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Oregon vs. Stanford: Who Should Be No. 3?

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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.

The preseason Coaches Poll has been released and the Pac-12 is sitting pretty with five teams representing the conference. Among them are No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Stanford, two powerhouse programs that could easily be interchangeable in the polls. The coaches granted the higher nod to the Ducks, but the argument can be made for either team to fill the nation's No. 3 slot. Football.com beat writers John Baker (Oregon) and Henry McKenna (Stanford) debate which program deserved the higher ranking:

The Case For Oregon

As dramatic as Stanford’s win over Oregon was last year at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, the ugly truth is that the Ducks are still the better program right now and deserve to be ranked ahead of the Cardinal to start the 2013 season.

Looking back, the Ducks were a De’Anthony Thomas missed block during a Marcus Mariota run from controlling this football game. They then watched kicker Alejandro Maldanado miss a potential game-winner at the end of regulation, and another in overtime that would have tied the game.

Lesson learned. The Cardinal can play with the big boys of the Pac-12. It’s a lesson that will serve the Ducks well moving ahead.

Give the Cardinal credit, they came into Autzen last season and beat the Oregon offensive line up front on first and second down, leaving Oregon with tough conversion options and a first-year starting quarterback with some hard throws. He hit some and struggled at times. The cool Hawaiian had "one of those games." He’ll be far better for it this year.

And therein lies the difference with this year’s Ducks team: A much better and more motivated offensive line combined with a quarterback who may make the word “special” seem insufficient.

Oregon’s defense did its job a year ago, The defense is talented, experienced and deep in the secondary and along the defensive line. Oh, don’t worry about the three missing linebackers from a year ago. The Ducks annually find fast, rangy, big-hitter types awaiting their opportunity to play. Oregon’s 2013 defense may be the best they’ve had in a while, but it’s the offense and its maturity that will make Oregon a national title contender — and why it should rank ahead of Stanford.

When the dust clears, Oregon still has far more big-plays weapons at its disposal than Stanford, likely a better overall quarterback than Stanford, certainly a defense that can run, hit and create turnovers the equal of Stanford’s, and more of a national reputation than Stanford. In short, the respect factor sits with Oregon. Not Stanford. The Ducks score and dominate. Stanford just gets by. (Stanford had seven wins by a touchdown or less in 2012. All 12 of Oregon’s wins were by more than a touchdown. Its closest win was by 11 points.)

Right now, the pollsters think what I think: That despite Oregon’s loss a year ago, the Ducks have more in the barn than the guys down on the farm. Stanford closed the gap and got the win in 2012, but that doesn’t create equality. That’s what the pollsters — and I — are saying.

Oregon should start the season ranked ahead of Stanford. They’ve earned it.

The Case For Stanford

Stanford has been Oregon’s little brother. The Cardinal slowly matured, and though the Ducks thought it was a fluke last season, their little brother is bigger and stronger. Oregon may be ranked higher, but Stanford deserves the spot (though they are happy to sit behind Oregon out of sight and in the back of their minds).

The simplest rationale to rank Oregon higher is that they are the proven entity. They are the safe choice, but even the biggest trees fall and Oregon is just vulnerable enough for Stanford yell “Timber!”

Mark Helfrich is coming in with a new job, and while it is not impossible for coaches to go undefeated in their first year, it certainly is irregular. Ironically, the most recent coach to do it was Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes last year. Past his uncredited undefeated season (leftover NCAA sanctions), no one has accomplished such a feat in the last decade. Helfrich knows the system and the players. Both are strong.

Thanks to former Ducks head coach Chip Kelly, Helfrich has inherited one of the best teams in college football. That doesn’t mean his team is invulnerable in his first year, and things can go South with a first-year coach.

There’s also quarterback Marcus Mariota, the supposed coach on the field, but he is a true sophomore. Oregon has weapons like De’Anthony Thomas to complement Mariota, weapons coach Derek Mason has versed the Stanford defense in stopping — in fact, Mason has lectured NFL coaches about Oregon’s read option. Stanford’s defense has improved upon their group from last year and should bottle up the Pac-12 offenses this year. Oregon is no exception.

Stanford doesn’t have a position group with an elite player. What's more, they have shown that they can carry the team when the offense struggles. Stanford’s offense is a bit vulnerable as their elite weapons have left. Their No. 1 receiver, tight end and running back went to the NFL, and so did Kevin Hogan’s top five targets. He will struggle early, but will have a few weeks to settle in and get ready for the grueling ladder half of their schedule. He’s accurate and smart no matter who is catching the ball.

New names will emerge and I have no doubt that the entire country will know players like running back Tyler Gaffney and wide receiver Ty Montgomery by the end of the season. They will be household names. Hogan, who has started eight games, will continue to develop and build upon his exceptional stats. More Andrew Luck comparisons will follow.

The Winner

Oregon gets the slight nod. The Ducks are solid on defense and figure to reload and unload on offense. Hogan is more than capable of leading a Cardinal offense that can run the table in the Pac-12, but will have to do so while coping with the loss of a slew of talent. The edge goes to Oregon.