Thursday, January 1, 2015

SEC Is History. Duck Dynasty to Begin?

PASADENA, Calif. - They could've saved us all that trouble and just had the Rose Bowl the way it's meant to be played - Pac-12 vs. Big Ten in the Granddaddy of 'em All.

Instead, Oregon and Ohio State will face off in Jerry World, a palace built for pro football, to settle who gets the biggest prize in college football.

But the combatants in the inaugural College Football Playoff should be grateful that the BCS died a timely death. If it had been around for one more year, both the Ducks and Buckeyes would've been home watching the championship game as the the BCS standings would've matched up Alabama and Florida State instead.

Now the Jan. 12 game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, not only will settle the national championship question, it will also decide just which conference will inherit the mantle of "best conference in college football" from the dearly departed SEC.

Alabama's loss to Ohio State signaled the end of an era as the SEC will be absent from the national championship game for the first time since USC faced Texas in the Rose Bowl for the 2005 title. Each of the top five teams in the SEC West lost its bowl game after being trumpeted as the best division in college football throughout the 2014 regular season.

In contrast, the Pac-12 South actually can rightfully claim the "toughest division" moniker. Five of its six teams will finish with at least nine wins despite each facing at least 10 Power 5 opponents - more than any of their SEC West counterparts. And the best team in the Pac-12 didn't even come from this division.

That would be Oregon, which has beaten every team on its schedule, avenging its only regular-season loss by massacring South champion Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks were even more merciless in their evisceration of Florida State, which was buried under an avalanche of second-half turnovers (five) in a 59-20 rout in the Rose Bowl.

Oregon punished FSU and Jameis Winston in a matchup featuring the last two Heisman Trophy winners. Winston lost one fumble - that was returned for a touchdown - and threw two interceptions. Oregon also converted two Dalvin Cook fumbles early in the third quarter into touchdowns and turned a close game into a mauling.

But the Ducks' blowout victory won't give the Pac-12 a long-awaited shot to dethrone the SEC, which had been the undisputed best conference in the latter part of the BCS era. Instead, in their path will be Ohio State and the Big Ten, which is rebuilding suddenly and ferociously. It all began on Tuesday when Michigan made the monster hire of Jim Harbaugh as coach and continued on New Year's Day with Michigan State rallying past Baylor in a thrilling Cotton Bowl.

But the lodestar that will guide the Big Ten's revival for now is Ohio State, which scored an unlikely 42-35 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes can take it a step further by snuffing out the budding Ducks dynasty as it did in the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season.

But these Ducks appear to be a better version than that team, or the 2010 team that fell to Auburn in the BCS title game on a fluke play. Heisman winner Marcus Mariota has been nearly flawless all season, throwing for 40 touchdowns, running for 15, receiving one with just three interceptions. Oregon's defense also proved to be anything but soft, allowing FSU only one second-half touchdown as Oregon scored the final 34 points of the game.

Oregon certainly hasn't missed a beat since Mark Helfrich took over from Chip Kelly, who bolted for the NFL after the 2012 season. Helfrich, 24-3 in his two seasons, knows how good his team is and declined to state just what it has proved and will prove with one more win.

"I don't know," he said after the Rose Bowl victory, laughing. "That's up to you. You guys are the geniuses in the media. We believe a ton in our deal and we believe a ton in who we are. We got a great team, great team of guys."

For much of the second half, as Oregon was completing its demolition of Florida State, Ducks fans repeatedly chanted "We Want Bama." They probably won't mind that the Crimson Tide couldn't keep the date as their conference's dominance has already fallen into the ash heap of history.

No comments: