Story by Jon Wilner
Oregon has one loss on the field but, for now, is undefeated in the College Football Playoff debate.
The Ducks earned the No. 4 ranking from the selection committee on Tuesday — one spot ahead of Ohio State, the team they toppled early in the season, and two spots ahead of undefeated Cincinnati.
“Oregon was ranked No. 4 in large part because of its win earlier in the season at Ohio State but also a good win against Fresno State,” committee chair Gary Barta said Tuesday afternoon, following the release of the first CFP rankings of the 2021 season.
Given its substandard results in non-conference games, including four losses to Brigham Young, the Pac-12 couldn’t have asked for more than No. 4 for its only playoff contender.
Alone among Power Five conferences, it has one representative in the selection committee’s top 25. Even the Mountain West has more (No. 23 Fresno State and No. 24 San Diego State).
The conference’s poor September results threatened to undermine Oregon’s position relative to teams in stronger leagues — like Ohio State, which plays in the toughest division in the sport (the Big Ten East).
“(The Buckeyes) don’t yet have a signature win, and because Oregon had beaten them head-to-head, that certainly was an important criteria,” said Barta, the committee chair and Iowa’s athletic director.
“Oregon had also beaten similar type teams. Fresno State is 7-2, and they won at UCLA, so those sort of had some similarity” with Ohio State’s win at Minnesota.
“At the end of the day, it was close enough that that head-to-head put them ahead of Ohio State.”
Therein lies the key to the stretch run: The committee views Oregon and Ohio State as equals right now, allowing the head-to-head result to serve as the tiebreaker.
But at some point, the committee might conclude they aren’t equals — that the full scope of Ohio State’s resume is substantially stronger than Oregon’s.
That could render the head-to-head result irrelevant.
“It’s not just about beating teams head-to-head,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “It’s the body of work.”
The Ducks (7-1) must run the table to remain in contention for the playoff. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff, and you can be sure the Pac-12, which hasn’t produced a semifinalist since 2016, won’t be the first to break that barrier.
But winning out won’t be enough, for style points matter down the stretch. The Ducks must look good each week; they must pummel unranked opponents; and they will need favorable results in other conferences.
Additional thoughts on Oregon’s present condition and future path into the playoff:
— The most difficult portion of the schedule awaits.
The combined conference record of the five teams Oregon has played thus far is 8-19. The combined record of the four teams Oregon will play in November is 14-7.
The Ducks cannot snooze through the stretch run, or they will get beat.
— The Stanford loss, which came in overtime in late September, is potentially problematic.
If Oregon is drawn into a resume showdown against another 12-1 team for the final playoff berth, the selection committee will assuredly compare the losses.
Stanford is 3-5 with a difficult schedule remaining. If the Cardinal finishes 3-9 or 4-8, that could undermine Oregon’s case.
— The Pac-12 isn’t dragging Oregon down, at least not yet.
If current form holds, the Ducks won’t face a top-25 opponent the rest of the season. Meanwhile, several teams below Oregon — Oklahoma and Ohio State, to name two — will face multiple ranked opponents.
Their schedules could provide rocket fuel to climb into the top four, all while Oregon’s unranked conference opponents act like gravity.
— Oregon desperately needs the Pac-12 South division winner to be ranked at the time of the conference championship game to raise the stakes.
One problem: Utah, the current front runner, already has three losses and would take a fourth later this month against Oregon — that is, unless the Utes beat the Ducks.
In which case everything’s moot.
— Oregon has two victories over teams the selection committee deemed worthy of ranking: No. 5 Ohio State and No. 23 Fresno State.
It needs both to keep winning, at least until OSU plays for the Big Ten title. Depending on the rankings, Oregon might want the Buckeyes to lose.
— The Ducks also need No. 2 Alabama to lose again, anywhere.
If the Crimson Tide (7-1) runs the table and beats No. 1 Georgia in the SEC title game, that conference will eat up two playoff spots and squeeze the opportunities for everyone else.
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