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The Oregon Ducks smoked the Utah Utes in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday to claim their fourth conference title of the decade. They could have cleared a path for themselves in the College Football Playoff, except for one problem: a pair of regular-season losses.
Oregon dropped its season opener against then-No. 16 Auburn. And while the ultimate death knell for the Ducks’ national title hopes was a Nov. 23 loss to Arizona State, it appears the strength of their non-conference schedule was what did them in.
Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal doesn’t have any regrets, though, and he doesn’t plan to change the team’s strategy to play three cupcakes outside the Pac-12.
“They want to play the best teams in the country all the time, and there is no way we’re going to go away from that mentality to try to schedule down to appease — whatever, I guess I should stop there before I get in trouble, right?” Cristobal said after Friday’s game, via ESPN. “These guys deserve to find out how good they are by playing against the best, so we’re going to continue doing that.”
Cristobal’s stance about needing to beat the best to be the best is admirable, but seems likely to lead to more Pac-12 disappointment.
Oregon’s non-conference schedule won’t get any easier
The season opener against Auburn will look like easy sledding compared to what’s in store the next three years. The Ducks are slated to have a home-and-home with Ohio State in 2020 and ‘21 before taking a trip to play Georgia in “neutral” Atlanta in 2022.
Oregon will play an FCS opponent to open next season, but that’s no ordinary small school. It’s North Dakota State, which is currently a unanimous No. 1 in the FCS Coaches Poll and seeking its seventh national title in eight years.
Of course, it’s true that Oregon ran through No. 7 Michigan State en route to its national championship appearance in 2015. But that was seemingly an unnecessary risk since the Ducks cruised to the BCS title game in 2011 by routing their non-conference opponents 189-13 and playing Tennessee as their only other Power Five adversary.
“I think there has to be a lot of weight placed on winning your conference,” Cristobal said. “You can go through your conference and win your conference — especially one where you play nine conference games like we do — that has to and needs to carry a lot of weight going forward.”
What does history tell us about the CFP committee?
The College Football Playoff is only in its sixth season, but there’s plenty that can be learned from the committee’s decisions.
Given that there are five major conferences and only four playoff spots, at least one conference champion will be left out every year, and the Pac-12 has often gotten the short end of the stick. The league has only had a representative in two of the five seasons, and each of the last three seasons has seen an at-large team leapfrog a pair of conference champions as well.
It’s worth noting that only three one-loss conference champions have ever missed the playoff — not counting UCF — but each would have made it had they gone undefeated instead.
Oregon remains admirable for playing tough opponents, but until the selection committee starts putting in two-loss conference champions over one-loss at-large teams, the Ducks are just shooting themselves in the foot by playing a harder schedule than is necessary.
A trip to the Rose Bowl is always nice, but they’ll need to change their strategy or run the table to win a national title any time soon.
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