The Oregon Ducks are currently ranked No. 2 in both the AP and USAToday Coaches polls, right behind the Alabama Crimson Tide. Are they the second-best team in college football?
Or are they simply a team that's being overlooked?
Because the Crimson Tide have won two BCS Championships in the last three years, there is almost an "untouchable" status placed on the Tide by pollsters. Last year, the Tide—then ranked No. 2—lost 9-6 at home against the LSU Tigers. Miraculously, they only dropped to No. 3 in the BCS, while dropping to No. 4 in the AP.
Oregon hasn't received that same treatment.
The Ducks started out the 2011 preseason ranked No. 3 by the two polls. After its loss to LSU at Baton Rouge, the Ducks dropped all the way down to No. 13 in the AP and No. 14 in USAToday Coaches poll.
Oregon scored 27 points on the Tigers at Baton Rouge in the first week of the 2011 season. Alabama could only muster six points against the Tigers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama later on in the year. It's not just Oregon who doesn't impress the voters. Stanford went 9-0 last year and was never ranked higher than No. 3 before eventually losing to Oregon.
The media has repeatedly shown its bias against Pac-12 teams not named USC for years. This year is no exception.
LSU performed poorly against Auburn and Towson but only took a slight dip in the polls, going from No. 2 to No. 3 after the Auburn game and to No. 4 in the AP after its game against Towson. The Tigers remained at No. 3 in the USAToday Coaches poll.
Last week, Florida dominated LSU, beating the Tigers 14-6. Yet LSU still remains a Top-10 team in both polls this week.
The beat goes on.
Oregon has fought an uphill battle since losing 22-19 to Auburn in the 2010 BCS Championship. The Ducks had their shot against an elite SEC team and came up empty. The respect they had gained was somewhat short-lived and it was back to playing in the Rose Bowl the following year.
Why Oregon doesn't receive the same respect as Alabama is simple: a perceived lack of defense and lack of voter exposure.
Alabama has a top-notch defense while Oregon, statistically speaking, does not. But if you look at the five combined halftime scores between the Ducks and their opponents (156-42), the Ducks are giving up an average 8.4 points per first half. That's a solid defense.
West Virginia is currently ranked No. 5 in the AP and No. 4 in the USAToday Coaches poll. Does West Virginia have a great defense? The statistics say no; West Virginia's total defense is currently ranked No. 104, yielding an average of 35 points per game.
Perhaps it is because West Virginia is in the South. Perhaps it's because West Virginia has a legitimate Heisman contender in Geno Smith. Perhaps its high-ranking is due to the Mountaineers' two high-profile games, both televised nationally on a major network.
Exposure is key.
Oregon hasn't played any high-profile games and they probably won't until November 3, at USC. The Ducks' last three Saturday games have started at 10:30 EST. Moreover, only two games—against Fresno State and Tennessee Tech—were aired before 7 PM EST and both of them were shown on the Pac-12 Network.
The Ducks have a bye this week but they play at Arizona State (4-1) next Thursday night (9 PM, EST). If Oregon takes it to the Sun Devils early, voters will go to bed at halftime with a good impression. If the score is close, pollsters might have reason to pause and bump South Carolina up.
The Ducks' body of work, so far, is worthy of a top ranking, but they aren't going to leapfrog the Tide unless an unforeseen loss occurs in Tuscaloosa.
Right now, the Sagarin ratings show Alabama (No. 50) has played a tougher schedule than Oregon (No. 86). That's a valid reason for Alabama taking the top spot in the polls. Being undefeated with a tougher schedule should be rewarded.
The Ducks may not be a victim of bias after all—they just haven't had a lot of exposure on game day. The networks have to make money from their advertisers and let's face it, Oregon doesn't have nearly the national following that Notre Dame, USC, Michigan or Alabama has.
From a football fan's perspective in the South—where college football rules—the Ducks are just some new kid on the block that doesn't have a lot of "storied history."
They're that team from Oregon that scores a lot of points while wearing wacky uniforms. Their mascot makes videos. They don't play defense. They lost to LSU. And to Boise State twice. Meh.
Is Oregon taking a backseat to Alabama?
Realistically, what team isn't?
But if Oregon keeps winning and the SEC West keeps deteriorating, Oregon will get more of the spotlight. They won't take a backseat to anyone. Not even Alabama.
By the way, the folks in the West know how good the Ducks' defense is. Oregon, like Alabama, hasn't let one team score more points than their offense has.
And isn't that the whole point?