The Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal can restructure the BCS standings after their major Pac-12 showdown.
Entering the Thursday night thriller, No. 3 Oregon needs to impress the voters and computers enough to leapfrog Florida State for the No. 2 spot. The team can warm onlookers' hearts by beating No. 5 Stanford, who would claim first place in the conference's North Division with a victory.
Stanford has dashed Oregon's title hopes before, snatching a 17-14 overtime victory late last year to thwart Oregon's perfect season. Could it happen again?
With so much on the line, here are some storylines that will shape the clash's outcome.
Where: Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.
When: Thursday, Nov. 7, at 9 p.m. ET
Oregon's Offense or Stanford's Defense?
Oregon thrives with an explosive defense. Stanford rides a gritty, hard-nosed defense to victory. Something has to give between this battle of strengths.
Stopping an offense that averages 55.6 points per game is no easy task. Marcus Mariota leads the way with 2,281 passing yards, 511 rushing yards, 29 total touchdowns and zero interceptions, which screams Heisman.
But it's happened before. Last season, Oregon's lowest point tally was 42 before Stanford held them to just 14 points. Oregon's lowest point total so far? Yep, 42.
A coincidence doesn't ensure the same result, but Stanford has limited its opponents to 19.4 points per game.
Running back De'Anthony Thomas, whose lightning speed has led him to garner 7.1 yards per carry, is not worried about suffering a letdown against Stanford's defense. In a video from GoDucks.com, he said, "I feel like this team, we should put up at least 40."
He especially should exhibit a little anxiety as Stanford has relinquished a mere 3.3 yards per carry. Against the pass, however, opponents have completed 63.7 percent of their passes for 250.1 yards per game.
Can Tyler Gaffney Dominate the Running Game?
The key clog in Stanford's offense, Tyler Gaffney, has registered 886 rushing yards and 12 scores this season. Another big game from the senior is a must for Stanford to notch a victory on its home soil.
Gaffney has endured a heavy workload for the Cardinal, averaging 23.5 carries over his past four games. Stanford utilized an extreme dose of him against UCLA, handing him the ball 36 times for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
But while the all the praise is bestowed on Stanford's defense, Oregon is also adept at stopping the run. Opponents average just 3.4 yards per carry against the Ducks, who have allowed six rushing touchdowns this season.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan has not thrown more than 27 passes in a game this season, so Stanford has relied on Gaffney to carry the offensive burden. If Gaffney can't maneuver his way past the Ducks' front seven, Hogan could have a rough time inserted into the unfamiliar task of playing hero.
Gaffney must extend his streak of 100-yard rushing games to four to keep this game interesting.
Will Special Teams Ruin the Evening?
Looking at last year's box score, the teams played evenly throughout. Oregon actually won the turnover battle, which often settles such stalemates, but a missed field goal debilitated the Ducks in overtime.
Alejandro Maldonado whiffed on a 41-yard field-goal attempt in overtime, allowing Stanford to seal the deal with three points of its own. When two top teams square off, the little things can make all the difference in the world.
Oregon's offense has annihilated defenses so much that it has made little use of kickers other than for extra points. Maldonado has attempted five field goals this year, converting three, while junior Eric Solis has made three of four attempts.
We often don't consider special teams before a game, but they frequently occupy our thoughts after the final whistle. If not for the missed field goal, Oregon may have been able to preserve its unblemished record in double overtime.
Let's hope this game does not end on something as trivial as a missed field goal.
Prediction: Oregon 37, Stanford 23
Oregon will fall just shy of Thomas' prophecy, but it will be more than enough to slay Stanford.
More experienced than last year, Mariota will confound the Cardinal defense and avenge last year's poor performance. Gaffney will earn some gains on the ground, but not enough as the passing game falters under the Thursday night lights.
Once again, the Ducks will do everything in their power to prove they belong in the BCS National Championship. Let's see if it's enough.
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