For Oregon and Kansas State, Fiesta Bowl is nothing but a consolation game
— 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.
Last year, Oklahoma State defeated Stanford, 41-38, in overtime.
This year’s coaching matchup is also intriguing. Kelly appears on the fast track to the NFL, and venerable Bill Snyder, at 73, has most of his coaching hay in the barn.
Both are football geniuses, in completely different ways.
The buzz surrounding Kelly’s seemingly imminent departure has permeated the Fiesta Bowl grounds. It’s not for love of Kansas State or Oregon that news outlets from Philadelphia have made last-minute Fiesta Bowl credential requests.
Kelly has been targeted as a possible replacement for hours-ago fired Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid. There are also reports that the Cleveland Browns are in town waiting to pounce on Kelly the minute the Fiesta Bowl ends.
Kelly is one of the college game’s best offensive minds and question deflectors.
Does he expect to field NFL offers?
“I don’t expect anything,” Kelly said Wednesday. “I said this a million times. I’m never surprised by anything. I do not know what the future holds. I do know we have a football game tomorrow night and I’m going to be there.”
Kansas State’s coach is closer to an easy chair than he is an NFL job. He had his chances in the 1990s when he was leading Kansas State football out of the dark ages.
“I responded to none of them other than to say ‘No, thank you,’ ” Snyder said.
Kelly is using Oregon as a steppingstone, and Snyder is happy being his school’s Rock of Gibraltar.
Of the NFL, Snyder said: “I’m not sure I want to work in a workplace where the people you’re supposed to have control over make more money than you do.”
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