On New Year’s Day, 20 years after Oregon broke a 37-year Rose Bowl drought, the Ducks will return to Pasadena to play Florida State in the first college football playoff game in the history of the sport.
What took place between those two games will go down as one of the most exacting and successful corporate branding campaigns in modern history; it’s as much a business story as it is as sports story, a tale of the Ducks (thanks to the largesse of Nike founder Phil Knight) incrementally building their program from a national punch line into a monument to excess.
And the only question that remains is whether Oregon is capable of finishing the job.
There are four teams that will begin the process of vying for a national championship on January 1: Later that night, Ohio State plays Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. But really, if you look closer, there are two teams for which this playoff holds added weight. One of those is Oregon, which needs to prove that the millions it’s sunk into its football program over the past two decades were a worthy investment; and the other is Ohio State, which needs to prove that, after nearly a decade of being shadowed by the South, it is once again capable of that same upward trajectory.
Oregon’s offense was honed by an eccentric New England-born genius named Chip Kelly, who went on to become the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Everything the Ducks do is predicated on speed; it is a purposefully flashy philosophy, meant to draw attention to itself and demoralize opponents, as proven by the fact the Ducks often go for two points after scoring their first touchdown of each game. This is a team whose entire ethos is grounded in an almost self-referential sense of modernity, an ongoing appeal to the millennial teenagers who actually play college football and are drawn in by the endless of array of Nike-issued DayGlo uniforms designed to call attention to a program that, for a long time, only called attention to itself for its futility.
Oregon is fully grown now. The marketing campaign worked, thereby pulling in young talent from far and wide. The Ducks have the best quarterback in the country in Marcus Mariota; they have blue-chip players who can match up at virtually every position with a dynastic power like Florida State. They are better than they were in 2011, when they lost to Auburn in the national championship game. They are better than they were the past couple of years, when they couldn’t stand up to the physicality of Stanford.
But what happens if they lose this game? What happens if they get handled by a Florida State team that is undefeated but has also come tantalizingly close to losing to nearly every inferior team on its schedule? Next year, the Ducks will almost certainly lose Mariota to the NFL, and they will be forced to contend (and recruit) against a continually improving Pac-12 Conference; if they lose this game badly, the 20-year plan the Ducks embarked upon begins to look more and more like an elaborate pyramid scheme.
“It’s not a house of cards,” Paul Swangard, managing director of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, told me a few months back. “But it’s still a fanbase that feels uncomfortable in their own skin. No one here is saying we’re destined for a major step back. But with the expectations come the questions of whether it’s sustainable.”
Ohio State, of course, does not face this same quandary. Ohio State has been a national power since Woody Hayes was single-handedly fighting the Cold War, and Ohio State has proved itself a consistent pipeline to the NFL even in down years (as witnessed by the virally obnoxious addition of an extra “THE” into the player introductions of every Sunday Night Football game). Ohio State is on a strong upward trajectory in its third year under Urban Meyer, and Ohio State will likely continue that upward trajectory regardless, but there are complicating factors here, and many of them have nothing to do with Urban Meyer – many of them date back to 2007 and 2008, when the Buckeyes got throttled in two straight national championship games under former coach Jim Tressel.
This is the perception Meyer is still fighting against, most notably on the recruiting trail; this is why it matters that Ohio State, a nine-point underdog, at least acquit itself well enough against Alabama to prove that: A) It deserved that fourth and final playoff spot ahead of Baylor or TCU, and B) It is assembling a roster that will soon be capable of competing against the best teams in the SEC, even if it’s not quite there yet.
In the end, all of this circles back to perception. The perception within college football – rightfully so – is that the balance of power is focused in the South, because the South produces the highest concentration of recruits, and because a team from the South has won every national championship since 2006. For Alabama and Florida State, this playoff is about further cementing that regional dynasty; for Oregon and Ohio State, it is about finding ways to break that dynasty. Fair or not, the pressure is on the outsiders.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb