By Ray Hamill
The new “best rivalry” on the West Coast takes center stage Thursday night when Stanford hosts Oregon in a showdown that is being billed as the biggest college football game ever to be played at Palo Alto, and one that will go a long way toward deciding who plays in this season’s BCS Championship.
The winner will likely claim the Pac-12 title, but such are the expectations at both schools these days, that is the least of what’s at stake, with each looking to establish its national title credentials at a crucial time of the year.
Oregon (8-0) comes into the contest at No. 3 in the BCS standings, but a win over another top contender will catapult the Ducks into one of the coveted top-two spots.
Stanford (7-1), meanwhile, is two spots back in the BCS after a stunning upset loss at Utah a few weeks ago, but the Cardinal remain in the national title picture, although they’ll need to defeat Oregon and hope for some help from other games along the way.
It’s a rivalry that has grown in stature, and like all good rivalries, there is a growing sense of dislike between the two programs, in large part because each has knocked the other out of the national title picture in recent times.
Last season, Stanford traveled to Oregon and came away with a stunning 17-14 overtime victory over then No. 1 Oregon that ended any chance of the Ducks playing for a first-ever national crown.
The previous year, it was Oregon which upset the odds at No. 4 Stanford with a 53-30 mauling to knock the Cardinal out of contention.
It’s also a rivalry that features very different styles. Stanford plays a physical ground-it-out game backed by a smothering defense, compared to the Ducks’ fast-paced, high-scoring approach that has them averaging over 55 points and 632 yards a game.
The question is whether the Cardinal approach will work against such a high-octane offense that few teams come close to containing?
It did last season.
It didn’t the year before.
The game is also a chance for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to showcase to a national television audience exactly why most people who have seen him play consider him the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, including Stanford head coach David Shaw who describes him as the best QB in the nation.
So far this season Mariota has 29 touchdowns (20 passing and nine rushing) without a single interception, and his stats would be far more impressive but for the fact he has been taken out of most of his games early because of the blowout nature of the contests.
The Cardinal, on the other hand, have played in far more competitive games – due to the nature of their style – with 13 of their past 20 contests going down to the wire and decided by seven or less points.
That may play into their favor if the showdown is still close in the fourth quarter.
Thusday’s game, interestingly, is also the second all-top-five matchup between non-SEC teams in just three weeks, perhaps backing the belief that the conference’s dominance is in decline.