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Oregon eyeballs playoff, first national title

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon had a Stanford problem. And then it didn't. It had an Arizona problem. And now it doesn't after stomping the Wildcats 51-13 in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Oregon program had a Heisman Trophy problem, but that likely ends Dec. 13 when quarterback Marcus Mariota takes home the bronze statue after a brilliant season capped by his MVP performance Friday night against Arizona. His five touchdowns against the Wildcats -- two passing, three rushing -- gave him 53 for the season against just two interceptions.

The Ducks have solved problems and touched -- or will touch -- the lofty places in college football. Just about all of them. Save one: The program has never won a national title. It's finished a season ranked second -- twice. It's played for a BCS national title and fallen just short against Auburn after the 2010 season.

Now, its win over the Wildcats is certain to secure either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Ducks, ranked second in the rankings this past week, will be playing in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1, semifinal opponent TBD on Sunday when the selection committee makes its final announcement.

Oregon improved to 12-1 on the season and took revenge for its only blemish, a 31-24 home defeat to Arizona on Oct. 2. At the time of that defeat, more than a few folks pronounced Oregon dead and questioned the leadership of coach Mark Helfrich, who was still laboring under the shadow of former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the Ducks began the process that got them to the top of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2011 by showing up on Oct. 3 ready to get back to work.

"The next day, every single guy in our program was on the practice field 25 minutes before they had to be fixing it," Helfrich said. "It wasn't, 'Hey, you screwed this up. You did this wrong.' It's, 'How do we get better?'"

Oh, Oregon got better. A lot better. Since that loss, the Ducks are 8-0 with an average winning margin of 26.0 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in eight straight games and gained at least 500 yards in seven straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Mariota and the Ducks offense started slowly and didn't really get in sync until the second half, but the defense made things easy, as it dominated the Wildcats, who had just 25 total yards and two first downs at halftime. When the offense caught up, it was lights-out.

And Mariota's final numbers were Heisman-esque. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards. For the season, he has 3,783 passing yards and 669 rushing yards.

"If this guy isn't what the Heisman Trophy is about, I'm in the wrong profession," Helfrich said.

For Arizona, it was just an ugly night, one that might knock it out of a major bowl. To cut to the chase, nothing worked. The Wildcats scored their first touchdown on a 69-yard strike against broken coverage to make it 30-7 and added a second tally on the game's final play.

"They played well and we didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They outcoached us and outplayed us."

Oregon appears to be peaking at the right time. After battling injuries all year, it's got three weeks to get healthy, starting with center Hroniss Grasu.

The only place Oregon hasn't reached is No. 1. The Ducks have positioned themselves to obtain that elusive prize. The question now is: Can they finish?