After 14 weeks, 12 teams, nine conference games and three successful Hail Mary passes, the Pac-12 Championship Game is finally here.
And it couldn’t be any juicer. Not even in the mighty SEC.
Preseason favorite and Pac-12 goliath Oregon will do battle with upstart, freshman-led Arizona in the fourth annual conference championship game at brand-new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. — the first such contest held on a neutral field.
But don’t let the adjectives augment the reality of the situation. Arizona, more specifically Rich Rodriguez, has won two straight against the Ducks and has almost as much of a shot at landing in the College Football Playoff as Oregon.
In no other league title game this weekend is there a chance that both teams could win their way into the four-team national playoff tournament. Wisconsin, Missouri and Georgia Tech have virtually zero chance of winning their way into the playoff. When the committee moved Arizona to seventh in the latest rankings, they gave fans in Tucson hope.
RichRod's track record against Mark Helfrich gives them hope as well. Over the last 16 games, Oregon is 14-0 against everyone but Arizona and 0-2 against the Wildcats. Better yet, the Ducks are 24-1 in their last 25 games against all other teams and 0-2 against 'Zona.
The stakes are as high as it gets. The rivalry is reaching a fevered pitch. On one side, a grizzled veteran coach with a freshman quarterback and star linebacker. On the other, the Heisman Trophy front-runner and a coach desperately trying to prove himself.
Oregon Ducks vs. Arizona Wildcats
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Friday)
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Oregon -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Mr. Brilliance vs. Scooby Hustle
There is no better individual matchup in college football this weekend than Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Marcus Mariota and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Scooby Wright on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage. Mariota hasn’t been at full speed in Oregon's two previous defeats to Arizona, posting his lowest offensive output of the year (277 total yds) this fall and throwing two interceptions against the Wildcats last season. Wright, meanwhile, has been sensational in two meetings against the Heisman front-runner. The Wildcats' defensive leader has 13 total tackles, two for a loss, a forced fumble, an interception and a sack in two games against the Ducks.
Listen to the Championship Week predictions podcast:
2. Oregon’s supporting cast on offense
The Ducks' offensive line wasn’t healthy for the previous meeting in early October but appears to be stabilizing. But it’s not just the improved O-line that should have RichRod and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel concerned. Since the Arizona game, Royce Freeman has established himself as a workhorse power back, Byron Marshall has been moved to receiver and is flourishing, and Dwayne Stanford has developed into a consistent threat on the outside. Not to mention Devon Allen’s ability to take the top off the defense, which has become a defensive coordinator's nightmare. Most will focus on the offensive line getting healthier and providing Mariota more time to operate — which is critical — but the rest of the offense around Mariota has become more dynamic since the last time these two met and 'Zona should be concerned.
3. Is the spotlight too big for the freshman?
In the first meeting, it was Mariota who was flustered and Anu Solomon who looked like the cagey vet in a hostile environment. Arizona’s freshman quarterback went on to produce 308.8 yards of total offense per game and 28 total touchdowns in just his first season on a college gridiron. But Solomon has dealt with nagging injuries in November and is at the end of a longer season than he's ever played — even in four state championship runs in high school. His completion percentage dipped late in the year before bouncing back against Arizona State. He should assume Oregon will attack him with waves of defenders from different formations in an effort to throw the rising star off kilter. He needs to handle the spotlight, manage the huddle and distribute the ball effectively to pull off the upset. He was capable in high school and it led to championships, so odds are he will be capable once again.
These are two of the more dynamic offensive teams in the nation. Both teams like to the run the ball — try more than 5,000 yards combined this season — and both quarterbacks like to get out in space and make plays. The experience and talent edge lies heavily in Oregon’s favor, as does the motivational edge, making a third straight upset difficult to predict. However, the Wildcats have one significant advantage in Rich Rodriguez. He basically invented the Oregon offense and his 3-3-5 defense has proven to be effective against all types of spread offenses. Rodriguez claims “a couple of turnovers, great individual effort and a little bit of luck” are the reasons Arizona has topped Oregon the last two meetings. He will need plenty of all three to knock off the mighty Ducks on Friday night.
Pac-12 Championship Predictions
Oregon (-14) vs. Arizona