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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Oregon football eyes Pac-12 crown, College Football Playoff berth

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Juwan Johnson has come on at wide receiver for the Oregon Ducks, whose offense has picked up the pace, too, in the quest for a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth.Dare to dream, Duck fans, because it's a special season happening with your football team. It's 2010 and 2014 again, as far as being a complete team, a quarterback playing at a high level in Justin Herbert, a great offensive line, emerging players at skill positions, a diverse defense, a blend of experience and talented youth and plenty of confidence and swagger.

Now, whether Oregon makes the national playoffs or is one of the one-loss bridesmaids remains to be seen. There better be a whole lot of politicking by the Pac-12 Conference and supreme leader Larry Scott to try to land the Ducks a spot in the final four.

At 12-1, after beating Utah in the Pac-12 title game, it better happen for the legitimacy of the four-team affair. Oregon would be the Pac-12 champion, a one-loss champion and winner of 12 consecutive games, having beaten fellow top-10 Utah and passing the season-long eye test.

At some point, doesn't the CFP, simply, provide opportunities to teams other than Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and an SEC nonchampion?

The Ducks (8-1, 6-0 Pac-12) and Utes (8-1, 5-1) should arrive at Levi's Stadium at Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 6 with a national playoff berth and at worst a Rose Bowl spot on the line. It has all come together, as Oregon (thumping USC 56-24 last week) and Utah (beating Washington 33-28) passed their toughest remaining tests last weekend.

The teams have favorable schedules, after each enjoys a Nov. 9 bye week: Oregon will play host to Arizona, at Arizona State, and at home against Oregon State. Utah will be at home against UCLA, at Arizona and back home for Colorado.

Something to keep in mind: Should Arizona or Arizona State knock off the Ducks (highly unlikely) and Oregon State (3-2 Pac-12) win out, the Beavers would win the North Division.

Don't laugh, the Beavers are surging with potent offense and competent defense. The thing is, the Civil War game is at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 30, and it's where Oregon has won 14 of the 17 matchups since the 0-0 "Toilet Bowl" game in 1983 — OSU won in Eugene in 1991, 1993 and 2007. And the Ducks have taken five consecutive games in the series at home.

One would think with a Pac-12 title game spot on the line the Ducks wouldn't allow the Beavers to beat them in the Civil War.

The first College Football Playoff ranking comes out Tuesday, and expect both Oregon and Utah to be in the top 10.

What would an Oregon-Utah matchup look like?

It'd feature physical defenses. The Utes lead the Pac-12 by allowing only 246.3 yards per game, including a minuscule 56 rush yards a game. The Ducks rank second at 313.4. Utah gives up 12.2 points a game, Oregon 15.8 — for 1-2 in the Pac-12. Oregon leads the Pac-12 with 26 sacks and 17 interceptions. Utah has a league-high four defensive touchdowns.

It'd feature balanced offenses. Utah, led by Zack Moss, leads the Pac-12 at 207.8 rushing yards per game (and 23 TDs), and Oregon, which goes with the hot hand at running back (CJ Verdell, Travis Dye, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, etc.), ranks third at 184.4 (with 18 TDs). Herbert has been great with 258.8 yards per game, 24 TDs and only two interceptions, and 69.4% passing. Utah's Tyler Huntley averages 229.9 yards and completes 73.8%; he has thrown for 11 TDs, with only one pick.

To me, it'll come down to the old cliche, "Who wants it more?" Utah, led by coach Kyle Whittingham, has been building to be a Pac-12 champion for years, and played poorly in last year's title game loss to Washington. Once a national player, Oregon has been rebuilding from the woes of the 2015 Alamo Bowl through midseason 2018 — a 17-19 record in a 36-game stretch after its 32-25 loss at Utah on Nov. 10, 2018 — and has won 11 of the past 12 games under Mario Cristobal, losing the season-opening game against Auburn on a TD pass with nine seconds left.

So, the Ducks get the benefit of a second bye week. It'll allow guys nursing injuries to feel somewhat better. It's really too bad tight end Jacob Breeland won't return from injury, he would combine with Verdell, surging receiver Juwan Johnson and others as options for Herbert. Linebacker Troy Dye played with a big cast on his right hand (broken thumb) against USC.

OK, let's play devil's advocate. The Ducks and Utah are 8-1, but the Pac-12 won't have any other team within sniffing distance of the CFP rankings — not even close. One other team has three losses (Arizona State) and the rest have four or more. The Ducks' six Pac-12 victims have combined records of 25-26 overall and are 12-22 in Pac-12 games; Arizona, ASU and OSU won't add to the resume, except as wins.

But, the Ducks are winning games. Five consecutive wins came via allowing 25 points on defense, the Ducks shut out Washington in the fourth quarter of its 35-31 comeback win, Herbert led a final-minute drive that led to Camden Lewis' 26-yard game-winning field goal in a 37-35 win against Washington State, and then Oregon obliterated host USC by 32 points with offense (Herbert to Juwan Johnson for three TDs), defense (four turnovers, including Brady Breeze's 32-yard interception return for a touchdown) and special teams (Mykael Wright's stunning 100-yard kickoff return for a TD).

Yes, things like penalties (12 for 157 vs. USC), an inconsistent run game and leaky defense (90 points, 1,215 yards past three games) and injuries — Herbert better stay upright — could be bothersome.

But, who would bet against the Ducks?


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