Column

There's a lot at stake for Oregon, Florida State in Rose Bowl

Florida State and Oregon meet in the first College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl on Thursday.

Florida State hasn't lost a football game in more than two years, winning 29 straight since a defeat to Florida in November of 2012.

The Seminoles are defending national champions, having won last year's last Bowl Championship Series title over Auburn at the Rose Bowl.

That snapped the Southeastern Conference's seven-year streak for national titles.

Florida State was the only undefeated team this season, at 13-0, yet was ranked third in the College Football Playoff final ranking.

How does that happen?

The Seminoles have been here and done that, yet find themselves underdogs to Oregon heading into a national semifinal game Thursday at the Rose Bowl.

"That's all the motivation we need," Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston said.

The Ducks are known primarily for their various colorful uniforms. In the last decade they have made more fashion statements than football statements.

They are college football's cutting-edge program, but also one that has never won a national title.

In Texas they call this "all hat, no cattle."

Oregon revolutionized fast-paced, spread-option football and watched Auburn win a national title with it. Worst of all, the Ducks have been labeled "soft." Their locker room has a nutrition bar and the players are said to subsist on granola and wheat grass. They play a pejorative "West Coast" style of football and are supposedly more interested in image than results.

"I love it when people say we're not tough enough, because it motivates our kids," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "I think the more motivated our kids will be the better we'll play."

These story lines have left the Rose Bowl in an enviable game-hosting position. This game will be different in that it is not the destination end-all it has been for more than a century.

This year's Rose Bowl is a semifinal, more like an AFC or NFC title game in advance of the Super Bowl.

Ticket demand is softer, with some fans forced to choose between attending the Rose Bowl or holding off on the hope their team advances to the Jan. 12 title game in Texas.

The weather may be chillier than it has been most years, but there is no reason to think things won't heat up between the sidelines.

This game checks all the boxes. It boasts the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Winston and Marcus Mariota.

Both offenses are better than the defenses they'll face, which should promote high levels of entertainment and scoring.

Florida State is playing against the ghost of last season's team, which ran (and passed) roughshod through its schedule on its way to the championship game.

People wondered if the Seminoles could win a tight game until they rallied from 18 points down to nip Auburn by scoring the winning touchdown with 13 seconds left.

This season's team has won seven times by a touchdown or less. Florida State played to the level of its competition, which wasn't always good.

"We got this reputation about Florida State coming out there and winning big," Winston said, adding, "We're still winning."

Winston has been part of the problem, having to bail his team out from early game problems he created. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a mediocre 24 to 17. His counterpart, Mariota, has thrown 38 touchdown passes with two interceptions.

Winston says the adversity has made him better. "When you get to the next level, or even in life, when things are not going your way, you can't hide up under a bridge or hide up under a rock," he said. "You've got to keep going."

Florida State would seem to have the advantage if the score is close in the waning minutes. You can't bottle what Winston has experienced in tight situations.

"They're just unflappable in a lot of ways," Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich said. "They just make a ton of plays when it matters most."

It would also not be advisable for Florida State to think it could come back after spotting Thursday's opponent a big lead.

Oregon is looking to clear one last program hurdle. Mariota has had a spectacular career, and season, but doesn't know what it's like to lead his team on a championship drive.

Oregon has won at the Rose Bowl this season, taking out UCLA in a Pac-12 Conference game on Oct. 11. But there is a huge difference between that Rose Bowl game and the Rose Bowl that Florida State played in last January against Auburn.

The air, the atmosphere and stakes are different. There are no airplane flyovers before Pac-12 games.

"I don't think it hurts," Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher said of the experience factor. "At least you know you're capable of doing these things. ... We all revert back to history and things we've done when we get in these situations, and having that confidence, I think it does help."

Oregon will have to feel its way to the next level. The great teams do it eventually — that's what makes them great.

This might be Oregon's best chance to seize on all the program momentum it has mustered for a decade.

Helfrich said "you can't simulate the aura and the presence" of the Rose Bowl. "So," he added, "we'll go out and we'll attack."

And hope that will be enough against a Florida State team that doesn't know when to quit.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
52°