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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Column: On to the next poll

I’m no Nate Silver, but I’m calling for Alabama-Oregon.

Nov. 9, 2012

On Tuesday, America chose between the starkly contrasting visions of two presidential candidates from opposite sides of the spectrum. And on Saturday, two wildly different juggernauts from opposite sides of the country are headed on a crash course for each other.

College football fans don’t have to choose between Alabama and Oregon quite yet, but come Jan. 7, they will.

Had an alien been flipping between last Saturday night’s Alabama-LSU and Oregon-USC games, they’d probably think they were watching two totally different sports.

In Baton Rouge, top-ranked Alabama once again wound up in a stalemate with the rival Tigers (although this time both teams actually scored some touchdowns). It was the epitome of the grown-man football SEC fans boast about: a battle between slow-paced offenses featuring bruising, between-the-tackles rushing attacks and fast and ferocious defenses featuring handfuls of future first-round picks. Though LSU led for most of the game, a last-minute Alabama touchdown gave the Crimson Tide a 21-17 victory in one of sports’ toughest environments.

At the same time, Oregon and USC staged a shootout fitting of their Hollywood surroundings, with the Ducks winning 62-51. The two teams combined for 1,345 yards, an average of over eight per play, in the type of two-sided offensive explosion that’s become increasingly common in college football. The Ducks ended the game with a 300-yard passer (Marcus Mariota) and rusher (Kenjon Barner) and, perhaps most impressively, had many calling for the firing of USC’s legendary defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, afterward.

It’s hard to quantify the root cause of these contrasting styles. Maybe Alabama’s offense and Oregon’s defense aren’t so great; maybe SEC defenses and Pac-12 offenses are just that good. There’s only one way to find out:

Put both these teams in the BCS National Championship Game.

If the season ended today, the dream Alabama-Oregon matchup wouldn’t happen. Unbeaten Kansas State sits second in the BCS standings, just ahead of No. 3 Oregon and fourth-ranked, also undefeated Notre Dame. If all four teams are favored to finish undefeated, leaving it to the dreaded computer rankings and (perhaps even less-reliable) human pollsters to decide who gets to play for the sport’s biggest honor.

But despite Kansas State’s dominance in the Big 12 and the national appeal of Notre Dame, an Alabama-Oregon matchup is too enticing to deny. First, Oregon should climb in the computer and human rankings, as its remaining schedule is far more difficult than Kansas State’s. Beyond that, it’s not just the fascinating matchup of great teams and contrasting styles on the field — offense vs. defense, speed vs. power, unstoppable force vs. immovable object — but an epic culture clash surrounding the game itself.

Alabama Crimson Tide is the most vaunted, storied name in college football. It has won 14 national championships, dating back to the 1920s. The uniforms are crimson and white, plain jerseys, helmets with a simple stripe and numbers on the sides — a classic combination that’ll never change.

The Oregon Ducks, a name that even now induces more laughter than fear, are the new-money intruder at the top of the rankings, a program that’s become a national force only within the last decade. Its players appear each week in a bizarre new blend of green, yellow, black, white and chrome, feather treatment on the shoulders, more a cartoon Star Wars stormtrooper costume than a football uniform.

Then you consider the states themselves: Alabama, all about sundresses and Southern gentility and Oregon, with sweatpants, hoodies and hipsters. The all-consuming on and off-field battle of southeast and northwest would be the most fascinating event of the college football year, just as the national championship should be.

Maybe Alabama would run right through Oregon’s defense and prove the enduring value of traditional, defensive-minded football. Or maybe the Ducks’ new age offense and breakneck tempo would silence any remaining doubters and lead them to victory. The only certainty is how fascinating it’ll be to find out.

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