College Football Coverage: The Oregon-Stanford Battle

TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage has had a Pac-12 flair this week. We looked at the Pac-12 South race, and we did Pac12 bowl projections for everything from the Rose to the Las Vegas Bowls. All that was the buildup to the preview of the biggest game of the regular season, and it’s Thursday night’s Oregon-Stanford game from Palo Alto (9 PM ET, ESPN).

Oregon is ranked third in the BCS standings, though it’s generally assumed that a win at Stanford would push the Ducks past Florida State into the 2-spot and give them control of their destiny in the national championship push.

Even though Stanford has a lost a game, an upset loss at Utah on October 12, the Cardinal is still ranked 5th. They’re the best of the one-loss teams–and though that doesn’t seem like much now, we’ve been through enough Novembers as college football fans to know that it might loom very large at any point this month. What’s more, Stanford is ahead of some undefeated Baylor and only one spot behind undefeated Ohio State.

In short, the team that wins this game has a great shot at the national title, with Oregon’s chances being a little bit stronger since they’re undefeated. The winner also all but wraps up the Pac-12 North and will likely host the conference championship game (the Pac-12 uses the crazy idea called “merit” to determine where it’s title game is played).

Thus, it’s easy to see why the Oregon-Stanford battle joins earlier games of Alabama-Texas A&M and Florida State-Clemson as defining moments in the 2013 college football regular season.

If you compare each team’s resume…well, there is no comparison. Oregon’s is better, and not just because Stanford has one loss (though that’s hardly an inconsequential point). The teams have played common opponents in UCLA and Washington. Oregon handled both teams with ease, while Stanford won tough battles.

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is putting together a Heisman-caliber scene and joins Jameis Winston at Florida State in leading the pack right now. Mariota has yet to throw an interception, he gets 10 yards per pass, and he rushes for over nine yards a carry. Oregon also has a quality conventional running game led by Byron Marshall, who is nearing the 900-yard mark with a third of the regular season still to play.

Against that, Stanford can throw Kevin Hogan. The sophomore quarterback played a gritty game last year up in Eugene, a game the Cardinal won in overtime and knocked Oregon out of the BCS National Championship Game and the country into watching Notre Dame getting abused by Alabama. Hogan’s had some shaky moments this year though, and while his numbers aren’t bad, they certainly aren’t spectacular.

What Stanford fans have to count on is that nothing about their team is spectacular, and that explains everything from the less impressive wins against common opponents to the lack of eye-popping stats from the quarterback. This is a team that simply wins by being physical, punishing people on both sides of the line of scrimmage and winning games late. It means you won’t always look pretty, you might even cough up a game you shouldn’t, but it doesn’t mean you can’t beat the nation’s best.

The biggest key to the game is going to be tempo. Stanford can’t play at a fast pace with Oregon, and the key to that is going to be Tyler Gaffney, another back who is approaching the 900-yard mark on the season. If Gaffney runs the ball, it opens things up for Hogan, it slows Oregon down and the game gets played the Stanford way.

Oregon is a solid 10.5 point favorite, and the road team has won each of the last two meetings. Is it time for three in a row? I picked Stanford to win the Pac-12 and reach the BCS National Championship Game back at the start of the year, in large part because they had this game at home. Whatever disappointment there was over the Utah loss, I still really like David Shaw’s program and am picking the Cardinal to win outright.