Why Oregon could be the most interesting team in the playoff race

  • Covers the Pac-12.
  • Joined ESPN in 2014.
  • Attended Washington State University.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Oregon quarterback Bo Nix took a seat, exhaled and looked out at the small, crowded room full of reporters ready to ask him about the Ducks’ game against Cal. He wore frustration across his face, bordering on sheer disappointment.

Had anyone not been watching the game that had just taken place, it would have been easy to assume the Ducks had just suffered their first Pac-12 defeat of the season. Nix’s first words of reflection conveyed the same message.

“This was a tough game,” he said. “I think that we played OK offensively, but we just kind of shot ourselves in the foot a few times. I didn’t play my best today, but fortunately the guys around me played really good to still put up some points.”

By “OK offensively,” he was describing a unit that piled up 586 yards of total offense — the most Cal has ever allowed under coach Justin Wilcox, a span of 62 games dating back to 2017. By “some points,” he meant 42 points — against a team that had not allowed more than 31 in a game all year. Individually, Nix became the first quarterback in FBS this season to throw for 400 yards and three touchdown passes and rush for three scores. He’s just the third to accomplish that over the past decade. By every conceivable metric, Nix played well.

Most importantly, Oregon won. Handily, 42-24.

Two thirds of the way through the regular season, the Ducks have one of the more interesting résumés in college football. They’re one of eight undefeated Power 5 teams in conference play, rank fifth nationally in scoring (42.4), third in yards per game (525.8) and Nix’s play has earned him a place in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

All of that, however, is shaded by their opening-week disaster in Atlanta, where they lost 49-3 to Georgia in first-year coach Dan Lanning’s debut. The Ducks were so uncompetitive that it’s easy to understand why anyone watching them would have written them off as a serious College Football Playoff contender on the spot. At the time, it would have been a fair and logical conclusion.

That dynamic is why heading into tonight’s release of the initial College Football Playoff rankings (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Ducks promise to be one of the most interesting teams to monitor. Had Oregon scheduled a pushover instead of Georgia, it likely would have been viewed as a top-four team. It would be in the thick of the playoff conversation. With the loss, that’s not the case. The Ducks will likely remain on the periphery, hoping results outside their control break in their favor.

That’s why all they can do is aspire to a certain standard.

And that’s why the positives weren’t what mattered after Saturday’s game for Nix. Fresh in his mind were the negatives: Oregon was held scoreless in the first quarter and on its first three possessions. It turned the ball over on downs twice in the red zone, and a third trip inside the 20 ended with an interception (the pass was delivered on target but bounced off the receiver before being picked off).

“I think in this situation it’s important to hang up on those mistakes because it can be important down the road,” Nix said. “Even though we overcame those, I think in other situations you may not be able to overcome those plays.”

Offensive lineman Alex Forsyth evaluated the performance in a similar fashion. He pointed to miscommunications that prevented the offense from reaching that standard the Ducks are chasing.

“I think [the little things were the] most frustrating because you leave a bunch of points out on the grass and you just kind of kick yourself after the game,” Forsyth said. “Man, we could have won by a lot more.”

Since the loss to Georgia, Oregon has run off seven straight wins with at least 40 points. That active streak of scoring at least 40 is tied with Ohio State for the longest in college football. Tennessee (4) and Georgia (3) are the only other teams with active streaks of 40 points in more than two games.

Considering those other three are widely expected to end up 1-2-3, in some order, by the playoff committee, it’s good company to be in.

There are various ways to look at Oregon’s playoff chances from a historical standpoint. For example, if the Ducks run the table and win the Pac-12 championship with a 12-1 record, they would have a résumé that has almost always been good enough for inclusion.

Since the playoff began, 14 of the 15 Power 5 champions that went 12-1 were included in the four-team field. Only Ohio State in 2018-19 was left out (when three undefeated teams plus 12-1 Oklahoma were selected). None of them had such a lopsided loss, however.

Two factors could work in Oregon’s factor to help diminish the effects of that loss: timing and circumstances. No team in college football is the same in December as it is in September, so Oregon’s loss coming in the first game of the season is the best possible timing to be forgiven. Especially considering it was playing with a first-year coach and transfer quarterback.

Then there is the opponent. Losing to the defending national champion, a team that remains undefeated and has a case for the No. 1 ranking, is better than losing to any other team. The downside is there is a sense of inevitability that the Ducks’ performance against Georgia will be compared to how Tennessee or Alabama fares against the Bulldogs. If Georgia doesn’t win the SEC, Oregon’s odds are impossibly long.

“We haven’t seen our best yet,” Lanning said. “I was hoping that this would be a game that we could walk away seeing our best, and we haven’t seen it yet. I’m excited to see where we can go, but we have to tap into that and it’s a choice that we have to make.”

Oregon is an example of how an expanded playoff field will significantly change the feel of a college football season. With a 12-team field, the Ducks would be well positioned to qualify, and the current discussion would be about rounding into form with an eye on a playoff run.

Instead, they’re in a world where their entire season is framed by one game in September.

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