Oregon’s College Football Playoff hopes were seemingly dashed the moment Auburn’s Seth Williams caught the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds remaining in Week 1.
But since that day in late August, the Ducks have ripped off eight straight wins and reopened the Playoff conversation in Eugene. The Ducks opened at No. 7 in the 2019 season’s first College Football Playoff ranking and are the second-highest-ranked one-loss team in the nation. Currently on the outside looking in, here’s what has to happen for the Ducks to return to the Playoff for the first time in five years.
The Ducks have to win out. That’s first and foremost, and without that happening, none of the Playoff talk matters. The most difficult part of Oregon’s schedule is now in the past, with just 4-5 Arizona, 5-3 Arizona State and 4-4 Oregon State remaining in the regular season. The week 13 matchup with Arizona State in Tempe will be the toughest test of those three; the Sun Devils have spent some time in the AP Top 25 this year, and it’s on the road in the desert.
Regardless, Oregon will probably be favored by at least a touchdown in all three of those games, and it would be a real surprise to see a loss come from that portion of the schedule.
What the Ducks need from there is No. 8 Utah also winning out. If that happens, it’ll be 11-1 Utah and 11-1 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and the winner of that game will suddenly have a top-10 win on its resume. If that team is Oregon, it’ll be sitting as a one-loss conference champion with what conventional wisdom would say is a Playoff resume.
However, this season in college football has been more top-heavy than in years past. Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State and Penn State have not yet lost. An undefeated finish for any of those teams guarantees a spot in the Playoff. Alabama plays LSU in Week 11, and Ohio State plays Penn State in Week 13. That means a loss for two of those five unbeatens is coming.
The SEC champion — undefeated or not — will get in. Oregon needs that to be Alabama or LSU. If it’s another team — say, Georgia — the SEC occupying two CFP spots seems likely. The loser of the Alabama-LSU showdown will not qualify for the SEC Championship Game and will most likely be sitting at 11-1 at the end of the year with its only loss being to a top-three team. That team, too, would probably get in given the gauntlet that is the SEC regular season. Oregon needs one of these teams to be upset by another SEC opponent (most likely Auburn beating Alabama in the Iron Bowl).
Then there’s the Big Ten, which right now has Ohio State and Penn State with realistic chances to get in. The winner of the Ohio State-Penn State game will most likely be an undefeated Big Ten champ, and that team will be in. The loser of that game won’t be going to the Big Ten Championship and probably wouldn’t be favored over a one-loss conference champ.
Clemson won’t play anyone significant for the rest of the season, and an undefeated ACC champ Clemson isn’t going to be left out. They have the best chance of any team in the nation of getting in.
Oh, and there are two wild cards — No. 12 Baylor out of the Big 12 and No. 17 Minnesota out of the Big Ten. They’re both currently undefeated, and if that is still the case at the end of the season, Oregon is probably on the outside looking in. But with Baylor still having to beat Oklahoma twice and Minnesota having to play Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin, that doesn’t seem likely.
So, Oregon is realistically fighting for that No. 4 spot. It’ll come down to a resume comparison between 12-1 Pac-12 champ Oregon, 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma and 11-1 non-SEC champ Alabama/LSU/Georgia — one of those three teams will get the spot.
They need a substantial amount of help, but regardless of what happens, Eugene is on the college football map, and that’s more than you could say at any point since 2014.