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JASON SAYS/JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/11-2 Ducks a couple close losses from playoffs

COURTESY PHOTO: SERENA MORONES - Justin Herbert and the Ducks saw their path to the College Football Playoff blocked by narrow loss to Auburn and Arizona StateOh, what could have been?

The Oregon Ducks blasted Utah 37-15 in the Pac-12 championship game, finished No. 6 in the final College Football Playoff poll and earned the right to play No. 8 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.

Because of the way they played, the Ducks and their fans naturally will be asking the question — "What could have been?"

What if Auburn doesn't complete the stunning Bo Nix-to-Seth Williams game-winning touchdown pass against Verone McKinley III's single coverage in the Tigers' 27-21 season-opening win against the Ducks?

What if QB Justin Herbert doesn't throw two crucial interceptions against Arizona State? What if cornerback Deommodore Lenoir doesn't bite on Brandon Aiyuk's double move on a crushing 81-yard touchdown play that sealed ASU's 31-28 upset?

Big picture-wise, what if the Ducks don't lose star tight end Jacob Breeland and freshman receiver Mycah Pittman to injuries and had them against ASU?

Well, if we're going there, let's also consider:

What if Wisconsin doesn't give up a 21-7 halftime lead to Ohio State, and pulls off the upset rather than lose 34-21 in the Big Ten title game? The Badgers would have had a legitimate argument to be in the CFP.

What if Baylor doesn't lose a 28-3 lead in losing to Oklahoma in the regular season, and then doesn't lose its quarterback to a concussion in the overtime Big 12 title game loss against Oklahoma?

What if Alabama doesn't lose quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to injury and, thus, loses to Auburn in the season finale and misses the CFP for the first time?

And, what if officials call pass interference on UO's Mykael Wright as Washington was driving for winning points against the Ducks? What if Camden Lewis, who struggled for the most part kicking field goals, misses his game-winning 26-yarder against Washington State after the (now 6-6) Cougars had rallied to lead with about a minute left at Autzen Stadium?

So, rather than consider "What could have been?," let's appreciate what is: Coach Mario Cristobal's Ducks proved themselves to be one of the country's top 10 teams, Herbert scored his signature win (moving to 28-13 as a starter) and the program could claim mission accomplished in its rebuild after falling down to 4-8 in 2016 — although a Rose Bowl victory would cap it all.

What a Pac-12 title game it was; not many, if any, prognosticators gave the Ducks a chance against Utah (uh, except this one).

Herbert had a hot start and completed back-breaking long passes in going 14 of 26 for 193 yards and a touchdown, while also picking up key yardage on zone-read rushing plays. Powered by his offensive line, CJ Verdell rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including a 70-yard fourth-quarter TD scamper that sealed the win. The UO offense had more yardage (263) and points (20) at halftime than Utah averaged giving up per game.

"Quite frankly, I think maybe the guys all week long got a little bit tired of hearing we weren't the more physical team," Cristobal said. "It gives you a little bit of an edge."

Defensively, the Ducks were too quick and fast and physical for Utah, whose star QB Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss managed to help score 15 third-quarter points but nothing else. Three times the Ducks stopped the Utes on fourth-and-short situations. Freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (2 1/2 sacks, blocked punt) and safety Brady Breeze (nine tackles, interception, survived possible targeting penalty ejection) played great games.

"It was off the charts (suffocating)," Cristobal said of UO defense, which "just committed to being a dominant force."

Said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: "For the first time the entire season, we didn't win the line of scrimmage."

I picked the Ducks for some basic reasons: The Ducks had a fast and physical team and a QB with something to prove; Oregon had beaten USC by 32 points, and the Trojans had beaten Utah on same L.A. field; Herbert and the run game had success against Utes in the past, including last season; and the North Division champ had been 7-1 against the South champ (now 8-1).

But, one thing to also consider: The Ducks basically had the North wrapped up with three games left, by Nov. 2, after its 56-24 win at USC. Cristobal and assistants — and players, really — could start considering Utah as their Pac-12 title game opponent. Everybody forecast the matchup. Although they wouldn't admit it, I'm convinced that a segment of the UO coaching staff worked on Utah game prep throughout November. The Ducks were prepared for Utah, and it was a beatdown.

So, now it's on to the Rose Bowl.

"It's as big as it gets in college football ...," Cristobal said about the Rose Bowl, where his Ducks (11-2) take on the Badgers (10-3) of the Big Ten Conference, "and it's an opportunity to play against a storied program like Wisconsin."

The Badgers dominated Ohio State early in the Big Ten title game, but the Buckeyes rallied in the second half to win 34-21 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin landed in the Rose Bowl, and it'll be a rematch for the programs of the entertaining and competitive January 2012 Rose Bowl that Oregon won 45-38.

The teams have totally changed since then, obviously, as the Ducks feature Herbert, a very good offensive line, linebacker Troy Dye and the defense. (In the 2012 game, UO stars were LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas and Kiko Alonso, and the Ducks were coached by Chip Kelly).

The Badgers are led by quarterback Jack Coan, star running back Jonathan Taylor, a big offensive line (per usual for Wisconsin) and a good defense. It's a team a bit like Utah, actually. (The 2012 Badgers featured Russell Wilson — yes, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback — and running back Montee Ball, both coached by Paul Chryst, now the head coach, who served as offensive coordinator for Bret Bielema).

Coan won't remind many of Wilson, but he has 17 TD passes and only four interceptions, while completing 70.1% of his passes for 195.5 yards per game, and he rushed for two TDs in the Big Ten title game. Quintez Cephus leads receivers with 52 receptions for 842 yards and six TDs. But, truth is, it's mostly about Taylor in the Wisconsin offense, as the junior has rushed for 1,909 yards (6.4 per carry) and 21 TDs, and added five TDs on receptions.

The 5-11, 215-pound Taylor has rushing seasons of 1,977, 2,194 and 1,909 yards — 6,080 yards with 50 touchdowns. He has announced intention to play in the Rose Bowl rather than skip it and train for the NFL Draft.

Defense has been a strength, allowing 16.1 points and 293.5 yards — similar numbers to Oregon's.

"Talented, physical, disciplined, tough, a well-coached football team — we have a great deal of respect for them," Cristobal said. "Extremely impressed with the entire operation."

Chryst moved on from his second stint as offensive coordinator at Oregon State to become Wisconsin offensive coordinator in 2005, and then became head coach at Pittsburgh (19-20 record, 2012-14). He returned to Wisconsin as head coach in 2015, replacing Gary Andersen (who would become Oregon State head coach and then ex-head coach).

He has notched records of 10-3, 11-3, 13-1, 8-5 and now 10-3. He's 4-0 in bowl games. The 2017 team finished 13-1 after beating Miami in the Orange Bowl.

"We're obviously excited and appreciative of the opportunity. We have a group that's never been there (to the Rose Bowl), and it'll be an awesome experience for them and to play against a really good Oregon team. It's what you hope for and dream for," Chryst said.

Well, the Badgers had still fostered hopes of a CFP appearance, had they won the Big Ten. A midseason one-point loss to Illinois, which went 6-6, derailed early playoff hopes, and the loss was followed by a regular-season thumping by Ohio State.

Chryst envisions a physical contest with both teams possessing strong offensive lines and good defenses.

"We know we're going to be tested," he said. "For us to play well, both lines have to be physical and have to play well. That's easier said than done when you go up against a really good football team like Oregon."

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