Preview: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12

This is it – the biggest game of the season, maybe the biggest in program history. Since the end of last season, Tomorrow's Stanford versus Oregon matchup has been penciled in as the Pac-12 game of the year and rightfully so. The winner will be in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 North, with an excellent chance to go to the Rose Bowl – or more.

Meanwhile, the loser's BCS hopes will suffer a body blow that will surely be difficult to overcome. There are high stakes for both the Ducks and the Cardinal in this one, with every eye of the national media squarely on Palo Alto for the first time anyone can remember.

The Bootleg has you covered from every angle for Saturday's matchup. Read on for the biggest storylines entering this game, and check back on the forums on Saturday, where I'll post a report from the set of ESPN's College GameDay in the morning and recaps at the end of each quarter during the game.

Last time out: Both teams enter this game riding long winning streaks. The Cardinal has not lost this season, bringing a 9-0 record and a 7-0 Pac-12 record into Saturday's game, while Oregon sits at 8-1 and 6-0 in conference. The Ducks have not lost since their first game against LSU, and have won 18 straight conference games. The Cardinal has won its last 17 games—however, its most recent loss came against Oregon in Eugene last season. Last week, Stanford defeated Oregon State, 38-13, while Oregon cruised over Washington, 34-17.

Home sweet home: Home-field advantage has meant everything in the last two matchups between these teams. In 2009, Stanford upset No. 7 Oregon 51-42 at Stanford Stadium, but the Ducks got their vengeance in 2010 when they handed the Cardinal its only loss of the season, 52-31, at Autzen Stadium. This season's contest sold out quickly, and a raucous Stanford crowd could make an impact. Even if Card fans live down to their reputation as the most reserved in the conference (which I don't think they will, but that's just one guy's opinion), the absence of Autzen's formidable 12th man deprives the Ducks of an important advantage they had last year.

Injury issues plague Stanford: Every team has injury issues, but it feels like the Card have been especially hard hit over the last few weeks, with key playmakers gone on both sides of the ball. On offense, tight end Zach Ertz and top wide receiver Chris Owusu are out with a leg injury and a concussion respectively. Offensive tackle Cameron Flemming is listed as a game-time decision, but there is a good chance he will be unable to play as well. Tight end Levine Toilolo was also banged up last week against Oregon State, but the coaching staff has indicated that he will play. The news is a bit better on the defensive side, with safety Delano Howell back in action, but the early-season loss of Shayne Skov still hurts. Special teams units haven't been immune from the injury bug, either, with starting kicker Jordan Williamson questionable for the game.

Defense needs to bring A-game: Stanford's defense hasn't seemed quite right since kickoff of the team's triple-overtime win at USC two weeks ago. The Trojans consistently beat the Cardinal secondary, and the Ducks have the level of talent required to exploit the gaps that USC exposed. Earlier in the week, linebacker A.J. Tarpley highlighted inconsistency as the defense's biggest problem, and I largely agree. Oregon will exploit any lapses for big plays.
The most significant problem area for Stanford has been its secondary, which routinely got burned by USC's Robert Woods and Marqise Lee two weeks ago. In general, the play of the unit has not inspired much confidence—though Howell's return will help, it doesn't change the fact that Stanford's cornerbacks appear to have lost their ability to deflect passes and make tackles.

Wanted: a capable receiver: I will be pretty surprised if this game isn't a high-scoring shootout, which puts the pressure on Andrew Luck and his offense to deliver every time they have the ball. Even without Flemming on the offensive line, Stanford should be able to run the ball effectively—its four-deep stable of backs will keep the Oregon defense on its toes while churning out yards in the Card's trademark power running style. However, unfortunately for the Cardinal, Luck will be missing two of his most capable targets in Ertz and Owusu, and those losses come from a receiving corps that was already pretty thin. Though Luck will still have two excellent tight ends in Toilolo and Coby Fleener, the Cardinal's top two wideouts right now are Griff Whalen and true freshman Ty Montgomery. If your best wide receiver is an undersized former walk-on and your second best is a true freshman, then you have serious problems.

Postseason postulations: Though I normally reserve wild speculation about BCS rankings and possible bowl destinations for my postgame reports, I can't help but indulge in it a little bit here. As far as the Pac-12 title is concerned, the implications are fairly straightforward: the winner of this game will host the Pac-12 championship game. Given the poor quality of the competition in the South, either the Ducks or the Cardinal should not have too difficult a time earning the Pac-12's Rose Bowl berth. Should Stanford emerge victorious, it would retain a very good chance at earning a berth in the BCS title game. The picture for this game's loser is a little more muddled. A one-loss Stanford could earn an at-large BCS berth for the second straight year, but could also end up in the Alamo or Holiday Bowl, while a loss for Oregon would greatly diminish any chance the Ducks had of winding up in a BCS bowl.

Prediction: Stanford and Oregon are a study in contrasts—Stanford's pro-style offense and power-running mentality is the polar opposite of Oregon's spread system and insane speed. Both teams have powerful offenses and middling defenses, a recipe for a high-scoring game that will go down to the wire. The bottom line is that Stanford is too banged up and its defense a step too slow to keep up with the Ducks, no matter how many times the Cardinal lines up in power formation and tries to run it down Oregon's throat. To put it simply, speed kills—right now, Oregon has it and Stanford simply doesn't.

Final score: Oregon 52, Stanford 45

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