The first ever college football playoff game features an upstart West Coast program knocking on the door of the sport’s Pantheon and an erstwhile upstart from the powerful South-East that secured its own place in the Hall of Gods twenty years ago.
The University of Oregon has climbed steadily in prestige ever since its touchstone Pac-1o championship in 1994. Since then the Ducks have won BCS Rose Bowls, Fiesta Bowls, multiple individual awards, and lost a national championship game on a field goal kicked through the uprights as time expired.
This season the program added a Heisman Trophy winner—quarterback Marcus Mariota—to its annals, which is a laurel that nearly every great program can claim for its own.
The Ducks do not play in fertile fields of talent like Florida State University does, but they are on a coast that has plenty of its own and under a benefactor—Nike founder Phil Knight—who has made it his will to put the school on a par with the best teams in terms of facilities and perquisites for choosing to play football in Eugene.
Oregon has maximized its style and swagger to turn what should be—and was for about 100 years—a regional green-and-yellow curiosity into an innovative national powerhouse that often dazzles the spectators.
Florida State spent the 1980s doing what Oregon did during the 90s. The Seminoles won and won and charged year after year right to the gates of immortality only to be thwarted time and again. If it had not been for the State Championship gauntlet of the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes, the Noles might have won six or seven national championships under Bobby Bowden instead of the two they did take down.
During that time Seminole players began advancing to the NFL by the platoon. They won individual awards all over the field and racked up three Heisman Trophy winners, including this year’s quarterback and last year’s winner—Jameis Winston.
The Seminoles first national title came in 1993 when they beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. That team, by coincidence or not, was quarterbacked by the program’s first Heisman winner, Charlie Ward, as the Ducks are quarterbacked by their own first, Mariota.
The second title came in 1999 when the Seminoles crushed Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. FSU played for the title again in 1996, 1998 and 2000. The school won its third championship last year, beating Auburn to close out the BCS-era and complete a perfect 14-0 season.
Florida State’s program never has been truly down—not like the rest of college football knows down. That fact is perfectly illustrated in noting that Florida State played in the first ever BCS National Championship game in 1998—(losing to Tennessee)—won the final BCS National Championship last year—and now will play in the first ever College Football Playoff—(outcome yet to be determined).
But any history extending beyond the current players means nothing in college football.
And throwing all that aside, from a handicapper’s perspective, this game appears likely to be a classic. It certainly will be a clash of styles, which makes for a compelling battle, and a game decided by elite athletes guided by superb coaching systems, and coaches.
Much of this group at Florida State—including Winston—is riding the crest of a 27 game winning streak. The corps of it—this year’s team—is 13-0. These Seminoles have been absolute magic—impossible to beat—no matter how ugly the critics thought it was.
Their quarterback is greatness. Last year, while easily winning the Heisman, Winston carried a 184.8 quarterback rating and threw 40 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. Mariota this season, for comparison, has been a nose better, with a 186.3 rating and 38 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
This year, while losing running backs, linemen and wide receivers to the NFL, Winston has thrown 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. But he always has been there to answer the bell when the Noles have needed a big play to win the game. That talent for winning—the only thing that matters—has become an indelible hallmark of the Seminoles behind Winston.
"Perseverance has been a big thing in our game, and the will to win is more important than anything," said Winston during one of the Rose Bowl’s media days. "We go into a game wanting to win and not hoping not to lose. This team is special. We've got a ton of competitors and a ton of guys that enjoy winning, and I think when you have guys that enjoy winning and cherish winning, you do anything to keep that alive."
Dalvin Cook, FSU’s star freshman running back, is an echo of another great Noles’ runner named Amp Lee. Cook has that slippery elusiveness and the potential to score on every carry that Lee had for Florida State. Cook’s agility, power and speed at 6-feet and 200 pounds make him one of college football’s brilliant young backs.
Winston thinks Cook would be as productive as one of the country’s best backs if Florida State used him the way the Wisconsin Badgers used their backfield.
"Delvin Cook is tremendous," said Winston. "We get that guy the ball 40 times a game, he’d have Melvin Gordon numbers."
Over the final two games with Karlos Williams hurt, Cook went for 160 yards per game and 8.8 yards per carry outside the tackles. He could hurt Oregon badly if the Ducks cannot put up an effective, and resilient, blockade while making sure tackles.
Losing receivers like Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw has limited Winston’s production this year. He has locked-in on two real targets: senior stalwarts Rashad Greene and Nick O’Leary.
Greene, the wide receiver, plays with unlimited heart alongside a lot of athletic ability. Greene revels in crushing an opponent with a big play at the critical moment. O’Leary, the tight end, has wonderful hands, is a consistent workhorse player, and goes downfield like a steamroller.
Those two with Winston, Cook and likely Williams returning to play from a concussion, can be an absolutely devastating unit if allowed to roam the field unencumbered.
Winston has also effectively targeted freshman receivers Travis Rudolph and sophomore Jesus Wilson. If the primary options are covered, Winston—with his outstanding pocket presence and throwing accuracy—will check down to either man, who both are athletic enough to carry off big plays. Combined, Wilson and Rudolph are responsible for 10 of Winston’s 24 touchdown passes.
Running out of their traditional pro-set offense, the Seminoles will try to dominate the clock, allowing Oregon’s offense back on the field only after scoring points. Florida State knows it probably will need to put at least 40 on the board to win the game.
For the season the Seminoles have averaged 35 points per game, 11 fewer than Oregon’s 46, which is third best nationally behind TCU and Baylor.
The Ducks are going to turn loose their massive defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner on Winston.
Buckner, who stands 6 feet 7 inches and weighs 290 pounds, is like Mariota, a native Hawaiian. There is a menacing intensity to Buckner’s game.
Armstead, who missed two games due to injury, was a five star high school player who goes 6 foot 8 inches, 290 pounds. The nose tackle, a less active but important boulder anchored in the middle of the offense’s stream, is 6 foot 4 inch, 310 pound Alex Balducci.
Buckner and the defensive line this year have been given more freedom by coordinator Don Pellum to seek out targets and destroy them. Abandoning a two-gap strategy that allowed linebackers to harvest the glory, the Ducks have let their linemen get to the trough first and eat.
"I like to say we are first to the action," Buckner told the Oregonian. "Every play you get to hit someone, and that’s what the game is about."
Armstead and Buckner have combined for 6.5 sacks, 102 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and a multitude of quarterback hurries. Winston—who is a refined downfield passer and prefers to maneuver within the pocket to find throwing lanes—may be forced to contribute offensively by running with the ball, something he is capable of but does not often try.
The Ducks’ secondary suffered a major loss when three-time All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu injured his knee in practice and was ruled out for the playoff. Troy Hill, the opposite corner, is another strong player whose 16 pass breakups rank third nationally.
True freshman Chris Seisay is expected to start for Ekpre-Olomu. Senior safety Erick Dargan—the team’s MVP and one of the better safeties in the conference—said he believes in his young teammate going against the defending champs.
"Chris, he’s not running from the challenge," said Dargan. "We look forward to Chris making plays. I think Chris is gonna have the game of his life."
Seisay is expected to rotate at the corner opposite Hill with Dior Mathis, a senior, and Arrion Springs, another freshman. Reggie Daniels, a regular starter, plays the other safety.
The Ducks’ defense has been opportunistic this season. They take risks, but often those risks have paid off. Going into the game the Ducks’ turnover margin—a function of both offense and defense—is third nationally at plus-17. Dargan leads the team with six interceptions. The defense has intercepted five more passes for a total of 11, and recovered 14 fumbles.
Florida State, who has fallen behind often this season and won multiple games in the final moments, has been far less protective of the football. The Seminoles are 86th nationally in turnover margin at minus-3.
Turnovers likely will be a major factor in this game. Whether Florida State gives up the ball, or protects it, and whether Oregon remains consistent, or falters, will point toward the final resolution. Possessions, as they usually are, will be sold at a premium.
The Ducks are going to attack the Seminoles with a potent first year running back of their own.
Royce Freeman became the first freshman in school history to break 1,000 yards in a season, finishing with 1,299 on 5.6 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns.
Over the final six weeks, Freeman led the Pac-12 with 953 yards and 11 touchdowns, including 28 runs that went for more than 10 yards and more than 2.8 yards after first being hit. He is a big, tough, hard-to-tackle player, and might force Florida State to play with four defensive backs instead of a nickel or dime to protect against the Ducks’ lethal passing game.
In front of Freeman is quarterback Mariota, who is another assasin running out of an uptempo zone-read offense—similar to the one Auburn ran in last year’s title game that gave the Seminoles almost devastating trouble. Mariota kept the ball around nine times a game, averaged nearly six yards per carry and rushed for 14 touchdowns.
Oregon’s track star wide receiver Devon Allen, who is one of the fastest players in college football, told the college football writer Bruce Feldman that he beat Mariota by just two steps in the 100 yard dash.
That statement, if looked into, reveals a critical point about Mariota. He is less comfortable passing from the pocket than is Winston, who looks as good as Andrew Luck did at this stage of his career. Mariota likes to find his receiver early and fire the ball, or leak out and throw on the run. When he breaks containment from the pocket and cannot find a receiver, he tucks the ball down himself and accelerates quickly downfield with long sprinter’s strides.
The Seminoles defensive line, which, like a lot of teams from the south, is one of the toughest, nastiest parts of its team, will try to compress Mariota in a pincer action as opposed to blitzing the edges and chasing around the human equivalent of a gazelle.
Led by Mario Edwards, a big, superb athlete, and a solid rotation of at least four other heralded linemen—with whatever they feel comfortable sending of their linebacking unit—will attempt to force Mariota to set and reset his feet in the pocket before going downfield. The Seminoles do not want Mariota out on the edges with time to either throw or take off in a sprint.
Bud Eliot from Tomahawk Nation used an analogy from a future Hall of Fame NFL coach to explain the strategy.
"If you listen to Bill Belicheck talk at his camps, he says, ‘Make a team play left handed, take away what they do best.’"
That is definitely what Florida State will attempt to do against Mariota.
The defenses are amazingly even statistically, with Oregon ranking 29th and Florida State 30th in scoring defense at 22.5 and 23 points per game, respectively. Which team played against the more dynamic offensive opponents in their respective conferences is up for debate, though it would seem to be the Ducks in the Pac-12, by a slim margin.
Mariota and Oregon’s spread offense does not showcase the more traditional wide receiver playmaking that on offense like Florida State’s pro-style does. The Ducks leading receiver, both in receptions and yards, is running back Byron Marshall with 61 catches for 814 yards and five touchdowns.
On the other hand the spread is an apropos name for its function, which is spreading the ball around based on mismatches and blown assignments often caused by Oregon’s racing pace. Mariota has thrown multiple touchdown passes to seven different receivers.
Three wideouts, the aforementioned Allen, sophomore Dwayne Stanford and freshman Darren Carrington all have more than 500 yards and have combined for 15 touchdown catches. It is a young batch of receivers that Florida State’s physical corners and underneath linebackers will try to punish and intimidate into an off performance that compels Mariota to do more of the work himself.
The Ducks’ offense lost one of its top playmakers when tight end Pharaoh Brown blew out his knee in a grisly injury at Utah. Brown had 25 catches fro 420 yards—16.8 per catch—and six touchdowns when he went down. Since then Oregon has relied on the tight end far more for blocking than catching and looked to the wide receivers to make the downfield plays.
For Mariota, the Heisman winner, there is the dark voodoo to overcome that goes with the award.
Everything about that Holiday trip to New York City to receive the trophy is a climactic experience away from teammates, and it does something to the winner. Whether it is the pressure of knowing for certain that all eyes are on you as the country’s best player, or some other psychic interference that affects the performance, there have been many infamous let downs—especially from quarterbacks.
It was something that Winston this year chose to avoid, and it could make a critical difference in his preparation and state of mind for the game, which he understands.
I think it just was a fun experience all around," Winston said about the trip. "We're still young, so we don't get worn out easily, but New York was pretty tiring."
"It was a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity. I mean, obviously I could have went as a winner but I wanted to stay home. I got a chance to spend some time with my teammates, things I didn't do last year, and be with my family. Study for exams."
Going back to Roger Staubach at Navy, his Midshipmen lost the 1963 national championship game to Texas after he had won the award.
After Vinny Testaverde won in 1986, he threw five interceptions in the Fiesta Bowl and the Hurricanes were upset in the championship game by Penn State. Gino Toretta, another winner from Miami, was blown out of the Sugar Bowl by Alabama as the Hurricanes failed to win back t0 back titles.
Florida State’s Chris Weinke played one of his worst games as a Seminole back in 2000 when Florida State lost the ugliest national championship game in memory to Oklahoma.
A year later, Nebraska’s Eric Crouch was shutdown against Miami as the Hurricanes captured their fifth national championship.
Two years later, in 2003, Oklahoma’s Jason White was stopped by LSU in a Sugar Bowl loss. Three years after that, Ohio State’s Troy Smith was like a ghost as the Buckeyes were crushed by Florida in the title game. Just two years on, in 2008, Sam Bradford and Oklahoma also were beaten by Florida for the national title.
On the other side, there have been five Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks who led their teams to national championships.
Florida State’s Ward in 1993, Florida’s Danny Wuerffel in 1996, Matt Leinart from USC in 2004, Cam Newton from Auburn (who beat Oregon) in 2010, and last year’s winner, Winston, who battled in the title game against a rough-and-ready Tigers’ defense and cooly threw the title winning touchdown pass as the moment reached its crisis.
Mariota is trying to become the sixth man to reach that list.
January 1st, under the warm sun of Pasadena shining down on the peerless Rose Bowl, watched by the soft brown mountains of the Arroyo Seco canyon, the Ducks and Seminoles will battle to decide who plays for the first national championship determined by a playoff in 147 years of college football history.