Much-improved Oregon riding momentum into playoff
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Oregon was counted out by many after a 31-24 home loss to Arizona on Oct. 2.
Some questioned whether Mark Helfrich could step out of former coach Chip Kelly's shadow, and others wondered if quarterback Marcus Mariota had enough talent around him to succeed.
The Ducks? Well, they showed up for work Oct. 3 and began to provide the answers.
''The next day they were out and every single guy in our program was on the practice field 25 minutes before they had to be fixing it,'' Helfrich said. ''It wasn't, `Hey, you screwed this up, you did this wrong.' It was, `How do we do this better?' And they haven't looked back.''
Two months since everything seemed ready to fall apart, Oregon (12-1) is rolling into the first College Football Playoff as one of the nation's hottest teams.
The Ducks, who are ranked second in the playoff standings and No. 3 in The Associated Press poll, have won eight straight games by an average of 26 points. They have scored at least 40 points in each and gained at least 500 yards in the past seven.
That includes a 51-13 dismantling of No. 8 Arizona (10-3) in Friday night's Pac-12 championship that avenged their only loss this season and raised a new question: Does Oregon deserve to be No. 1?
Either way, the Ducks are all but assured of playing in the Rose Bowl for the semifinals as a top-two seed. Alabama entered Saturday's games ranked No. 1 in the playoff standings and would land in the Sugar Bowl semifinal if the Crimson Tide beat Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship.
TCU was third followed by Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor and Arizona, which is now just hoping to make a Jan. 1 bowl after becoming the latest team dominated by the Ducks, who are led by the likely Heisman Trophy winner and a defense that has drastically improved the past two months.
The selection committee will announce the four-team playoff field Sunday.
''Those guys have had great characteristics of a champion to this point,'' Helfrich said. ''They have to finish school this week. They have to finish in the next couple of days, traveling and coaches going recruiting and all that stuff, and we'll rally up when we find out where we're headed and continue to ascend.''
About the only place Oregon hasn't reached is the summit.
The Ducks have never won a national title, finishing as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. Oregon also played in the BCS championship game after the 2010 season, losing 22-19 to Auburn and ending at No. 3.
The Ducks believe surviving the grinder that was the Pac-12 - widely considered the best conference other than the SEC - and all the adversity that came with it has made them better prepared for what comes next.
''It feels great. For us as a team to be able to accomplish that just says a lot about how much work and how much we've prepared this entire year,'' said Mariota, who accounted for a league-record 53 touchdowns this season.
''I'm so proud of the guys in the locker room. So proud of just everyone that's involved. It takes a lot of hard work to win in a conference like this. It's just an awesome feeling.''
The Pac-12, for all its success in recent years, has not celebrated a national champion since Southern California won after the 2004 season. Oregon's loss to Auburn nearly four years ago was the last time a team in the conference even played for the national title.
The Ducks, who have long been labeled a finesse team that couldn't match the muscle of the SEC powers, believe they're a far more physical bunch on both sides now.
Oregon averaged 46.3 points per game behind Mariota and bigger, stronger running backs such as Royce Freeman who ran between the tackles as much as they ran outside of them. The Ducks' defense, which struggled early in the year, finished second in the high-scoring Pac-12 at 22.5 points per game.
''I think a huge part of that is a prideful bunch of guys and a prideful bunch of coaches that are competitive,'' Helfrich said. ''I think we've gotten better almost weekly.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP