A top-four ranking in the college football preseason polls means precious little to Oregon. But a top-four ranking in the final College Football Playoff standings on Dec. 7 would mean everything.

To avoid being left out of the inaugural four-team playoff, the Ducks will have to survive a schedule that includes key games against Michigan State (Sept. 6), at UCLA (Oct. 11) and at home against nemesis Stanford (Nov. 1).

“As soon as we lose one game, then everything is up for debate,” says Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “And that’s fine. As long as our guys trust our process, everything else takes care of itself.”

Oregon opens the season against South Dakota at Autzen Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Helfrich calls the new playoff “a little bit better” than its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series. But he notes that “now (Nos.) 5 and 6 are going to be mad.”

After finishing 11-2 last year — with late-season losses to Stanford and Arizona — and winning the Alamo Bowl, Oregon has been picked by media to win the Pac-12 this season.

While the Pac-12 appears to be one of the most competitive conferences in the country, it is also the only one of the five power conferences with both a nine-game league schedule and a conference championship game. The SEC, Big 10 and ACC all play an eight-game league schedule. The Big 12 plays a nine-game conference schedule but has no league championship game.

“It’s great for college football as far as the hype,” Helfrich says in offering an assessment of the new playoff. “I think we still have a ton of heavy lifting and heavy demolishing to do on the path to the playoff, making every conference’s path the same. Fair or unfair, it’s not the same.”

The Ducks will need the arm and legs of junior quarterback Marcus Mariota — whose knee injury was a factor in last year’s two losses — to run the gauntlet of the Pac-12 this season. In each of the past seven years, college football’s national champion has had a healthy starting quarterback for the entire season. Mariota set the school record for all-purpose yardage (4,380 yards) last season. So, what happens if the Ducks’ Heisman Trophy candidate gets injured?

“We don’t sit around having all these doomsday scenarios,” Helfrich says. “Do we plan for them? Absolutely. The best thing you can do is prepare the heck out of that next guy, just like he’s the No. 1 guy. How we practice and the number of reps those guys get, I think those guys get a lot more reps in our system than most others.”

Potential backups to Mariota include sophomore Jeff Lockie, redshirt freshman Taylor Alie and freshman Morgan Mahalak.

Mariota came into preseason camp earlier this month looking bigger and stronger than he was last year, which might help him avoid another injury.

“Being able to gain a little weight will help me in this college game and in the future as well,” Mariota says.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 219-pound quarterback credits much of his added bulk to longtime Ducks strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe, who implemented a weightlifting program to help Mariota add strength without losing his dynamic speed.

“It’s hard when you gain weight to maintain your speed, but Coach Rad and his staff, they do a great job of mixing both in,” says Mariota, who threw for 31 touchdowns last season and rushed for nine more.

He adds that another area of offseason emphasis was footwork in the pocket.

“If I have a good, solid base and I’m in the right body position, I’ll be a lot more accurate and a lot more consistent,” Mariota says. “That’s something I’ve really focused on.”

Mariota will again have two standout playmakers in the backfield in junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner. Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards last season, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Tyner ran for 711 yards, a school record for a true freshman.

Tyner says he and Marshall are close friends off the field.

“Me and Byron have a good relationship, and I think we work well together,” Tyner says. “Whenever one of us gets tired, send the other one in there.”

Says Helfrich: “Those two guys are really a lot more similar than they are different.”

With Mariota and the one-two punch at running back, Tyner predicts that 2014 could be something special.

“A lot of guys came back, and we have a great team bond going,” Tyner says. “We’re all excited.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com