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Friday, November 11, 2011
Oregon-Stanford offers best of Pac-12

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

With all due respect to Arizona State (6-3, 4-2) and UCLA (5-4, 4-2), the Pacific-12 Conference championship game is being held three weeks ahead of schedule Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.

It's conceivable that the Sun Devils or the Bruins, one of which likely will be the South Division champion, could upset its way into a BCS bowl. It's also conceivable that Congress will balance the budget, chocolate will become a leading source of protein and the Kardashians will no longer be televised.

LaMichael James
Oregon and Stanford represent the best the Pac-12 has to offer. The Ducks beat the Cardinal last season en route to the BCS National Championship Game.

It's just not likely.

No. 7 Oregon (8-1, 6-0) has a lot at stake Saturday night on the Farm. The Ducks are playing for the inaugural Pac-12 North title and their third consecutive outright league championship. They will attempt to extend their conference winning streak to 19 games. Most important, Oregon remains alive for a second consecutive trip to the BCS Championship Game.

No. 4 Stanford (9-0, 7-0), however, is playing for higher stakes. Not because the Cardinal are looking for their 18th straight victory. Not because a victory over the highly ranked Ducks might propel Stanford past No. 3 Alabama in the BCS standings and make the Cardinal first runner-up if No. 1 LSU or No. 2 Oklahoma State can no longer perform its duties in the college football beauty pageant.

Stanford is playing for all of that and the Pac-12's stature in the BCS, too.

For most of the previous decade, the conference did just fine in the BCS. USC threw its uniform onto the postseason grass and Michigan -- or Iowa or Illinois or Penn State or Oklahoma -- threw up. The Trojans went 6-1 in BCS bowls from 2002-08, losing only to Texas and quarterback Vince Young's virtuoso performance in the Rose Bowl for the 2005 BCS title.

Since USC relinquished its grip on first place in the conference, the Ducks have lost two BCS bowls, 26-17 to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago, and that heartbreaking 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS Championship Game last season.

Neither loss, in and of itself, revealed a flaw in how Coach Chip Kelly built this team to win. But after Oregon fell to LSU, 40-27, in the Sept. 3 season opener, Kelly made a comment about the Tigers that has resonated during the ensuing 10 weeks.

Oregon tries to win by spreading the field and using speed and athleticism in open space. Against the Auburns and LSUs, the gaps in the defense closed before the Ducks could exploit them.

"They've got a little bit different athlete running around out there right now," Kelly said after the game. "Looking at their D-line, standing next to them, walking off the field, they don't look like the kind of guys we see. That's the common trait, the trait you saw in the Auburn game."

First of all, if Oregon wins, it will need a lot of help to get to New Orleans, and not merely because the Ducks are No. 7. A win over Stanford could boost Oregon past Oklahoma and Stanford into No. 5. But once Alabama lost to LSU by an overtime field goal, the Ducks' 13-point loss to the Tigers transformed from blemish to scar.

Second, in BCS terms, instead of becoming the next USC, Oregon has become the next Ohio State. You remember the back-to-back beat downs that the Buckeyes suffered in the BCS Championship Games of 2006 and 2007. Ohio State could not match the speed and athleticism of Florida (41-14) and LSU (38-24), respectively.

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck and the Cardinal know they need to beat Oregon to stay in the national championship race.

In other words, Ohio State had the exact same issues that Kelly described after Oregon's loss to LSU. The Buckeyes broke a three-game BCS losing streak in 2009, when they beat, yes, the Ducks, 26-17, in the Rose Bowl. Oregon, under Kelly, is 1-2 in season openers and 0-2 in bowls, the two types of games in which opponents have the most time to prepare for Kelly's fast-paced spread offense.

Fine, you say. Oregon has issues. It's not as though Stanford is filled with SEC-style athletes, either. But the Cardinal don't pretend to be Oregon South. Stanford plays physical football on offense, often with two or three tight ends. Junior quarterback Andrew Luck has proven this season that his brain can process defensive clues at an NFL rate.

Stanford may not get to the Pac-12 championship game. Two (Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo) of the team's three tight ends are banged up. Wide receiver Chris Owusu, the team's best (only?) deep threat, is out with a concussion. Oregon, meanwhile, is as healthy as it has been since early in the season.

But if Luck, the home field and the return of strong safety Delano Howell, who has missed three games with an injury, can stiffen the Cardinal backbone well enough to beat the Ducks, then the Cardinal will be that much closer to having the opportunity to restore the Pac-12's BCS reputation.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.