For Oregon and Kansas State, Fiesta Bowl is nothing but a consolation game

Teams seemed headed for a showdown in the Bowl Championship Series title game until each suffered a stunning loss Nov. 17. They are playing each other, all right, but not for all the marbles.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

— The bumper sticker for this year's Fiesta Bowl could be: "They have only themselves to blame."

Kansas State (11-1) and Oregon (11-1), playing Thursday night, would be playing for the national title had the season ended the afternoon of Nov. 17.

The schools went into that evening ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings with a Dennis Rodman-like box-out on Notre Dame and Alabama. What could go wrong?

Top-ranked Kansas State was playing at Baylor (4-5), which had lost to Iowa State and given up 70 points to West Virginia. Oregon, averaging 54 points per game, was playing host to a Stanford team it had Duck-handled the previous year in Palo Alto when the Cardinal had Andrew Luck at quarterback.

Notre Dame, even with its tradition and no losses, needed Oregon or Kansas State to lose in order to reach the title game. One-loss Alabama, seemingly out of the BCS chase, was stuck at home playing Western Carolina, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

The Southeastern Conference's six-year reign over college football was over. And then it wasn't.

Within hours, Baylor stunned Kansas State in Waco, Texas, and Stanford stunned Oregon, in overtime, at Eugene.

Notre Dame rose to No. 1 and Alabama was boosted to No. 2 by defeating a Western Carolina team that finished 1-10, beating only Mars Hill.

"If you lose, you put it in the hands of other people," Oregon Coach Chip Kelly said Wednesday at his final Fiesta Bowl news conference. "We understood that going in."

That Saturday night in November was this season's pivot point. Had Oregon won and Kansas State lost, the Ducks would be playing for the national title and redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota might have won the Heisman Trophy instead of Johnny Manziel.

"It really helped me grow," Mariota said this week, reflecting on the Stanford defeat. "Adversity does come. To stand up and say that didn't kill me, it's made me better as a human."

Had Kansas State won Nov. 17 and Oregon lost, Kansas State would have been playing for the national title and senior quarterback Collin Klein would have almost certainly won the Heisman instead of Manziel.

The Baylor defeat came the week Klein made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"It was a little bit surreal," Klein said.

The Fiesta Bowl might still end up as the best of this season's bowl games — it just won't count as much.

This game comes to you with equal parts of excitement and what might have been.

Oregon's dynamo offense matched against Kansas State's methodical effectiveness could produce more take-away moments than the BCS title game Monday. Notre Dame versus Alabama is obviously a superior name-brand matchup. But it could also end up a defensive tug-of-war similar to Tuesday's Rose Bowl.

The Fiesta Bowl is a pumped-up version of the consolation, third-place game they used to play in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Oregon averages 50.8 points per game to Kansas State's 40.7. Neither defense matches the title-bound units of Notre Dame and Alabama, yet both are underappreciated. Oregon has forced a major-college-high 39 turnovers; Kansas State 31.

Fiesta Bowl pairings historically have been highly entertaining. The Miami-Ohio State title game in 2003 ranks as one of the best games of the decade, right alongside Boise State's epic Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma.

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