Rose Bowl preview: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State
While famed Paul Finebaum Show caller Phyllis from Mulga, Alabama, may have loved the BCS for the favorable light the computers shed on the SEC, the vast majority of people got what they wanted with the dawn of the College Football Playoff. Some are clamoring for more teams (point taken, Troy Calhoun), but four is two times better than two, and the Jan. 1 semifinal lineup of games could go down as one of the best days in college football history.
The Pac-12 is getting in on the CFP fun by way of Oregon securing the No. 2 seed. Standing in the Ducks’ way of getting to Jerry World is the only undefeated team in the nation, No. 3 Florida State. The last two Heisman Trophy winners, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Florida State signal-caller Jameis Winston, will take center stage at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (2 p.m. PT, ESPN) for what should be a doozy. Winner gets either No. 1 ‘Bama or THE Ohio State University (No. 4) in the national championship game.
Season in Review: Oregon (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12, Pac-12 champions, No. 2 CFP)
The Ducks won the biggest non-conference game of the season by taking down Michigan State 46-27 in Week 2, but the road quickly got bumpier. First, there was the 38-31 win over Washington State that was helped along by a pass interference that wasn’t flagged. Then there was the 31-24 loss to Arizona at home. Following the loss, some claimed that the Ducks had lost their mojo; they weren’t the same without Chip Kelly.
Slowly but surely, however, Oregon worked its way back to national prominence, first flying by UCLA at the Rose Bowl in its next game and later exorcising Cardinal demons in convincing fashion. Things may not have always appeared under control in the first half (if Utah's Kaelin Clay had just held on to the ball for one more yard…), but the Ducks always put the game out of reach in the second half. Starting off at No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, the Ducks ascended to a top four spot and settled in at No. 2 for the final month of the season.
Having clinched the Pac-12 North in early November, the Ducks got another shot at Arizona in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game, where they got serious revenge with a 51-13 win in a game that wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score indicates.
With its College Football Playoff spot booked, it was time for the man who made the offense tick to collect some hardware. With the Unitas Golden Arm, Davey O’Brien, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards already in tow, quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, becoming the first Duck to win the award. He was so great this year even Oregon State took out an ad in The Oregonian to congratulate him.
Season in Review: Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC, ACC champions, No. 3 CFP)
The Seminoles pretty much dominated everyone in the 2013 regular season en route to a thrilling BCS National Championship Game victory over Auburn, with the Auburn game being the only time an opponent came within single digits. With Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston a year older, many thought the Seminoles would be able to waltz through the September-November slate in a perceived down ACC again.
It didn’t take too long for the ‘Noles to face some on-field adversity, however, as an unranked Oklahoma State team hung toe-to-toe with Florida State in the season opener. It didn’t take long for the ‘Noles to face more off-the-field adversity, either, with Jameis Winston being suspended for the Clemson game after yelling an obscene phrase in the student union.
That Clemson game in September could have been the undoing of Florida State, but the ‘Noles found a way to pull that one out in overtime, just like they found a way to come back from multiple scores at NC State, Louisville and Miami (FL) and eke out close victories at home against Notre Dame (one of the best games of the regular season, a game in which they got a favorable call late), Boston College and Florida.
Florida State had arguably its stiffest test of the season on paper when it faced then-No. 11 Georgia Tech in the ACC championship. Yet again, the ‘Noles hung on at the end, defeating the triple-option-minded Yellow Jackets 37-35.
Sure, there’s something to be said for having to come from behind against teams like 7-5 NC State and 6-6 Miami (FL), but there’s also something to be said for a team that has won 29 games in a row and is 7-0 this season in games decided by six points or fewer. And, considering all the distractions the Seminoles have dealt with this year, the on-field results have to be respected.
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Three Players to Watch: Oregon
QB Marcus Mariota (3,783 yards, 38 TD)
This one almost feels too obvious to put in this section, but what the Heisman Trophy winner did this year was nothing short of spectacular: 53 total touchdowns (38 passing, 14 rushing, one receiving), 3,783 passing yards, 669 rushing yards and just 2 interceptions. If you’re looking for a bone to pick with Super Mariota, you could always point at him being “too nice” or that speeding ticket he got in November.
LT Jake Fisher
The man protecting Mariota’s blind side was out for the Arizona game with an injury, and boy was his presence missed. No. 8 was sacked five times and couldn’t spring a rush longer than seven yards all game long in the 31-24 loss. In the two games he missed against Washington State and Arizona, Oregon gave up 12 sacks (6.0 per game). In the other 11 games combined, Oregon allowed just 17 sacks (1.5 per game).
DB Dior Mathis/DB Chris Seisay
These two guys are the most likely to fill in for All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday and is out for the rest of the season. A three-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection, Ekpre-Olomu posted 63 tackles and two interceptions in 2014, with his pick against Michigan State being one of the best plays of the season in all of college football. Those are some major shoes to fill.
Three Players to Watch: Florida State
QB Jameis Winston (3,559 yards, 24 TD)
While he has been under serious scrutiny off the field for a few incidents, Jameis Winston wins football games on the field. His 2014 numbers (3,559 passing yards, 24 TDs, 17 INTs, 65 percent completion rate, 147 efficiency rating) aren’t nearly as good as his Heisman-winning 2013 totals (4,057 passing yards, 40 TDs, 10 INTs, 67 percent completion rate, 184.84 efficiency rating), but he comes through in the clutch every single time.
TE Nick O’Leary (614 yards, 6 TD)
A tight end is asked to block and be his quarterback’s safety net in the passing game, and O’Leary does both of these things very well. The 2014 John Mackey Award winner (nation’s most outstanding tight end) has barely more than half the receptions (47) of FSU’s leading receiver, Rashad Greene (93), and not even half the receiving yards (614) of Greene (1,306), but Winston consistently went to O’Leary when the going got tough and the Seminoles needed an answer.
PK Roberto Aguayo (25 FGM, LNG 53)
Simply put, this guy is automatic. A career 93.9 percent field-goal kicker, Aguayo has been especially important this year when his team has had to narrowly edge out so many opponents. The 2013 Lou Groza Award winner was denied a second-consecutive trophy for best kicker in the nation, but is still 25-27 on field goal attempts this year and a perfect 53-53 on PATs.
Three Stats for Oregon Success
- Keep on protecting Marcus: The Ducks’ offensive line has fared better after the Arizona loss in October, and has allowed just 14 sacks in the last eight games (1.75 per game) after allowing 15 sacks (3.0 per game) in the first five. Florida State isn’t the best at generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, either, as the Seminoles’ 1.31 sacks per game on the season rank 112th out of 125 FBS teams.
- Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways: It definitely helps that Super Mariota has only thrown two picks this year, but you have to give the defense some love (11 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries as a team) for helping the Ducks to a +17 turnover margin on the season, good for third in the nation. The Seminoles haven’t had nearly the amount of success in the turnover department, rocking a -3 on the season (their -0.23 margin per game is 82nd in the country).
- Continue to win fourth down on both sides of the ball: The Ducks have never been bashful about going for it. This year is no different: Oregon converted 16 of its 24 fourth-down attempts, a rate that is top-15 nationally. Conversely, Florida State is the only team in the nation that has not converted on fourth down all year (0-4).