Oregon Ducks (11-1) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (11-1)
Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET, Glendale, Ariz. (ESPN)
Oregon take by Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon began the season as the perceived second fiddle to USC. It finished as the second fiddle to Stanford, after the Cardinal handed the Ducks their only defeat, a 17-14 overtime loss. Still, another top-five ranking and a fourth consecutive BCS bowl game makes it difficult to call the season less than a success.
The big question entering the season was replacing quarterback Darron Thomas, who made an ill-fated decision to leave early for the NFL draft. One of the theories on why Thomas left early was that his two backups were better than him. Well, based on the way redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota played, it's easy to see why Thomas might have thought that.
Mariota ranked sixth in the nation in passing efficiency this season, with 30 TD passes and just six interceptions. He completed 70 percent of his throws. He also rushed for 690 yards and four touchdowns. So quarterback questions were answered emphatically.
The Ducks blew through an easy early schedule. There was no marquee nonconference matchup to provide a test, and the early Pac-12 foes didn't offer much resistance, either. Arizona was supposed to offer a challenge, but it went down 49-0. Same with Washington (59-21) and Arizona State (43-21). The Nov. 3 game with USC was supposed to be a marquee showdown, but the Trojans didn't cooperate, arriving at the game with two losses, including a defeat the weekend before at Arizona. The Ducks rolled past the Trojans 62-51, despite numerous injuries on defense.
The dominance against solid, if non-elite foes, made Ducks look like a national title contender. By Week 12, they were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings behind Kansas State. That looked like the potential national title matchup. But things changed for both.
After dusting California, the Ducks played host to Stanford, a team they had dominated the previous two seasons. Yet the Cardinal found its mojo on defense and shut down Chip Kelly's offense like few had before. Even with an impressive 48-24 win at Oregon State the next weekend, the Ducks couldn't get into the Pac-12 title game, because Stanford won the North, due to the head-to-head victory.
This Oregon team is strong on both sides of the ball. The defense faltered a bit late because of injuries, but it should be fairly healthy after a few weeks of rest.
The final question for Oregon fans heading into the bowl game: Will this be Kelly's last game leading the program? Many have already projected he will take an NFL job this offseason.
Kansas State take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: Kansas State can celebrate its first Big 12 title since 2003 with a trip to Glendale, Ariz., for the Fiesta Bowl, the Big 12’s traditional tie-in for its champion. The Wildcats’ loss to Baylor in their 11th game of the season kept them out of the national title game, but they rebounded to beat Texas in the finale and earn the Big 12’s automatic BCS bid, and face Oregon.
Just like he’s done so many times this season, the focus for Bill Snyder and his Wildcats will be slowing down an offense that loves to move fast, fast, fast. Even the fastest Big 12 teams might not move as quickly as Oregon, which has the nation’s fastest running backs and an offense that prides itself on pace. Kansas State’s offense is plenty effective, but will take its time at the line of scrimmage. Heisman candidate Collin Klein will face a worthy adversary in Oregon freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, who received a little bit of Heisman hype himself. However, Kansas State’s defense, led by speedy, sure-tackling linebacker Arthur Brown, will try to contain Oregon’s duo of Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, who also spent some time on Heisman watch lists during the season. Expect two potent, but different, running games to go head to head. Whoever wins the line of scrimmage will win this one, but Kansas State will try to get back to its efficient self. The Wildcats lead the nation in turnover margin and starting field position, and they have committed the third-fewest penalties in FBS games, with just 42 in 10 games. That’s a recipe for success, and it’s exactly how the Wildcats won the Big 12 title and reached their first BCS game since 2003, the last time it won the league.
Like Oklahoma State last season, Kansas State successfully bounced back after a painful upset loss on the road ruined hopes of a national title and a Heisman Trophy. Can the Wildcats beat a solid Pac-12 opponent in Oregon like Oklahoma State did with Stanford a year ago?
This wasn’t the ending to the season Kansas State would have liked after reaching 10-0, but with a month between games, it’ll realize by then that reaching this point is no small accomplishment, and winning this game will be important in improving the way this season is remembered. Kansas State won the Fiesta Bowl back in 1997, but lost in 2003. Can this be another BCS notch on the belt of the Cats’ legendary coach?