Last season, I walked out of Autzen Stadium following Oregon’s Thursday night loss to Arizona thinking there was no way this team was making the inaugural College Football Playoff.
I wasn’t alone.
Flooding the exits all around were justifiably discouraged fans, who seemed to have lost all hope of seeing their team make one last run with eventual Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota.
That defensive lapse against an Anu Solomon air raid, which led to 31 points (look familiar?) for the Wildcats, took place in the first week of October.
Keep in mind that Oregon had beaten a No. 7-ranked Michigan State team at home to start that season with Mariota’s heroics.
Duck fans know that Oregon immediately got it together and later dominated that same Wildcats roster in the Pac-12 title game at Levi’s Stadium. Soon after, it handed Jameis Winston his only loss of his career and ended Florida State’s 29-game winning streak in the Rose Bowl. Ultimately, the Ducks had the opportunity to win the first-ever national title in the playoff era and their first in school history.
Heading into the playoff, Oregon boasted a 13-1 record.
While it’s nearly impossible to compare last year’s historical run to this year’s 1-1 start – Oregon is now ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll following its 31-28 loss at Michigan State – the Ducks are still very much in the hunt to make a second-straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Look at it this way: Vernon Adams Jr., whose jump to the FBS hasn’t reached its one-month mark, was one pass away from potentially winning one of the most talked about non-conference matchups of the year. It was later reported that he played the game with a broken index finger on his throwing hand.
Oregon’s defense, which was blasted for giving up 42 points to FCS opponent Eastern Washington in week one, responded in the biggest moments of the Michigan State game. With an inexperienced secondary — but a veteran, savvy front seven — the unit can only improve as the season moves on.
So, regardless of what Duck fans may be thinking, here is the bottom line: If the Oregon wins the Pac-12 title, it’ll be hard for the committee to keep it out of the postseason, especially if their lone loss came in mid-September in East Lansing.
Of course, this doesn’t neglect the fact that an undefeated Baylor or TCU or a second SEC/Big-10 team has just as good a chance. The chances of the Pac-12 sending one team to the playoff is still very much alive, though. Mark Helfrich can thank No. 7 USC and No. 10 UCLA for keeping the conference relevant in the nation’s eyes.
While at the Phoenix airport, I passed by the College Football Playoff’s black and gold advertisement for this season’s Jan. 11 national championship game and thought: I don’t know if this Oregon team has all that it takes – tackling will have to tremendously improve – to make another playoff run. But I do know that it’s September. I do know that Oregon will eventually return Pharaoh Brown and Darren Carrington to an offense that, at times, looks more loaded than last year’s.
It’s not time to panic. It’s time to see if this team can run the table and refute the notion that one loss will be the difference. Only time will tell if Ohio State was the exception to the rule.
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim