The Pac-12 Championship Game could serve as a play-in game for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Chantel Jennings and Kyle Bonagura each give three reasons why Oregon and Arizona can win.
Three reasons why No. 2 Oregon can win:
1. With a healthier offensive line, Marcus Mariota can be Marcus Mariota. The last time these two teams faced off, the Ducks were dealing with a highly depleted offensive line. A former walk-on and true freshman were Oregon's two starting tackles. Since then, the Ducks have gotten Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena back, and though they’ve lost center Hroniss Grasu since the first meeting, the line is at a better place overall. They’ll be able to protect Mariota, giving him enough time in the pocket to a) allow plays to develop and b) make something happen if nothing is happening downfield.
2. The defense is playing with a greater sense of urgency. In early October, the Wildcats were opportunistic in making big plays and getting their running backs to make huge contributions. Since then the Ducks' defense has taken major strides forward and is playing against the run better. Another big difference is that the loss to the Wildcats has inspired the Ducks to practice better. “Guys understand that we can’t just show up on Saturdays and expect to do well,” fifth-year senior linebacker Tony Washington said. “Because of that [loss] we’ve been playing better on the weekend because we’re practicing harder during the week.”
3. Playmakers have emerged and progressed for the Ducks since that first game. Freshman wide receiver Charles Nelson was still a special teams guy when the Ducks played the Wildcats the first time around. Freshman running back Royce Freeman has grown immensely since then, too. He hadn’t recorded a single 100-yard rushing game leading into the meeting with Arizona. Since then, he's had 100-yard performances in five of the Ducks’ seven games (he rushed for 98 and 99 yards, respectively, in the other two). Byron Marshall has settled into his role much better. Darren Carrington has shown flashes, catching 14 passes for 241 yards since the Arizona game. Mariota is surrounded by more mature, well-developed playmakers and will be able to count on them to make big plays on Friday.
Three reasons why No. 7 Arizona can win:
1. Recent history. Oregon's two lone defeats in the last 16 games came against the Wildcats. That's impossible to ignore. And these weren't fluky games, either. Arizona won 41-16 last season and controlled most of the game in its 31-24 win at Autzen earlier this season. Credit goes to Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who has outcoached Mark Helfrich in both games. There wasn't some magical formula unlocked by either game -- if there was Oregon wouldn't have run off seven straight wins in the fashion it has -- but Arizona has proven it can beat the Ducks, so there shouldn't be doubt that it can win again.
2. More experience. This could be a wash (see Oregon reason No. 3), but Arizona is better off now at quarterback because of freshman Anu Solomon's development. He had great stats before the game against Oregon on Oct. 2, but that was a product of playing significantly inferior teams. Now that Solomon has gone through a full Pac-12 slate, there's every reason to believe Arizona's offense should be equipped to score enough points to give the Wildcats a good shot at winning. Solomon has 14 touchdown passes to just three interceptions since the win against Oregon -- not quite Mariota numbers but very impressive, especially for a freshman.
3. #Pac12AfterDark. This shouldn't need much explanation. Everyone that's paid attention to Pac-12 football this season knows that when the sun goes down, the unexpected occurs. And Arizona has certainly benefitted from that. The Wildcats benefitted from two Hail Marys -- if either the Jail Mary or Hill Mary falls incomplete, Arizona doesn't win the division -- and have that team-of-destiny thing going on. Having linebacker Scooby Wright III doesn't hurt, either. His rise into the best-defensive-player-in-the-country discussion has been meteoric, and his presence will give Mariota fits.