SANTA CLARA — National title implications, a possible Heisman Trophy at stake and a new $1.3 billion stadium to showcase the whole thing.
The Pac-12 Conference will have the spotlight to itself tonight when No. 3 Oregon (11-1) and No. 8 Arizona (10-2) meet in the conference football championship game at sparkling Levi’s Stadium.
“We have a chance to win a championship,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “And that’s pretty neat.”
The Ducks are all but guaranteed a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff with a win, and the selection committee could have a hard time keeping Arizona out if the Wildcats upset Oregon for the second time this season.
For all the success the conference has enjoyed in recent years, the Pac-12 has not celebrated a national champion since Southern Cal after the 2004 season. Oregon was the last school in the conference to play for a national title, losing to Auburn in the 2011 BCS Championship in Glendale, Ariz.
The start of the playoff era is looking like it could be a big boost to the Pac-12’s fortunes.
Alabama (11-1) is No. 1, Oregon is second and TCU (10-1) is third in the playoff rankings followed by Florida State (12-0), Ohio State (11-1), Baylor (10-1) and Arizona — which jumped five spots after beating rival Arizona State last week to reach the conference championship game.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has said all along that the winner of his league — widely considered the second best in the country behind the Southeastern Conference — would be in prime position to earn a playoff berth. And that statement seems truer now than ever after a season that was all about survival.
“We haven’t talked about the playoff one time,” Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said. “And that’s why we’re in the opportunity to get there.”
But nothing beyond the conference’s showcase game at the high-tech Silicon Valley home of the San Francisco 49ers is certain. regon, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota, is the Pac-12’s best hope to make the playoff. The Ducks have won seven straight games by an average of 24.2 points and look like the same offensive juggernaut under coach Mark Helfrich that they were under his predecessor, Chip Kelly.
Of course, Arizona handed the high-flying Ducks their only loss — a 31-24 stunner in Eugene on Oct. 2. The Wildcats also beat Oregon 42-16 last year in Tucson to keep the Ducks out of the conference championship game, and they would have as strong a case as any team to play for the national title if they can make it three in a row.
“I think that it is exciting that there is a four-team playoff,” Rodriguez said. “There has been more talk about college football now than ever, but I always believed that our first playoff game was the first game of the regular season.”
Here are some things to watch in the Pac-12 championship:
MARIOTA’S MOMENT: Mariota has carried the Ducks all season, throwing for 3,470 yards and 36 TDs with just two interceptions. He also ran for 633 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught a TD pass. But the Wildcats have intercepted him three times and forced him to fumble three times over the past three seasons, and he may need to beat Arizona to cement his Heisman Trophy campaign.
LINE PLAY: The Wildcats sacked Mariota five times and forced two fumbles in their last meeting. Perhaps even more importantly, Arizona held the Ducks to a season-low 144 yards rushing. Oregon’s O-line has gotten healthier and improved since, but Arizona’s physical front will surely test how much better the Ducks are now.
SCOOBY SNATCHES: Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, led the conference with six forced fumbles and ranked third in the nation with 14 sacks. That included sacking Mariota and stripping the ball from him for a turnover with 2:11 to play to seal Arizona’s victory over Oregon last time.
FRESHMAN PHENOMS: Arizona’s attack is led by two freshmen, though they haven’t played like freshmen. Anu Solomon threw for 3,424 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. He also ran for 282 yards and a score. Nick Wilson rushed for 1,263 yards and 15 TDs.
CONDITIONS: Rain has soaked the drought-stricken Bay Area all week and could linger Friday night. What effect that has on playing conditions is uncertain. Levi’s Stadium already has had at least four different turfs installed in as many months.