It’s a funny thing, this first playoff championship game. We’re all inhabiting a shadowy new territory of fandom, and not just because a title game’s creeping up absent the security blanket of the SEC. Even without Alabama’s omnipresent malevolence to reassure a nervous nation that some things remain steadfast, the Rose and Sugar semifinals were so wire-to-wire entertaining that the chance to watch the two victors try to top that spectacle already feels like a privilege, like we’ve fallen backasswards into living our best football lives.
Oregon and Ohio State are no lovable upstarts, but there’s still so much to love on either sideline. In the interest of equal time, while Grantland Columbus is over here huffing chocolate and peanut butter out of spray paint cans, will you indulge us for a few minutes while we hoist the West Coast banner? You’ll like it. There’s a really cute duck on it.
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Longtime readers will already be aware of our overt quest to turn Grantland into an Oregon mascot fan site. The target of our affection is a giant plush duck who’s featured in what’s unassailably the greatest sports photo of all time,1 and we are not uncomfortable expressing our passion for him in feelings collages. But the people-Ducks also play a little football, a variation of which you might be unfamiliar with if you confine your sport consumption to Sundays and Mondays. For those of you just joining us, a word of introduction: Trying to fight all of this Oregon team’s possibilities at once is like trying to kill a Hydra with safety scissors. Next Man Up doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s Next Phalanx Up, if anything. There are no upstart programs to be found in this championship game, but we’ve got upstart players in terrifying abundance.
YOUR ARGUMENTS: WE DO NOT ACCEPT THEM.
Look at 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota’s pass-catching corps, averaging more than 300 yards’ worth of catches per game, for one example of a thriving in-program ecosystem. This unit’s regenerative abilities haven’t been tested to the extent that, say, the Ducks offensive line have, but good night: Oregon’s aerial attack entered 2014 without the services of NFL-bound 1,000-yard receiver Josh Huff and multifaceted yardage generator De’Anthony Thomas, lost Bralon Addison to a torn ACL in the spring, lost Devon Allen in the opening moments of the Rose Bowl, and is still humming with possibility. It’s like staring into Scrooge McDuck’s vault: You can scroll 10 guys deep on this list of receivers without the riches and dangers they represent running out. For an opponent, it’s not safe to be unfamiliar with any of them. Right, and did we mention they’re replete with underclassmen?
Sing to me, O muse, first of Charles Nelson, a diminutive true freshman who has done his best work in blowouts (62 yards, two scores versus Colorado; 104 yards including a long catch of 73 in the Pac-12 championship game) but who demonstrated at the Rose Bowl that he possesses the ability of actual flight. Revel in the existence of Darren Carrington, the redshirt freshman and embryonic big-play engine who hatched in early December, catching seven passes for 126 yards in Santa Clara, and followed that up with seven catches for 165 yards in Pasadena. Turn your attention for a minute away from the wide receiver position itself and behold the tight ends, where Pharaoh Brown was lost for the year to an injury against Utah and redshirt sophomore Evan Baylis, known primarily for work not appearing in a box score, turned up in the Rose Bowl as a receiving threat with almost a visible shrug. Well, I’m here. Might as well rumble around for 73 yards while I’m in town. Another yellow-and-green jack-in-the-box. Another ominous creature sprung from within. Rinse in raining scoreboard points, and repeat. That’s Oregon in 2014.
The complaint about having this many beautiful vehicles in the garage is one of the very, very rich: You can’t drive them all at once. Ohio State’s pass rush is highly respected; Monday’s championship game in Arlington may be a night for human foregone conclusion Royce Freeman on the ground, for Byron Marshall in that beloved Oregon hybrid role, for the freshly healed and ferocious Thomas Tyner between the tackles. The receivers who’ve burst out sparkling over the past few games may be reduced to sideline museum exhibits for this last contest.
Or they might surprise us. Oregon’s good at that. And if they don’t, praise be, there’s time yet to enjoy them, time past this title game. Mariota will have a well-earned NFL roster spot this time next year, but Freeman, Tyner, Nelson, Carrington, Allen, Baylis, Dwayne Stanford? All back, in theory. Not to mention guys like Ezekiel Elliott, Darron Lee, Joey Bosa, and this guy over there in scarlet and gray. Could we be having a very similar conversation at this time in 2016? Whatever happens Monday night, we already get the feeling we’re going to want to see it again next year.