Marcus Mariota is the prohibitive favorite to win this year's Heisman trophy, and so long as his Ducks continue winning games, it will be hard for him to relinquish that title.
Enter Brett Hundley.
One-loss UCLA heads to Autzen on Saturday for the weekend's best game, as decreed by the producers of College Gameday, which will be in attendance. It's more than just a showdown of top-15 teams, but also a showdown of potential top-15 NFL draft picks at quarterback.
Earlier this month, Peter King of MMQB cited NFL sources who believe Mariota might be the No. 1 overall pick next April:
Mariota will be draft-eligible next May (as will many other attractive quarterbacks, including Johnny Manziel) because he’s in his third college season out of high school. And at least two teams love Mariota to the point that I believe if he comes out those teams would have him higher on their board than (Teddy) Bridgewater.
Similar praise has been heaped upon Hundley, whom Charles Davis of NFL.com has compared favorably to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick:
When I watch him play, he reminds of one of the NFL's brightest young stars -- San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. In fact, I think Hundley is much more polished as a passer at this stage of his career than Kaepernick was at Nevada. Hundley doesn't run as well as Kaepernick, but he's a good runner; he's a pass-first quarterback that can run.
There will be plenty of other great players on the field this Saturday, some of whom, like UCLA's Anthony Barr and Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, should also be first-round NFL draft picks.
But whenever two quarterbacks this talented share the same field, they rightfully dominate the narrative.
Hundley vs. Mariota is a microcosm of UCLA vs. Oregon, and the quarterback who beats the other will enjoy just as much personal praise as the team that wins the game.
In addition to altering the Pac-12 and national title pictures, this matchup will also shape a large part of the Heisman race.
The book on beating Oregon starts with keeping its offense off the field. The more an opposing offense controls the clock, the less chances Mariota and Co. have of breaking the game open.
The best way to control said clock is by converting third downs and stringing together long, methodical drives. UCLA has pushed the tempo against slower teams this year, but if it decides to play ball-control, Hundley might be able to steal this game.
The Bruins have converted 52.22 percent of their third downs against FBS teams this season, good for eighth-best in the country. Hundley has completed 34 of 55 third-down passes, and 27 of them have resulted in moving the chains.
His production, though, has varied a bit by third-down distance:
|3rd Down, 1-3 To Go||5-7||71.4||41||1||92.06|
|3rd Down, 4-6 To Go||11-14||78.6||132||0||157.77|
|3rd Down, 7-9 To Go||9-16||56.3||121||1||107.28|
|3rd Down, 10+ To Go||9-18||50.0||170||2||107.11|
Hundley's sweet spot lies between 3rd-and-short and 3rd-and long, a three-yard range best described as 3rd-and-manageable. He's picked up a first down on 10 of his 14 attempts from that distance, with four of those 10 going for 15-plus yards.
Getting him into that situation will put a big onus on UCLA's rushing game, which might prove to be a problem. Against the four BCS teams on their schedule, the Bruins have averaged just 3.28 yards on 167 carries.
Still, though Oregon's defense has been strong against the run, it has been far more vulnerable on early downs than it has on third:
The Ducks' rush defense is always good, but it's especially good clamping down at the end of drives and a little more lax at the start. That bodes well for the Bruins.
If UCLA can win those early ground battles—or if Hundley can complete quick passes as an extension of the running game—it can set itself up for manageable third downs, convert them through the air and keep Oregon's offense off the field.
Not only does Hundley thrive on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6, but Oregon's pass defense has struggled to defend quarterbacks inside that range:
|3rd Down, 1-3 To Go||7-10||70.0||33||1||77.72|
|3rd Down, 4-6 To Go||16-29||55.2||168||0||115.21|
|3rd Down, 7-9 To Go||8-25||32.0||62||3||42.03|
|3rd Down, 10+ To Go||10-23||43.5||82||1||79.08|
Hundley's sweet spot aligns perfectly with Oregon's defensive weak spot. If UCLA can consistently put itself in these situations, it stands a legitimate chance of pulling off the upset in Eugene.
And not unlike Johnny Manziel in Tuscaloosa last year, a win in Autzen could send Hundley skyrocketing past Mariota and up toward the top of the Heisman leaderboard.
Hundley will need to play great if UCLA wants to win, and his personal stock would rise the most if the Bruins come out on top. But he's not the one tasked with physically stopping Mariota.
By that token, the threat posed to Mariota's Heisman hopes isn't just Hundley converting third downs—it's UCLA's defense. The Bruins have allowed just 4.64 yards per play this season, tied with Florida for 10th in the nation and 15 spots higher than any other team Oregon has played.
Mariota's Heisman chances and Oregon's BCS title chances both went down the drain against Stanford last year, when the Cardinal held the Ducks to season-lows in points (14) and yards per play (5.26). It was not the first time an Oregon team has been undone by one bad week.
UCLA's defense has the bodies—especially on the front seven—to do some of the things Stanford did to this offense, and if it can keep Mariota in relative check, it can keep this game close throughout. No one is good enough to stop the Ducks' offense, but the Bruins might be able to contain it.
What Will be the Outcome on Saturday?
Oregon fans will argue that "this team is different," and it's given us no reason to think otherwise. But those same fans argued that last year's team was different before it lost to Stanford, and so on throughout Oregon's whole modern renaissance.
Until the Ducks prove they can go an entire season without a letdown or two, it won't matter how good they look in 40-point victories. It's been consistency, not talent, that's kept this team from winning a national championship.
Hundley is the best offensive player Oregon will face this year, and Barr is likely the best defender. Stanford has had the Ducks' number in recent years, but as far as personnel is concerned, this is their biggest challenge.
I'm not ballsy enough to call the upset, and if I had to bet, my money would still be on Oregon to win the game and Mariota to win the Heisman.
But the reverse of those outcomes would not be a shock.