be a shock. But the reception he got from the fans as he left the field after his final play, which came early in the fourth quarter, and the ensuing “Mariota, Mariota, Mariota” chants, seemed to be a good way to say goodbye to this stadium and its fans.

Also, let’s give some quick shout outs to two true freshman standouts: Royce Freeman and Nelson. Freeman eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season -- the first true freshman in Oregon history to do so -- and ended the day with two touchdowns and 105 rushing yards on 17 carries. Nelson finished with two touchdowns as well. His three receptions is a career high. Not bad for a guy that we’ve literally watched play his way into the lineup over the past month.

Playoff implication: Oregon is securely in the top four. And with every single one of these blowout wins, it continues to make big statements to the committee. Alabama might have started slow against Western Carolina, but don’t expect the Crimson Tide to drop out of the top spot. However, it’s really not a point of worry for the Ducks because even if they aren’t the top dog, they’re securely in that top four group. As long as that’s the case, Oregon is still in the running for a national title.

Best play: There were plenty of big plays in this 34-point win. So, we’re going to go with the play that had the most style points. That was courtesy of redshirt freshman receiver Darren Carrington, who tipped the ball to himself and then caught it with his backside on the ground. It was a 29-yard reception that gave Oregon a first down. The drive ended with a field goal, but this was memorable.

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What's next: Oregon prepares for the Civil War. Oregon State’s last game in Reser Stadium was an upset of then-No. 6 Arizona State so the Ducks will need to be sharp from beginning to end. The Pac-12 championship against [insert any South team here] follows no matter what, but Oregon must beat the Beavers in order to stay in the playoff race.
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Sixth-ranked Arizona State traveled to Reser Stadium and added its name to the Beavers’ list of top-10 takedowns following Oregon State's 35-27 victory.

How the game was won: When Oregon State senior linebacker Michael Doctor picked off Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown to put the Beavers ahead by the final margin. That was the play that sealed it for Oregon State, but it came on the tails of the Beavers finding ways to be opportunistic while Arizona State played sloppy. Kelly was 9-of-20 for 85 yards and 1 interception in the second half while the Sun Devil defense gave up big, big plays and tossed in a few penalties as well.

Game ball goes to: Oregon State’s run game. The Beavers were averaging 108 rushing yards per game. Against the Sun Devils, they exceeded that ... in the first quarter. Terron Ward and Storm Woods combined for 2 touchdowns and 273 yards on 30 carries. The Beavers finished with 247 total rushing yards -- the most rushing yardage ASU had given up this season (the Sun Devils gave up 225 against UCLA).

What it means: It opens up the Pac-12 South Division quite a bit. The Sun Devils now sit at 5-2 in the conference along with Arizona and UCLA, while USC is at 6-2. It seemed as though ASU would be the most likely candidate to face Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, but now it could still be either Arizona, UCLA or USC.

Playoff implication: Arizona State's playoff case is harder to plead. Even if the Sun Devils are able to make it to the Pac-12 championship game and beat Oregon, the committee doesn’t have to accept a two-loss Pac-12 champion -- especially one that lost late in the season to an unranked, last-place-in-the-North-Division Oregon State.

From a wider perspective, the Sun Devils’ loss makes the entire conference’s playoff chances a bit murkier. If whatever two-loss (or more) team from the South manages to beat Oregon in the conference championship game, that would mean the committee would either be choosing a two- or three-loss conference champion or a two-loss Duck team -- assuming it wins out -- that didn’t win the conference championship. So, if you’re an SEC West fan, take note, this is the scenario you should be cheering for.

Best play: Doctor's pick-six. Clutch play for a guy who spent most of last year on the sideline following a season-ending ankle injury during the second game of 2013. Doctor's pick is among the most important of the Pac-12 season.

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What's next: Arizona State licks its wounds and tries to take care of business against Washington State, which would mean that a spot in the Pac-12 championship could be on the line in the Territorial Cup against Arizona on Nov. 28 (depending on how things shake out with a few other Pac-12 South teams). Oregon State can revel in this win, which makes coach Mike Riley look a bit better in the eyes of fans and the Oregon State athletic department. The Beavers need to pick up a win over either Washington or Oregon in their final two games to become bowl eligible.
Every Thursday two of our writers sit down and toss around a 6-Pac of questions surrounding Pac-12 football. Today, Kyle Bonagura and Chantel Jennings take aim at six pressing questions:

1. Oregon is the Pac-12 front-runner for the College Football Playoff. If you could take any Pac-12 player and put him in a Ducks uniform for the rest of the season, whom would you pick?

Bonagura: USC DL Leonard Williams. Even with all the stats some of the other standout defensive players in the conference are putting up, it’s Williams that NFL scouts like the best. Add Williams to the Ducks’ defensive line -- he can play end or tackle -- and it instantly takes a significant step forward.

[+] EnlargeHau'oli Kikaha
Ted S. Warren/AP PhotoImagine the Ducks' pass rush with Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha leading the charge.
Jennings: There’s a part of me that wanted to pick out an offensive tackle because I’d love to see how much stronger the run game -- and offense as a whole -- would be if the Ducks weren't so depleted at OT. However, they’re managing just fine right now. And what I think they could use more is a stout pass-rusher, so I’d pick Washington linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha. He leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. He would be a great addition to that Oregon defense.

2. Connor Halliday is the only Pac-12 QB that already hit the mark of 3,500 passing yards this season. How many join him by season’s end?

Bonagura: Cal’s Jared Goff, Arizona’s Anu Solomon and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota seem like locks, but Colorado’s Sefo Liufau and USC’s Cody Kessler will also have a chance. Kessler (2,548) is on pace to crack 3,600 -- with a bowl game, but without a potential Pac-12 title game -- while Liufau (2,590) will need to up his average slightly over the last three games. Final answer: five.

Jennings: I’m going with five as well. Kessler only needs 238 passing yards per game in his final four appearances of the year to hit 3,500 and there have only been two games this season in which he missed that mark (at Stanford, at Arizona). Of the Trojans’ three remaining known opponents, just one (Notre Dame) has held opposing quarterbacks to fewer than 238 passing yards per game. And considering Cal has the nation’s worst pass defense at 376 passing yards allowed per game, I think he’ll be just fine. Heck, he’d be just 92 yards off that 3,500 mark in the regular season if he played average against his final three regular-season opponents.

3. Arizona State took control of the South Division this weekend. How long does it last?

Bonagura: Through the rest of the season. The Sun Devils’ next two conference games should be wins -- at Oregon State, vs. WSU -- which would leave them with the Territorial Cup vs. Arizona to win the South. It’s without question the easiest path to the division title, and that’s before factoring in the one-game lead over all the other contenders.

Jennings: Agreed. I see an Arizona State-Oregon matchup in the Pac-12 championship game, which, could be really, really, really fun.

4. If you could pick a Pac-12 golf foursome, whom would you pick?

Bonagura: 1. Utah K Andy Phillips -- Skiier? Check. Kicker? Check. But can he play golf? 2. USC OG Damien Mama -- He’s 6-foot-4, 370 pounds. Yes, I want to see him play golf. 3. Oregon State coach Mike Riley -- The dean of Pac-12 coaches would surely have some good stories to tell.

Jennings: I would want to create as much drama as possible. So, I’d bring glasses ref and Oregon linebacker Tony Washington. I’m sure Washington would have plenty of questions/respectful complaints to make regarding his bow and the effect it had on the Oregon-Arizona game. I’d also like to see a Pac-12 ref last 18 holes while being pestered by the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Washington. Then, I’d bring Mike Leach because a) I’ve done a long walk with him before and I know it’s entertaining, and b) he’d have plenty of material for stories with whatever was happening between the ref and Washington.

“Have I ever told you about the time I was backpacking through China and learned the proper form in which a bow …”

Yes, Mike, go on…

5. How does Utah's season shake out?

Bonagura: Can see the Utes finishing anywhere from 10-3 to 7-6, so it’ll probably be somewhere in the middle. The season could be ultimately be defined by its upcoming two-game stretch against Stanford and Arizona. A pair of wins there and it’s a major step forward for the program, but a couple of losses and they’ll take some bitterness into the offseason.

Jennings: Sorry Utes, I’m not as optimistic. I only see Utah picking up one more win this season -- Colorado. I don’t think the Utes’ one-dimensional offense is going to be enough against Oregon, Stanford or Arizona. Kyle Whittingham will get a bowl game but it’ll be a seven-win season.

6. Does Oregon State make a bowl game?

Bonagura: I picked WSU this week, which should answer that. I actually don’t see a win left on Oregon State’s schedule. The Beavers just don’t have enough pieces around Sean Mannion, who should still be regarded as a great player, to give them much of a chance down the stretch.

Jennings: I can’t fully commit to this right now, but my gut gives me a good feeling about Oregon State-Washington (still need to see them this weekend against UCLA). And since I picked the Beavers over Washington State this weekend, that win plus a win over the Huskies would make them bowl eligible. Oregon State might lack receivers, but the Washington secondary took a huge hit by losing Marcus Peters. Maybe Mannion could make magic. (Yep, we’re ending this 6-Pac with some alliteration, folks.)
On Tuesday night, the College Football Playoff selection committee released its most recent rankings and Oregon was the last team in for the top four. With their big win over Stanford last weekend, the Ducks have positioned themselves for a strong run to close out the conference season in the Pac-12 but questions linger regarding Oregon’s defense. The 8-1 Ducks are winning, but statistically their defense is the 103rd best in the nation. Pac-12 reporters Kevin Gemmell and Chantel Jennings debate how important these statistics actually are.

Gemmell says that numbers don’t tell the whole story.

So Oregon’s weakest link is its defense? Or so they say …

“Oregon gives up too many yards.”

“Oregon has a poor third-down defense.”

“Oregon gives up too many explosive plays.”

Blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. Yards, schmards. It’s what teams do with the yards gained that is more relevant. Ask 2013 Cal how it felt to gain 453.6 yards per game but rank last in scoring offense.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsDespite giving up yards in bunches at times, Oregon's defense ranks sixth in the Pac-12 in points per game.
I’m not saying yards aren’t important. But when you have an offense like Oregon’s that can flip the field with one or two plays, yards allowed drop significantly in importance.

Oregon ranks sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 24.8 points per game. That’s four-tenths of a point behind Washington -- a revered defense -- which allows 24.4 points per game. That the Ducks rank in the middle of the conference in points allowed is actually impressive when you consider the offenses they have seen so far -- including Arizona, UCLA and Cal. That’s three of the top six offenses in the conference. And the Ducks have weathered that to the tune of a 5-1 conference record. All three of those offenses were held below their season scoring averages, not to mention holding Michigan State to 27 points -- a team that ranks fifth nationally in scoring offense and averages 45.5 points per game.

And in all likelihood, Oregon’s defensive numbers are going to get even better the rest of the way. The top offenses in the league are already in their rear-view mirror. Their final three opponents, Utah, Colorado and Oregon State, rank seventh, ninth and 11th, respectively, in scoring offense. The Ducks have seen the best offenses the league has to offer and has managed to stay in the upper half of the rankings in points allowed.

Oregon is not without its flaws. And I’m happy to concede those. When teams get in the red zone, more often than not the end result will be a touchdown. The Ducks have given up 25 red zone touchdowns -- only Cal and Colorado are worse. But we saw improvement in that department against Stanford by holding the Cardinal to three field goals and one touchdown. When the opposing kicker is having a big day, chances are your defense is doing something right.

Worth noting, too, that Oregon leads the conference in turnover margin at plus-12. With 18 takeaways, only Washington has more with 20.

Too much gets made of yards allowed. Scoring offense and scoring defense are by far the more telling statistics. And the Ducks average 45.4 points per game while allowing 24.8. That produces the most important result of them all: Scoreboard.

Jennings says Oregon is giving up too many big plays.

That’s completely fair Kevin. I do agree with you to a point. The Oregon defense looked very improved last weekend and I was impressed with how the Ducks managed to hold Stanford to just 16 points on 428 offensive yards.

So yes, the whole “Well, at least they’re keeping teams from scoring and they’re still winning” argument sounds perfectly fine right now. But here’s the thing, no one is winning the national title right now. And in the Pac-12 they should be able to win games by not having those lapses in which they give up 30-yard rushes or 40-yard passes. Because, sure, maybe the Stanford or Cal offenses aren’t good enough to score against Oregon in the red zone. But you want to guess who probably is?

Florida State. Alabama. Mississippi State. Auburn. TCU.

And you know what? That’s what really matters. Because it’s going to be the same-old-same-old if the Ducks march through the conference schedule, get into the playoff and then lose in the playoff to one of those teams. People are going to say the Pac-12 isn’t strong enough, it can’t field a complete team. And until the conference wins a national title, there isn’t going to be a strong defense (no pun intended) for the conference to stand on.

And if they were to lose in a semifinal or the championship, it won’t be because their offense isn’t high powered enough. I think this offense is one of the top-functioning offenses in the nation. The Ducks average 7.4 yards per play -- the second best in the nation. So, they’re not going to find many defenses that can keep up with them for four quarters.

But the defense is the liability. Oregon can’t afford to have those random plays where it just implodes. Because the really good offenses of the world are going to capitalize on those moments, and suddenly, in a situation in which maybe in the Pac-12 the Ducks would’ve been fine, now they’ll find themselves in a 17- or 21-point hole just because they’re finally facing an offense that’s just as opportunistic as their own.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the stats. If you go through and take out the five longest plays from scrimmage the Ducks have allowed in each game this season, it’s staggering. These are FIVE PLAYS, people. Oregon doesn’t have to be perfect, just clean up these giant mess-ups about once a quarter...



In total, if those plays -- just 6 percent of the total plays the Oregon defense has played this year -- were taken out of the statistics, the Ducks would be giving up just 4.2 yards per play, or the third-best defensive average in the nation.

So no, statistics aren’t everything. But there is a difference in giving up 5.1 yards a play to South Dakota State and giving up 5.1 yards a play to Mississippi State. One of those teams is going to be able to capitalize, and the Ducks probably won’t like that outcome. The time to fix all of those issues is now. So no, it’s not a terrible problem that the Ducks are giving these plays up now in the middle of the conference season as long as they keep winning. But, if they can’t clean it up against Cal or Stanford, are they really going to be able to hold up against Florida State or Alabama?

Five under-the-radar games in November 

November, 4, 2014
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My esteemed College Football Playoff guru, Heather Dinich, has ranked her 10 most impactful matchups remaining in the chase for the four playoff spots.

The best thing about November is that the pressure is turned up two or three notches, which invariably produces some head-turning upsets. Remember No. 5 Stanford's loss to unranked USC last season? What about No. 1 Kansas State falling to unranked Baylor in 2012? There was also No. 2 Oklahoma State stumbling against unranked Iowa State in 2011.

What under-the-radar games this season are we forgetting about that could potentially shake up the playoff race? Here are five to circle:

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesClint Trickett and the Mountaineers have scored 20 or more points in every game this season.
Kansas State at West Virginia, Nov. 20: The Mountaineers have been a tough out for everybody this season, especially at home. This game is on a Thursday night in Morgantown, and Kansas State will be coming off another steep test on the road two weeks earlier at TCU. West Virginia has scored 30 or more points in its past eight games, so the Wildcats better be ready to win a shootout.

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No. 5 Oregon made a serious case for why it should move up in the rankings on Saturday with its 45-16 win over Stanford. Here’s how it went down:

How the game was won: Offensive efficiency and defensive pressure from the Ducks. Oregon scored on its first four drives, not needing to punt until the waning moments of the first half. Quarterback Marcus Mariota ran his unit like a machine, exorcising Stanford demons, and the Ducks defense showed that it had taken a big step forward.

Game ball goes to: It’s split, so we’re going with offensive and defensive game balls tonight.
  • Offensive: Oregon’s run game. Coming into this matchup, the Cardinal had given up just 91 rushing yards per game at 2.6 yards per rush. Behind big performances from Marcus Mariota, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman, the Ducks accounted for 268 rushing yards at 6.0 yards per carry. Through eight games this season, Stanford had given up just four rushing touchdowns. On Saturday night, Oregon matched that total.
  • Defensive: Safety Erick Dargan. The senior intercepted Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan on the first drive of the third quarter at the 1-yard line and then forced a Hogan fumble on the first drive of the fourth quarter. Though cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu came into this season as the biggest name on the Oregon defense, Dargan has been a nice surprise, coming up with big plays when the Ducks need them.
What it means: Oregon can beat Stanford. It is possible. And with that win, the Ducks continue to be the Pac-12's banner holder in the College Football Playoff race.

Playoff implication: Oregon should move up into the top four when the committee releases its second set of rankings on Tuesday. If the Ducks aren’t in it, then there’s a serious problem. With No. 4 Ole Miss losing to No. 3 Auburn and No. 7 TCU coming away with a small victory over No. 20 West Virginia, it seems really hard to believe that Oregon wouldn’t be in the top four.

Best play: Tyner’s spin move into the end zone in the third quarter to give the Ducks a 31-16 lead. Tyner missed the Ducks' last game, but his return felt like a bit of a coming-out party for the sophomore. He has spent most of the season playing second fiddle to Freeman and Byron Marshall, who has converted into more a wide receiver role, but on Saturday night he made a case to get more touches.

What's next: Utah for both teams. Oregon heads to Salt Lake City next weekend to take on the tough Utes defense, while Stanford has a bye next weekend before playing a home game against the Utes.
Five things to watch in Saturday's matchup between No. 5 Oregon and Stanford.

1. Oregon offense vs. Stanford defense: A supersonic matchup

The first three installments of this Stanford-Oregon rivalry focused on a battle between two high-powered offenses: The Cardinal featured Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck, while the Ducks lit up the scoreboard under Chip Kelly. Starting in 2012, the Pac-12 North clash took on a decidedly different tone as Stanford's defense morphed into an elite unit. Suddenly, the headline attraction was Oregon's blur attack against the Cardinal's stifling defense. That's what we're going to get again here in 2014, and the matchup may be better than it's ever been. Stanford's defense has never performed so well statistically (they're leading the nation allowing only 3.7 yards per play), while Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is leading the nation with his 192.2 quarterback rating. Simply put, this is another round of a supersonic matchup, and it's the first time that both clashing entities have been ranked No. 1 in the nation. So don't let the Cardinal's three losses fool you: This particular battle is in its prime.

2. Can Oregon get the Stanford monkey off its back?

Mariota has never beaten the Cardinal as the Ducks' starting QB. And in all of those losses, the weapons around him were far more experienced than what he's working with now. However, players like running back Royce Freeman, Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford -- though inexperienced -- could be what Mariota and Oregon need to get past this Stanford roadblock. In the past two years, Oregon has lost to Stanford in two different ways, according to Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. In 2012, he said, the Ducks didn't play very well and they also didn't play very hard. In the 2013 matchup, he thought his team played hard but didn't finish well in the chances they had. Can they play hard and finish this season? So far the offense has done a pretty good job of that and the defense has done enough, too. But they haven't put it together like that against Stanford in a while. Could this be the year?

3. Stanford's decimated defensive line

In a piece earlier this week, we discussed the formula that Stanford's defense has successfully employed to stop Oregon the past two seasons. In 2012, that plan was rooted in dominant, block-swallowing play along the defensive line. In 2013, since the Cardinal's defensive line was decimated by injury, Stanford's linebackers took on greater responsibility. Well, the Cardinal is again battling serious health concerns along the defensive front here in 2014. Versatile lineman Aziz Shittu has just been ruled out for the rest of the season, while David Parry -- the critical rock in the middle -- is questionable for Saturday because of a leg injury.

If the 305-pound Parry does not play, the Cardinal will be forced to rely on 255-pound true freshman lineman Harrison Phillips, which can spell huge trouble against a suddenly-bruising Oregon rushing game (Royce Freeman doesn't run like a true freshman, and David Shaw admitted that was "disheartening"). If Stanford can't stop the Ducks' rushing attack, well, you know what's next ... his initials are 'MM.' Mark Helfrich is certainly hoping to see the domino effect. The Cardinal's defense is vulnerable if they can't stop the run, so their health up front is a key variable in this game.

4. The pressures on both sides of this game

If Oregon walks away with a win, there's a really good chance the Ducks move into No. 4 after this weekend, considering the Nos. 3-4 matchup between Auburn and Ole Miss on Saturday. But with a loss, the Ducks drop and a two-loss Pac-12 championship team making the College Football Playoff doesn't seem likely. If the committee had to choose between a two-loss SEC team (even if it's the second in the playoff) and a two-loss Pac-12 champion (even if the only team considered), the scales would probably tilt toward the SEC. On the other side, you've got Stanford who could salvage -- at least emotionally -- part of this season by a) ruining Oregon's and b) avoiding a fourth loss, which would be the worst since the 2009 season when Stanford lost five games and c) pushing themselves ahead of Oregon in the North with no losses to North teams (but each would have two conference losses overall). Which team is going to be able to handle those kinds of pressures better?

5. Which Stanford offense will show up?

Will we see the Cardinal attack that laid massive eggs against USC, Notre Dame and Arizona State? Or will we see the completely revamped unit that sliced like a hot knife through Oregon State's butter this past weekend, averaging 8.2 yards per play and also scoring from the red zone before garbage time? Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren orchestrated a major rehaul of Stanford's offense before last week's game, and the resulting focus on perimeter athleticism (combined with a healthy dose of tight end action over the middle) seemed to make an excellent use of the Cardinal's personnel. The Ducks' defense hasn't been great this year, so this will be an interesting litmus test for both teams. Stanford will either replicate last year's ball control success by moving the chains in new ways, or Oregon will capitalize on a Cardinal offense that hasn't found a consistent identity yet this season. That fork in the road may end up determining this game.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 -- that date was circled on so many of the Oregon Ducks' calendars last year.

It was the date they'd have a chance to hit the field again against the team that derailed their 2012 season. But the 2013 date would have the same result -- that circle would make no difference in the end -- it'd be another loss to Stanford, another New Year's Day spent not playing in the Rose Bowl.

"We can't make it a bigger game than it is," Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. "That's what I feel like we did last year. We were just focusing on that game way too much."

So perhaps in this game, one of the biggest benefits for Oregon will be one of its biggest questions marks -- its youth.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesOregon has lost two straight to Stanford, but several key Ducks have never played in the rivalry.
Running back Royce Freeman, who took over the starting running back job five games into the season and has accounted for 55 percent of the Ducks' rushing yards in October, has never played in this rivalry. Wide receiver Devon Allen, who has been one of Marcus Mariota's most consistent targets this season, has never played in this rivalry. Wide receiver Darren Carrington, who has come on strong as of late, has never played in this rivalry. Charles Nelson, special teams phenom, has never played in this rivalry.

Though Allen and Carrington saw the effects of this game last year during their redshirt seasons, they weren't in that game seeing exactly how everything went down.

Now, their ignorance could be Oregon's bliss.

In any other game that type of inexperience might be considered a deterrent. But here, in a game in which the history has messed with the present players more and more, perhaps inexperience will be one of the Ducks' greatest strength.

"I feel like it's a little bit easier for those guys to be able to play this game," Grasu said. "Because all we can tell those young guys is treat it like you perform in practice. They do an unbelievable job at practice and it has been showing on the field every Saturday. They just have to keep doing that -- don't get too hyped up just for this game."

"Maybe that is a good thing," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said about his young playmakers. "Those guys are a little bit fresher in their perspective."

The youth certainly has been fresh for Helfrich this season, especially of late as the learning curves have really picked up.

But to him, he really doesn't think of his players in terms of grades. He looks at each of them as a player going into Week 9 of the season, and so far, all of these 18- and 19-year olds have looked like very talented Week 9 players.

"We have so many [young] guys playing prominent roles on both sides of the ball and on special teams," Helfrich said. "If they're in the game, they're our best guy doesn't matter what grade they're in."

It might not matter to Helfrich, but it could, in fact, be a help to the coach come Saturday.
Freeman/FournetteGetty ImagesRoyce Freeman, left, and Leonard Fournette have combined for 20 TDs this season as freshmen.


Oregon freshman Royce Freeman (748 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 13 rushing touchdowns) and LSU freshman Leonard Fournette (657 yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 7 rushing touchdowns) first made their names known on the recruiting scene, and they’ve been able to back up their hype at the college level with just half a season under their belts. Pac-12 writer Chantel Jennings and SEC writer Edward Aschoff got together to debate which player is the leader for best freshman running back in the nation.

Jennings: Edward, I hear there's this pretty good freshman running back in the South. And guess what, there's another good one out here on the West Coast, and I'd bet dollars to donuts that by the end of the season, Royce Freeman is going to be the most well-known (and rightfully so) freshman running back in the nation.

Aschoff: Freeman has been impressive this season. His play has people all over the country buzzing about him. He's a player, for real, but I will say this: By season's end, the country will be more excited about LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette. Bet whatever you want on that one. It took a little while for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound chiseled man-child to get going, but he's been very impressive of late. Did you see how many Florida Gators defenders he threw around like rag dolls a couple of weeks ago? Did you see how he tortured Ole Miss defenders with punishing run after punishing run? Florida and Ole Miss currently rank 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in the nation in run defense, but were nuzzled up with the best of them before facing Fournette. The Gators allowed just 103 rushing yards a game and one rushing touchdown heading into the LSU game, but Fournette ran for a season-high 140 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Against Ole Miss, which allowed 97.1 rushing yards per game, he ran for 113 yards and caught two passes for 41 yards. He breaks tackles with ease. He can hit the home run play. He's starting to live up to the preseason hype, and he doesn't need a face mask to make plays. Fournette is heating up, but can Freeman keep his momentum?

Jennings: Oh Ed, that's cute. Did you see how Freeman ran against Washington's front seven (5.8 yards per carry, 4 TDs)? Or what he did against UCLA's defense (6.7 yards per carry, 2 TDs)? Or were those games too late for you and the rest of the East Coast? If so, you most certainly managed to stay up for the Oregon-Michigan State game in Week 2 when he averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns, no? Those numbers make Fournette's stats against Florida and Ole Miss (yes, 5.2 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively) look … meh. But please, let's talk some stats, Ed. Specifically, let's look at what these guys have done versus Power 5 opponents (because if you're really about to include Fournette's season-high 7.1 yards per carry against Sam Houston State in these stats then you're not nearly the competitor I thought you were)… Freeman has 651 rushing yards against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has 391. Freeman averaged 5.4 yards per rush against Power 5 opponents; Fournette averages 4.3. Freeman has 10 rushing touchdowns against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has three. Freeman has 18 rushes of 10 or more yards against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has 10. Is there really a need to go on? Didn't think so.

Oh, also (and did you really think as a Michigan graduate I'd miss this), let's not forget that Freeman knows how to carry himself on the field and isn't about to strike the Heisman pose against an FCS school...

Aschoff: I mean when your Power 5 teams include just one team -- Michigan State -- that ranks in the top 30 in rush defense, I guess that's respectable. Cal and UCLA both rank outside the top 50 nationally in scoring defense, while Fournette has already faced four rush defenses inside the top 25. You know what else is impressive about the rise of Fournette? He's sharing a backfield with two other running backs who both have more than 400 rushing yards and have totaled nine touchdowns. They've also carried the ball a combined 153 times. Fournette has had to battle his way through two other running backs who could start in the SEC to get his team-high 131 carries, 657 yards and seven touchdowns. He's been able to average 73 yards a game with two other studs taking carries here and there. Again, Freeman has been great, but Fournette is surging. He's pounding folks. He's dragging kids through the turf. We're heading into the last month of the season, and he's gaining speed -- and strength.

Fournette is a physical specimen, who is about to have his way with some approaching defenses. Fournette doesn't need all that space to work with, like the Ducks afford Freeman. No, he works well in tight spaces, parting a sea of linemen with ease. He embraces contact. When he starts pumping those legs, watch out, or just grab on and hold tight. He's barely behind Freeman when it comes to stats, but the Tigers have brought him along slower than Freeman. He's getting used to the speed and chaos in the SEC, so expect a special last month for Fournette.

Jennings: Hey, stats are all relative, right? Maybe Freeman's numbers are monstrously better than Fournette's with a slightly worse schedule, but don't bring that top 30 in rushing defense stuff in here. You know who else is on that list … Boston College, Virginia, Toledo, Michigan. Freeman would run for miles on those teams. So yes, we can only go so far with stats. And the statistics conundrum is one that won't be solved until the end of the season. So we can leave it at that.

But you can't act like Fournette is the only one sharing a backfield. Freeman came in behind Byron Marshall, who had a 1,000-yard season last year, and Thomas Tyner. On top of that, he shares carries with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who averages eight carries per game. So, Freeman has definitely had to come from the back of the pack to make his presence known. The 18-year-old battled through some serious competition to be the starter. I think we can agree on the fact that both of these guys are special players, and in the years to come not only are we going to be debating which is the best in his respective class, but which is the best back in the entire nation. And the rest of the debate right now? Well, let's agree to disagree.

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