It may be hard to believe, but the University of Oregon has never won a national title. The Ducks have won more games in the last three seasons — thanks, Phil Knight — than any other program in the nation, including mighty Alabama, Florida State and, most importantly, Ohio State. They enter the Jan. 12 championship game against the Buckeyes as a near touchdown favorite, so let’s take a look at three reasons why Oregon could finally break the school’s national title drought in Dallas this year.
Marcus Mariota is the best football player in America and the likely top overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. His regular season TD-interception ratio of 38-2 is one of the best we’ve ever seen And Mariota’s near-90 career quarterback rating is the best clip in college football over the past decade, topping other decorated passers like Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Sam Bradford, according to ESPN The Magazine. About the only thing Mariota — who, by the way, was a lightly regarded recruit from Hawaii just four years ago — has yet to accomplish is winning a national championship.
It’s not really possible to outline a specific way to beat Mariota, because he has such command of the offense and free reign to audible to a better play. Several teams have shown this year that pressure — and a lot of it — can lead Mariota to make an errant throw from time to time, but his dynamic running ability is not to be underestimated. This year, as a junior, he rushed for a remarkable 731 yards and 15 touchdowns. Perhaps the most impressive statistic about Mariota, though, is that he ranks no. 1 nationally in efficiency against opponents from Power 5 conferences, per Grantland.com. These are just a few reasons why Mariota totaled the second highest percentage of Heisman votes of all time.
Oregon has struggled in previous years with the girth and physicality of elite teams, and the 22-19 loss to Auburn in the 2011 title game is a prime example. But Coach Mark Helfrich (above) may not be Chip Kelly 2.0, and that may be a good thing. The 41-year-old Helfrich, in just two seasons as the lead man in Eugene, has managed to maintain tremendous team speed while also adding the necessary bulk and toughness. Against mighty Florida State, winners of 29 straight games and the reigning national champs, Oregon displayed a fierceness we hadn’t previously known, twice stopping the Seminoles at the goal line. The team also showed the ability to hand the ball off when needed. Sophomore running back Thomas Tyner gashed the FSU interior for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Against Ohio State, watch out for Tyner’s counterpart in the Ducks backfield, true freshman running back Royce Freeman, who has amassed a remarkable 19 touchdowns on the year. Bottom line, though? Against the freakish Joey Bosa (a unanimous All-American at defensive end) and the talented Buckeye defensive line, Mariota will lean on the running game in crucial situations inside the 20s. And on the other side of the ball, Helfrich will need his defense to bottle up Ohio State’s star tailback Ezekiel Elliott.
“Defense Wins Championships”
The old Bill Parcells adage may not be as true in college football, but Oregon’s defense will need to come up big once again. And, for all the talk about Mariota and the offense, the Ducks defense has quietly put together a rather impressive stretch. It has not allowed more than 20 points in its last four games, and managed to limit Winston to a lowly 29-45 stat line to go along with two turnovers. First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum was able to shut down the electric Arizona offense to a season low of 224 yards on just 3.67 yards per play in the Pac-12 title game. But remember, Helfrich’s defense will be lacking two-time first-team All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (above), who hurt his knee before the national semifinal.
Now, click here for three reasons Ohio might beat Oregon on Jan. 12.
Email me at email@example.com or ask me questions about anything sports-related at @Schultz_Report and follow me on Instagram @Schultz_Report. Also, be sure and catch my NBC Sports Radio show, Kup and Schultz, which airs Sunday mornings from 9-12 ET, right here.