Marcus Mariota's surprising return for a third season at Oregon makes the Ducks immediate national championship contenders, and the stat-sheet stuffing quarterback a front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy.
There are factors impacting both Oregon's championship pursuit and Mariota's Heisman candidacy that are out of his control: The College Football Playoff selection process, voter biases and the statistics of other players.
But Mariota does have control over one very key facet of both his individual and the team's success—the ball.
In what was an otherwise Superman season for the Ducks' sensational redshirt sophomore, fumbles were at times Mariota's kryptonite.
One in particular loomed large. Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley stripped Mariota near the goal line in the third quarter of Oregon's 26-20 loss to the Cardinal. It was the Ducks' second red-zone turnover and a seminal moment in the season as the defeat contributed to Oregon losing the Pac-12 North, ending four years of BCS bowl appearances.
"Just finish those drives and minimally—kicked the field goal or whatever, the field goal and
touchdown—it's a completely different game," Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said following the loss, per GoStanford.com.
A completely different game equates to a much different end to the season for the Ducks. With an unbeaten record still in tact heading to Arizona two weeks later, Oregon is still pursuing a BCS Championship Game appearance. Even with a loss there, the Ducks are still Rose Bowl-bound—and with his incredible individual statistics, Mariota is likely headed to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
The Stanford game is also notable for Mariota battling through a knee injury—health is one of those factors on the Ducks' 2014 outlook ultimately out of Mariota's control—and even while slowed down, he threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Still, fumbles were an issue for the Oregon quarterback prior to the left-knee injury that plagued him in the regular season's final month.
Washington State parlayed Mariota's two first-half fumbles into 14 points, including an Xavier Cooper scoop-and-score that brought the Cougars to within six points in the second quarter.
The giveaways against Washington State and Stanford were also the only fumbles Mariota lost all season. But he also lived dangerously. His 11 total fumbles were second most only to Auburn's Nick Marshall.
Simple as it may seem, Mariota's assessment is at the foundation of Oregon's offensive prowess. The Ducks don't maintain possession long—they've ranked at or near the bottom of time of possession nearly every year since adopting the hurry-up spread offense.
Cashing in possessions for points quickly is central to Oregon's game plan. An opponent holding the ball for long drives then works in the Ducks' favor, as the opposition is taking as long to score once as Oregon takes to score two or three times.
Dominating the turnover battle then becomes critical. A positive turnover has fueled Oregon's mighty offensive engine every year since 2010. The Ducks were on the positive side of the average turnover margin all four seasons, and were No. 1 in the nation during Mariota's redshirt freshman campaign.
Mariota certainly did his part to keep the turnover margin on the plus-side for the Ducks last season, throwing just four interceptions in 386 pass attempts. All four interceptions came after Mariota suffered his knee injury.
When Oregon loses the turnover battle, its strategy backfires. The defeats at Stanford and Arizona are evidence, as the Cardinal and Wildcats were gained two and three more takeaways than the Ducks then sat on the ball for 42:34 and 35:29.
Not everything in Oregon's 2014 will be in Mariota's control. If he controls the ball, particularly in the Ducks' big games, those factors he doesn't become much more manageable.