Is there any topic that supplies more inspirational quotes than adversity? Nope. That makes perfect sense, of course. Life knocks everyone down at some point, and, by definition, that is when a person or group most needs inspiration. You either get inspired and get up and fight back or you stay down and accept something less than success.
Oregon and UCLA might or might not need or want a chorus of uplifting quotes ("Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records!"), but both are facing unexpected adversity. They started the season as the Pac-12's top two contenders for a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Each was led by a quarterback who was expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy before becoming an NFL first-round draft pick. Yet both were upset at home Saturday by substantial underdogs, and both QBs saw their Heisman stock plummet.
The Ducks and Bruins meet on Saturday in what might end up functioning as an elimination game for the CFP and the Heisman. The winner moves on, the loser might want to punch someone effusing more unsolicited quotes on overcoming adversity.
But it's more than that. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley are celebrated three-year starters, class guys respected on and off the field and fantastic athletes who are trying to establish their longterm legacy before turning pro. Yet neither has won a Pac-12 title. Both figure to view the season as a failure without it. In football, the ultimate team game, it's rare for a college player to be canonized as an individual without his team achieving a high degree of success -- or at the very least dramatically exceeding preseason expectations.
The loser of this game is unlikely to dramatically exceed preseason expectations. The quarterback of the loser might only be remembered by his program as a fine but not special player. The winner still has a chance to have a plaque hanging in a prominent place in his team's Hall of Fame, a guy who might be recalled in 50 years by today's college students to their grandchildren -- "Sonny, did I ever tell you about the time Hundley/Mariota threw a touchdown pass and kicked a field goal on the same play?!"
Sure, making draw-a-line-in-the-sand judgments at midseason, particularly this year in the Pac-12, when the eventual champion seems more likely to have three losses than just one, is potentially overkill. The winner Saturday could still implode, and the loser might still find misfortune to be but a stepping stone to fortune. But it's difficult not to see Mariota-Hundley head-to-head as not being a major chapter in the Pac-12 season. At the very least, it figures to set a strong narrative as the leaves start to change and Halloween approaches.
This is after all, the Year of the Quarterback in the Conference of Quarterbacks, and these two are the bell cows, the leaders of perhaps the most talented collection of signal-callers one conference has ever had in a single season. What has become evident as both aspire toward an individual and team legacy, is that erratic offensive line play is taking its toll on their performance.
In the preseason, Oregon was touted as owning one of the nation's best offensive lines, while UCLA's was viewed as a candidate for most improved, considering it started three true freshmen in 2013 and had quasi-respectable results. Injuries have hit both, particularly the Ducks, who are currently without their top three offensive tackles. But even allowing for that, the resulting play as been underwhelming, and that has burdened both QBs.
UCLA yielded an astounding 10 sacks in the loss to Utah on Saturday, and it was clear that Hundley was too often eschewing his downfield options to try to preserve his health against the relentless Utes rush. Mariota has been sacked 12 times in the past two games, the final one against Arizona causing a game-ending lost fumble.
The Bruins are surrendering 4.6 sacks per game, which ranks 123rd in the nation. The Ducks are giving up 3.0 sacks per game, which ranks 110th. Those are not numbers you'd expect from national-title contenders, and it's impossible to imagine that a QB hitting the turf that many times per game is going to win the Heisman, or survive the season for that matter.
Last year, Arizona State ranked last in the conference, yielding 2.93 sacks per game. The Bruins' young and much-maligned unit surrendered 2.77 per game, while Oregon gave up just 1.38, which ranked third in the conference and 29th in the nation.
Hundley and Mariota, in fact, are just the biggest-name victims in a conference-wide problem. Thus far, Colorado is yielding the fewest sacks per game -- 1.3 -- and that only ranks 30th in the nation. Nine teams rank 54th or worse in sacks given up per game.
Common sense dictates that a QB functions less effectively when he's getting buried in the turf.
Mariota probably would be glad to know that UCLA ranks last in the Pac-12 and 100th in the nation with 1.4 sacks per game, while Hundley will be less thrilled with the Ducks' 3.2 sacks per game, which ranks third in the conference and 19th in the nation. Both defenses will try to exploit struggling offensive lines, and that means both quarterbacks will be called upon to meet that challenge, to use their athleticism and instincts to buy time or break away and improvise.
As Ovid observed, "There is no excellence uncoupled with difficulties."
The more excellent quarterback likely carries the day in the Rose Bowl Saturday. It could be a season-defining moment for his team, and a legacy-defining performance for the individual.