The Oregon-Stanford series -- first spot goes to last season's winner -- started earning nationwide notice six years ago when a couple of obscure guys named Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck led the Cardinal to an upset win over the No. 8 Ducks. That was Chip Kelly's first season as Oregon's coach, and his postgame handshake with then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh apparently passed without incident.
Oregon went on to win the 2009 Pac-10 title nonetheless, yet the next four times the teams met, the conference and then the North Division title were the stakes. The series first featured Stanford's "Oregon Problem" -- the Ducks were just too darn fast! Then it rerouted to Oregon's "Stanford Problem" -- the Cardinal were just too big and physical!
Last year's new wrinkle continues this go-around, but it isn't that fun: The series' unranked problem.
Last season, Stanford was struggling, unranked and underperforming, while Oregon was a College Football Playoff contender led by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. This year, the reverse is true. Stanford, 11th in the initial CFP rankings, has won eight in a row after an opening defeat at Northwestern and boasts its own Heisman candidate in running back Christian McCaffrey. Oregon needed a three-game winning streak to reach this Saturday's contest at 6-3.
Before last year, in the previous four games between Oregon and Stanford, both teams were ranked no lower than 13th, and three times it was a top-10 matchup -- top-5 in 2013.
When asked how he felt about Stanford being a heavy favorite against the Ducks on Saturday, Cardinal coach David Shaw -- his team fresh off a 42-10 pasting of Colorado -- wouldn't bite.
“It doesn’t matter what the records say," he said. "It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight.”
Maybe. The contrast in styles always makes this game interesting. Oregon remains uptempo slick, eager to find space for its playmakers so they can make someone miss. Stanford remains old-school smashmouth. It wants to brawl at the line of scrimmage and continues to use an exotic curiosity whispered about by old-timers, sometimes termed "a huddle," where rumor has it no one can steal your signals. At some point this week, there will be tweets and blog posts about Oregon's uniform choice. Stanford will be the team in red jerseys with a block "S" on its helmets.
Stanford can make a national statement with a strong performance. Or Oregon can show folks it doesn't plan to go gentle into that good night. The pregame perspective could spin off in myriad directions. One can say Oregon should benefit from being looser, or one can insist the considerable stakes will redouble the Cardinal's focus.
While Oregon can still win the North Division -- it needs to win out and hope Stanford loses the Big Game to California -- it probably isn't playing for trophies. Yet trophies often aren't as motivating as, say, shoulder chips or feelings of disrespect. The underdog mentality fueled Stanford in 2012 and '13 victories. Now, perhaps, its Oregon's turn to show up as finely tuned yet grumpy under-ducks.
Said Oregon receiver Darren Carrington: “I think we are hyped for every game, but being that they are ranked and this is pretty much the decider of who goes to the Pac-12 championship, I think we are going to have maybe a little more drive to go down there and play with confidence and try to win.”
At first glance, it would seem Carrington and the Ducks' offense are going to have to turn the game into a scoring fest. The Oregon defense is banged up, mediocre at linebacker and struggling with youth in the secondary, and that doesn't bode well for slowing a veteran Stanford offense that is the Pac-12's most balanced -- see 1,774 yards rushing, 1,721 yards passing.
Yet Oregon's offensive performance Saturday in a 44-28 win over Cal -- brilliant with a side dish of sloppy -- should raise a few eyebrows, particularly with quarterback Vernon Adams' growing comfort level and an offensive line showing some true grit. The Ducks rolled up a team-record 777 yards, including 477 yards on the ground.
Two blocked punts? Two end zone interceptions? Sort of yucky, but don't forget Oregon often operates best amid frenzied chaos, and that's not really Stanford's bag.
Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has seen his rebuilt unit come together in fits and starts this season. It now ranks third in the conference in scoring defense and yards per play. But Oregon's last two games with a healthy Adams hint at the Ducks rediscovering their pyrotechnic abilities, and Anderson has taken note.
“They seem like a different offense [with Adams back]," Anderson said. "They seem to be hitting on all cylinders now. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Little has gone according to plan in the Pac-12 this season. The consensus in the preseason was Oregon would run away with the North Division, and the South would be chock full of ranked teams angling for position, with USC seemingly first among equals. Heck, Stanford was almost entirely written off after its ill-fated trip to Northwestern.
Ah, the entertaining noise of it. Sports debate and analysis before the fact has a pretty weak shelf life, and if it were more consistent in its accuracy, the games themselves would be less fun.
So on a player and coach level, Anderson hit on a simple formula for success that touches the Ducks as much as his defense and the Cardinal as a whole.
He said, “We need to not worry about who’s ranked where, who’s the underdog and all that. Just go out and play."