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Oregon inches way back into playoff race

Oregon’s path to the College Football Playoff is starting to clear.

After Saturday’s impressive 45-20 victory over Washington, the Ducks moved up three spots in the Associated Press poll to No. 6.

Only four SEC teams (No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Mississippi, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn) and the defending national champion (No. 2 Florida State) are ranked higher as the release of the selection committee’s first rankings on Oct. 28 nears.

Marshall, 7-0 and ranked No. 23, is one of the four remaining unbeaten teams in FBS, along with the Mississippi schools (combined 13-0) and Jameis Winston’s Seminoles (7-0).

“It is tough,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of navigating the schedule without a loss. “College football is so exciting as a fan or for (the media) to follow … it has to be unbelievably, endlessly entertaining.”

The way the Ducks have bounced back from their Oct. 2 loss to Arizona, dominating UCLA at the Rose Bowl and systematically shellacking the Huskies for the 11th consecutive time, has the fan base once again entertaining thoughts about a Pac-12 championship.

Entering Friday’s game against California at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Oregon (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) is alone in first place in the North Division. Second-place Stanford (4-3, 2-2) visits Autzen Stadium on Nov. 1.

If Marcus Mariota (336 passing yards, two touchdowns vs. Washington) stays upright, and Royce Freeman (169 rushing yards, four touchdowns) keeps running over good defensive players and Don Pellum’s defense (held the Huskies to 317 yards) holds tough, the Ducks will remain in contention for the inaugural football final four.

“Last week I thought we turned a corner. I thought the line was more aggressive and let it rip,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said of the 42-30 win against the Bruins. “I think it carried over to this week. If we can continue to run the ball like that, we’re going to be hard to stop and we’ll have a chance in every game.”

Oregon averaged 3.5 yards per carry and finished with 144 rushing yards in the 31-24 loss to Arizona. Since left tackle Jake Fisher returned from injury, the Ducks have averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 238 yards per game in the wins against UCLA and Washington.

“I think they came in disappointed, frustrated and looked each other directly in the eye and said, ‘Let’s fix this together,’” Helfrich said of the response after the Wildcats upset Oregon for the second consecutive season. “The last couple weeks we’ve practiced with a little bit more of a grittier edge physically, competitively. That’s shown up on Saturday.”

Notre Dame dropped from No. 5 to No. 7 after losing Saturday at Florida State. Michigan State is No. 8 with Georgia and TCU rounding out the top 10.

The other Pac-12 teams in the AP poll this week are all from the South Division: No. 14 Arizona State, No. 15 Arizona, No. 19 Utah, No. 20 USC and No. 25 UCLA.

The Ducks moved up from No. 9 to No. 7 in the coaches poll, but are two spots behind No. 5 Michigan State, even though the Spartans lost 46-27 Sept. 6 to Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

As for the teams currently at the top:

Both Mississippi State and Auburn still have road games at Alabama and Mississippi.

Florida State doesn’t have another ranked team on the schedule, but the Seminoles play rivalry games against Miami and Florida in November.

Oregon is a 17-point favorite against Cal. The game is in the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium, which will also host the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5.

At halftime of the Ducks-Bruins game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said it didn’t appear there was a dominant team in the conference but the cream would rise to the top.

Oregon appears to be the cream the commissioner needs for the conference to be included in the College Football Playoff.

“What I feel good about, if we’ve got teams in the mix with comparable records, it’ll be easy to look anyone in the eye and say, no conference champion has had a tougher road than the Pac-12,” Scott said.