AMES — The winner of the Pac-12 Conference championship game automatically qualified for the Fiesta Bowl, which will be Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.
No. 25 Oregon (4-2), which will play No. 10 Iowa State (8-3) at State Farm Stadium, is that unlikely champion.
Here are five things to know about the Ducks.
1. How Oregon won the Pac-12 championship
The Ducks finished the season with a 4-2 record and tied for second in the Pac-12 North.
Because Washington, the team that finished first in the North, had COVID-19 issues and because Oregon had the tiebreaker over Stanford, Oregon was able to play in the Pac-12 title game.
The Ducks beat USC, 31-24, to win their second straight conference championship.
Oregon became just the third two-loss team to win the conference title. The Ducks’ losses during the regular season were to Oregon State, which finished 2-5, and Cal, which finished 1-3.
2. Oregon’s 2020 opt-outs
Athletes from every sport during the pandemic elected to opt out of their respective sport.
Oregon football originally had six players opt out of the 2020 season, but after the Pac-12 announced its return-to-play plan, two of them opted back in.
Still, four key Oregon players decided to forgo this season.
Potentially the most impactful among them is offensive tackle Penei Sewell.
Sewell has been a projected top-10 NFL draft pick since the last draft ended. He’s the consensus No. 1 prospect at offensive tackle and is missed along the offensive line. Oregon has given up eight sacks in six games.
As impactful as Sewell is, the combination of the other three could be more impactful.
Oregon had its three most productive defensive backs opt out of the 2020 season.
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Cornerback Thomas Graham was third on the team in tackles last season and was second in pass breakups. Fellow cornerback Jevon Holland was second on the team in tackles in 2019 and led the Ducks with four interceptions. Safety Brady Breeze was fourth on the team in tackles last season and led Oregon with four fumble recoveries.
Oregon’s pass defense ranked ninth in the Pac-12 this year, giving up 250 yards per game through the air without Graham, Holland and Breeze.
3. The Nike school
Many schools are Nike schools.
According to a 2017 study by Samford, Nike sponsors 79 of the 128 FBS programs.
But only one school is the Nike school. And that’s Oregon.
Oregon graduate Phil Knight was a co-founder of Nike and was the company’s CEO until 2004.
Oregon and Nike struck an $88 million deal over 11 years, which averages to $8 million per year.
For comparison’s sake, Alabama gets $5.25 million annually from Nike, Iowa gets $1.85 million and Iowa State gets $1.76 million.
4. Coach Mario Cristobal
Oregon had established itself as a West Coast power over the last two decades. In 2012, when Chip Kelly left Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ducks began to descend into mediocrity.
Oregon went just 11-13 in two seasons under two different coaches before Mario Cristobal was hired in 2017.
In the last two seasons under Cristobal’s leadership, Oregon has gone a combined 16-4, making the Rose Bowl in 2019 and the Fiesta Bowl this season.
5. Oregon’s Australian influence
Australian punters are beginning to become the norm in college football.
Oregon’s punter, Tom Snee, is one of the many who are a part of the growing trend of Aussie Rules Football players becoming American football punters.
Snee averages 43 yards per punt and 10 of his 22 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.