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Stanford-Oregon ramifications are still significant in playoff chase

The apparent diminished status of Stanford 's visit Saturday to Oregon, the Pac-12's game of the year the previous four seasons, fits in with 2014's chaotic profile, though you could make a case that 2013 demonstrated little is truly won in early November because the Cardinal and then the Ducks both face-planted after last season's game, blowing national title hopes.

What's notable about this season's contest is it is not a battle of highly ranked teams. Well, No. 5 Oregon remains so, but Stanford, loser of three games, has been relegated to the "other's receiving votes" category. Ten years ago, that would have been a nice thing on The Farm. Now, folks in Palo Alto, California, have intermingling fretful thoughts about their football team with their next tech start-up idea -- "What about an app that makes every offensive lineman play like David DeCastro?!"

Meanwhile, the once-dominant North Division is no longer the Pac-12's beachfront property. The South owns a 9-4 advantage in games this season against the North, and a pair of South showdowns should displace Oregon-Stanford as the main attractions Saturday: No. 18 Utah at No. 15 Arizona State and No. 14 Arizona at No. 25 UCLA.

Only two relevant FBS teams remain undefeated, No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State, and the odds are against both (either?) getting home unscathed. That means, as we'll get our first look at the rankings of the College Football Playoff selection committee on Tuesday, there will be plenty of jockeying among one- and even perhaps two-loss teams over the next month. Ergo, the Pac-12 is weltering with potential intrigue, and Stanford-Oregon is far from exempted from this.

While Oregon remains atop the Pac-12 pecking order, that standing is tenuous. That, in and of itself, is not terribly shocking. The Ducks' defense and offensive line are suspect. What is surprising is the ultimate usurper is now most likely to come from the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. Did anyone in the entire universe speculate in the preseason that Oregon at Utah on Nov. 8 could have more big-picture meaning than Stanford at Oregon? Answer: No.

Yet Oregon-Stanford is not easily dismissed for four reasons of national import: (1) It could decide the Heisman Trophy, (2) it could decide whether Oregon will remain a candidate for one of four spots in the playoff, (3) it could show whether the Ducks' offense has solved its "Oh, no, a big physical defense!" syndrome and (4) it could get folks off coach Mark Helfrich's back for, well, a week or two.

No. 1 is obvious. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best college football player in the nation. Everyone knows this. If every FBS team disbanded today and we held a draft, every single coach in the nation would select him first. Yes, that includes Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

But we also know the Heisman isn't always about being the best player. If Mariota ends his career 0-3 against Stanford, that will be held against him by voters, and not without justification. Winning matters. If Mariota can't elevate his game against his nemesis, his candidacy will lack the requisite magic voters want. In fact, considering Stanford's status drop, almost exclusively because of a sagging offense, the national audience will tune in to watch Mariota battle a rugged, yes, SEC-ish defense -- with the scoreboard being a secondary concern, at least initially.

As for the potential result, here's a guess that more than a few of you watching Stanford dismantle Oregon State 38-14 on Saturday thought the team in red looked awfully familiar. Not only was Stanford predictably dominant on defense, despite a couple of key injuries, it also broke out of its offensive malaise despite some boneheaded moments from quarterback Kevin Hogan, who, by the way, is 2-0 versus Oregon. It's entirely possible the Ducks' fair-to-middling defense will encounter an offense ready to play its best football of the season, and that is a plot-thickener.

Yet if Oregon hangs up, say, 35 points -- a total no team has approached this season -- in a victory over the Cardinal, we could get a momentous sweep of our four reasons of national import. With a Heisman-like performance from Mariota, the Ducks could polish their CFP bona fides, pending, of course, a clean slate through Dec. 5. National critics would have to tip their caps to the Ducks taking care of business against an A-list defense, and Helfrich could stand before a mirror at his home and -- privately, of course -- unleash his barbaric yawp over the roofs of Eugene, Oregon.

A defining Oregon win, some might be smirking, has been predicted by many (cough) the previous two seasons but not come to fruition. While this version of the Cardinal doesn't appear as complete as the 2012 and 2013 vintages, hindsight has tended to hold sway in this rivalry. Hogan winning as a first-year starter in Autzen Stadium in 2012? Not a chance. Mariota and the Ducks' offense -- averaging 55.6 points per game -- getting slowed down last fall? Please.

So, yeah, when so-called pundits throw out predictions this week, the wise ones won't hold too much confidence this game is going to be predictable -- or lack ramifications, both regional and national.