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Senior College Football Columnist

Watch the games, and Oregon looks like a true contender for BCS title

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EUGENE, Ore. -- For the moment here inside the Oregon program, the question is not who deserves to be alive in the BCS, it is who deserves to be alive, period.

This week, that message was clearly delivered by Oregon right guard Nick Cody. After a midweek practice he filmed a promotional video for Movember, a men's cancer awareness initiative. Cody has grown a mustache -- as cheesy as it may be -- to show support.

"Cancer's been a really big factor in my life, but it's not something I've let take control of my life," said the fifth-year senior.

Not when his mother Donna beat cancer, not when he beat cancer, not when his father Clifton died of colon cancer six years ago.

"The biggest thing that affects me is weight loss," Cody said of the daily medication he takes to regulate the loss of his thyroid due to cancer as a third-grader. "I'll perspire forever with these practices."

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So, no, wondering about Kansas State's schedule strength down the stretch is not exactly in the front of his mind. Cody and the Ducks are more grounded than that. While they admit to checking scores as one of the four undefeated teams in contention for two spots in the BCS title game, survival is definitely a theme.

That includes Chip Kelly's practices, where the blur offense you see on Saturdays seems like a slowpoke during the week.

"The practices are just brutal," said left tackle Tyler Johnstone. "Let's say in a game we run 10 plays and it will take two minutes off the clock in a game. Here, we'll run 10 plays and it would probably take only 45 seconds or a minute."

That includes shoring up a defense that is trying to get some pride back after giving up 51 points to Southern California.

"People forget," veteran defensive coordinator Nick Allioti said. "Sometimes you look bad tackling or you look back covering because the other athlete you're going against is better than you."

A lot better last Saturday as Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee -- responsible for four of USC's seven touchdowns -- forced the Ducks into a season first. Oregon had to extend itself for four quarters.

"That's one of the benefits of not having to play our games all the way through," Kelly said. "We should be a little fresher."

That includes ignoring the obvious, those garish uniforms, as a BCS marketing tool to win the BCS race. In other words, the shiniest helmets will not necessarily win.

"Beyond the uniforms and all that flashy stuff," tailback Kenjon Barner said. "I think it comes down to your style of play. Maybe in the past, Oregon has been Oregon because of their uniforms. I think we're so far beyond that.

"Whatever people feel about us is because of how we play. We take care of business."

And that is why there is a quiet confidence here as the season winds down. If the Ducks win their four remaining games -- assuming a conference title match -- they figure that will be enough to play for the national championship for the second time in three years.

"My girlfriend's sister played softball at Alabama," Cody said. "Whenever I talk to her side of the family, they've been waiting years for an Alabama-Oregon game. I always have to kind of tune them out when the season come around."

Maybe not for much longer. With four weeks to go in the season, the matchup seems almost anointed. Alabama (13) and Oregon (12) have the nation's top two winning streaks. For pure entertainment value, the game would be a natural. Bama is No. 2 in rushing defense, No. 2 in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense. Oregon is No. 2 in rushing offense, No. 4 in total offense and No. 1 in scoring offense.

"I think it's funny," Johnstone said. "I try not to pay attention to it much but you go on Facebook and Twitter and they're [fans] always in an outrage. It's more entertaining to me than anything else. I don't like to make a big deal out of something that may never happen like playing Kansas State or Notre Dame."

The Ducks' schedule is backloaded, giving it an advantage over the Wildcats and Irish. They made a huge jump in the BCS this week, climbing over Notre Dame into No. 3 and moving within .0152 of a point of K-State at No. 2. But what the pollsters agree on -- that the Ducks are the second-best team -- the computers have yet to sense. That may change with games left against No. 16 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon State after this week's trip to Cal.

"The way we play the game is a lot different than anybody in the country," said defensive end Dion Jordan. "The way we play football is unique. ... I feel like we're the only defense in the nation that can keep up [with our offense]."

Which explains why the Ducks looked both unbeatable and unwatchable at times Saturday. Barner broke records and the Trojans' will with 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Allioti's defense was torched for 615 yards. USC didn't punt until its ninth possession.

"How's our ego?" Allioti said of his defense. "Mine's fine, [but] I'm not playing. The kids forget quicker than the coaches do."

This still has the look of the greatest Oregon team ever. It should be noted that history basically begins in 1994 when Rich Brooks left a 9-4 team for incoming coach Mike Bellotti. Still, 12 straight games with at least 42 points ties Texas for the longest such streak of the BCS era (since 1998). Twenty-two consecutive games with 30-plus points ties an NCAA record. In the past two years, the closest margins of victory have been seven (Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl) and 11 on Saturday.

Marcus Mariota's 22 touchdown passes are the most by a freshman in Pac-12 history. Barner is ahead of LaMichael James' 2010 Doak Walker Award-winning numbers in touchdowns (19-17) and yards per rush (7.2-6.3). So dominant has the offense been that Barner's 12 fourth-quarter carries on Saturday were more than he has had combined all season.

Converted from offense, DE Dion Jordan has become a rare impact defensive player for the Ducks. (Getty Images)  
Converted from offense, DE Dion Jordan has become a rare impact defensive player for the Ducks. (Getty Images)  
The Ducks arrive at this point a whole lot fresher than perhaps anyone. Oregon has more first-half points (324) than 82 teams have all season. The average first-half advantage is 36-9. At halftime of a much-hyped nationally televised game on Oct. 18 at Arizona State, the Ducks were up 43-7 at halftime.

"At that point the starters kind of looked around like, 'We're not going to play anymore,'" Johnstone said. "Coach Kelly said, 'You know what? You don't let your foot off the gas until I tell you to lift your off the gas.'"

That makes it impossible to accuse Kelly of running up the score to impress the voters. Where's the line between style points and a weekly run at 50 points?

The defense's speed is beginning to match that of the offense. At least, that was a talking point coming into the season. Then senior safety John Boyett was lost to a season-ending injury after the first game. That left a lack of leadership and continuity. The back four is now the weakest part of the Ducks, one that was exploited by USC.

"I was salivating," Allioti said when he learned Jordan was switching from tight end to defense last season. "They didn't want him at tight end? I see 6-7 that runs like a deer. I'm not an NFL scout but that guy is going to go in the first or second round and make a lot of money."

The Oregon defense that lost to Auburn in the national championship game two years ago had one pro. Linebacker Casey Matthews was taken in the fourth round. Same for last season, when linebacker Josh Kaddu went in the fifth round.

Meanwhile, Alabama lost four defensive starters to the draft last season, two in the first round.

"There are different ways of getting to the same point," Allioti said.

Even after giving up half a hundred to the Trojans, Oregon has still allowed 25 or less to six opponents. It is improved marginally overall (No. 50 in total defense, up 17 spots from last season). That wouldn't be the worst defense to get to a BCS title game. Auburn was in the 50s two years ago before beating the Ducks, so it can be done.

Oregon's is a big-play defense -- tied for second nationally in interceptions, tied for third in turnover margin, third in passes defended and second in red-zone defense.

"Our defense was not very good," Allioti said of last week, "but our offense was friggin' incredible. As bad as I feel, poor Monte. ..."

Yes, it always could be worse. Monte Kiffin, USC's 72-year-old defensive coordinator, did not have a good night. The 62 points by Oregon was only its fourth-most since the beginning of 2011. It was the most points given up by USC in 124 years of football.

The joke making the rounds this week is that Lane Kiffin is going to have to fire his father.

Yes, it always could be worse. Fifteen years ago on Thanksgiving, Cody left the hospital in a wheelchair and never stopped giving thanks. He has been cancer free since then. That's nothing compared to cases being made every week in the BCS standings.

"My best pitch is to watch our games," Cody said. "Watch all the rest of them."

An anointment may await.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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