Oregon's lopsided loss to Georgia stands out as Ducks hit stride – USA TODAY

There was little doubt when Oregon signed on to play Georgia in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium that it would be a major challenge for the Ducks. Even though nobody could have known the exact circumstances of a game four years into the future, flying across the country to play an SEC power in its backyard is never easy.
But Oregon’s calculation in taking the game was sound: In the College Football Playoff era, where strength of schedule is supposed to count for a lot, it looked like a low-risk proposition.
If you happen to win the game, it boosts your credibility and the perception of your conference. If you lose to an elite team in what amounts to a road game, it shouldn’t wreck your playoff ambitions. At least in theory, you’ll get some credit for merely playing that game instead of scheduling an opener against Montana State.
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But that supposition could be put to the test by a score that poses a major quandary for the selection committee: Georgia 49, Oregon 3.
The moment that game ended, the playoff should have been the last thing on the minds of any Oregon fan, player, coach or administrator. It was such a failure to launch, such a non-conference résumé eyesore, that it would’ve been tough to envision the Ducks becoming relevant at all in the CFP discussion. 
But after an impressive 45-30 win over previously unbeaten UCLA last Saturday, the notion that Oregon could finish as a one-loss Pac-12 champion with a legitimate playoff case doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 
We’ll have a slightly better sense for how the selection committee views Oregon next Tuesday when they release the first weekly rankings. At the moment, the Ducks will be no higher than No. 8, behind the seven remaining unbeaten teams and Alabama. And, of course, it’s no sure thing that Oregon will cruise the rest of the way home with a tough game on Nov. 19 against Utah and the Pac-12 title game.
But as the committee evaluates where the season stands right now, Oregon’s loss to Georgia muddies up the picture in a way that will test what those 13 individuals value in a football team and how much room they will allow for interpretation of an undeniably bad result. 
On one hand, had Oregon indeed scheduled Montana State on Sept. 3 instead of traveling three time zones to play the defending national champions, the Ducks would almost be in a position to control their own destiny. (More on that in a moment.) At the same time, you can’t simply ignore the impact of one game in a relatively short season, especially when that result suggested such a wide gap between Oregon and another playoff caliber team. 
But this is why the committee exists in the first place, to balance those ideas and debate what one loss in a difficult season opener says about a team that has clearly improved week by week.
It would be foolish to simply write Oregon off because of the Georgia game. Not only were the Ducks up against it in terms of opponent and venue, it was the first game for 36-year old Dan Lanning, Oregon’s third head coach in the past six seasons. That isn’t an excuse, but it has to be a factor in how Oregon’s total season is viewed. 
If we already had a 12-team playoff, it wouldn’t matter at all. As long as the Ducks won the Pac-12, they’d be in. But the standards to get in the four-team playoff are much higher.
Since its inception in 2014, only two teams have gotten in with a loss by two touchdowns or more. One of them was Ohio State, which recovered from an early season 35-21 loss at home to Virginia Tech. The other was Georgia in 2017, which got rolled at Auburn 40-17 but was able to turn the tables on the Tigers a few weeks later in the SEC Championship Game.
Oregon is going to undoubtedly need help to even reach a point where the committee weighs a 46-point loss to Georgia versus the rest of its body of work. As things stand, the SEC champion and the winner of Ohio State/Michigan will have playoff spots locked up. If Clemson and TCU can run the table as unbeaten power conference champions, it would be hard for the committee to jump anyone over them. 
But it’s unlikely those scenarios will play out quite so cleanly — this is college football, after all — and it won’t take much to bring Oregon into the conversation if the Ducks are sitting there as a 12-1 Pac-12 champion.
Based on the eye test, it would be difficult right now to say Oregon doesn’t belong with those teams. They beat BYU by three touchdowns. They gutted out a tough win over Washington State. They had 545 yards of offense against UCLA, and quarterback Bo Nix is playing lights-out football with 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions on the season. Reasonable people can disagree, but it would not be hard to envision Oregon beating a Clemson or TCU on a neutral field right now.
“Our players have a growth mindset and they know every week is an opportunity to get better,” Lanning said after the UCLA game. 
If the goal is to get the four best teams in the playoff, growth should matter. No team is the same in December as they were the opener. But results have to matter, too, and part of the way you establish a pecking order to interpret those results is through non-conference games. 
In that respect, Oregon and the entire Pac-12 utterly failed. The league owns just three wins over other power conference teams: Washington over Michigan State, Washington State over Wisconsin and Stanford over Notre Dame. None of that helps Oregon.
History suggests the committee will punish Oregon significantly for playing so poorly against Georgia. It’s hard to flush a 46-point loss from memory, even if it doesn’t correlate much to how they look now. Combined with the Pac-12 failing to put a team in the playoff since the 2016 season, Oregon has a lot to overcome.
Still, if the committee prioritizes fairness, it must recognize that no team in the country faced a more difficult Week 1 assignment than the Ducks. They could have taken the easy way out, but they didn’t. They scheduled ambitiously, took their medicine and have improved week by week to become one of the best teams in the country. 
That’s supposed to be the advantage in having a committee instead of computers determine who plays for a national title. But in reality, teams just haven’t received much leeway for scheduling games they’re likely going to lose. 
If the Ducks get boxed out of the Playoff because they chose to play Georgia instead of Georgia State, it might not be completely unfair. But it will be typical of an exasperating process that has outlived its usefulness and spurred urgency in the upcoming expansion to 12 teams.
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s all a matter of interpretation. But if Oregon continues on its current path, how the committee either punishes or excuses that loss to Georgia could end up being the most interesting decision of the playoff era.

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