#2 Oregon v. #3 Florida State
Rose Bowl — Pasadena, CA
January 1, 2015 — 5:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
It’s the first semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff, a long-sought Pandora’s box that has been the elusive goal of many a fan and pundit for decades. But if you need more justification, it’s the oldest bowl game in the sport’s long history, played in one of the most picturesque stadiums in the world. It’s a New Year’s Day tradition unlike any other, the prototype for college football’s convoluted postseason design. Bask in the glory of the venerable venue nestled in the Arroyo Seco on a New Year’s afternoon from Pasadena.
You also get to see two of the best teams in the nation fighting to play in the first ever plus-one game for the shiny new championship trophy. It’s a contest featuring the two most recent Heisman winners battling to keep their teams moving on in the hunt for the crown. They’ll be squaring off against defenses that are both in the top tier of schools in terms of points allowed. You could miss out on a high-scoring epic if you drift off on this particular Thursday afternoon.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a senior at the University of Oregon. I have a particular rooting interest in this contest. But this preview is not the time or the place to express that personal desire. I’ll try to be as objective as possible here. Call me out if necessary.)
With a 51-17 mulligan negating the impact of its only loss this season, Oregon swept away the ugliness of an early October loss to Arizona to claim the Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Ducks went 12-1 against the 32nd toughest schedule according to Sagarin, They last appeared in the Rose Bowl three years ago, defeating the Wisconsin Badgers 45-38 on January 2, 2012. Oregon played in a BCS bowl four of the past five years, and they have built one of the most complete teams in school history for this run at the championship.
The Duck offense is tailored around the unique skill set of redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota. The reigning Heisman winner completed 68 percent of his passes this season for nearly 3800 yards and 38 touchdowns, leading the nation in passing efficiency with just two interceptions. He added 669 rushing yards and 14 scores on the ground and also caught a 26-yard touchdown pass in the loss to Arizona to account for 53 touchdowns on the year. For his career, Mariota is 35-4 as the starter for the Ducks, with 131 total touchdowns versus just 23 total turnovers (12 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost).
He leads a passing attack that ranks 11th nationally while averaging 309 yards per game. 17 different players have caught a pass this year, with jack-of-all-trades Byron Marshall leading the team with 61 receptions for 814 yards and five scores. Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford, and Darren Carrington all caught at least 30 passes for 500 or more yards, providing depth at a position that seemed like one of the weaker units entering the season.
The running game was paced by true freshman tailback Royce Freeman, who looks poised to become the next great back on a team that has consistently produced tons of yardage on the ground. Freeman was one yard shy of 1300 yards, scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Mariota kept defenses thinking with his legs, while both Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner added over 300 yards in limited backfield action. The offensive gameplan de-emphasized the run some, as Oregon ranked just 22nd in the country in rushing yardage with 237 yards per game.
Oregon’s defense has never been its strongest unit, but new defensive coordinator Don Pellum developed a game plan that held teams to just 22.5 yards per game. The Ducks gave up 414 yards per game, but a large part of that was due to the fact that Oregon ranked 117th in the country in time of possession. In terms of yards per play, UO gives up 4.1 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per passing attempt. In terms of advanced metrics, the Ducks are 13th in the country in terms of defensive F/+, illustrating the fact that much of their opponents’ production has come in garbage time after Mariota and crew have sealed the result.
The last time Florida State ventured out to Pasadena a year ago, they knocked off Auburn 34-31 for the last BCS national championship. The Seminoles are the last undefeated team standing in FBS this season, their winning streak extending back 29 games to the end of the 2012-13 season. But FSU drew its share of skeptics through the course of the season as seven of their 13 wins — including each of the last four — came by less than a touchdown. Jimbo Fisher’s team was still winning, and would go on to claim the ACC title, but it looked far less convincing (against the nation’s 39th toughest schedule) than it had during the 2013 run to the school’s first national title of the post-Bowden era.
Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, showed signs of regression from the otherworldly campaign he waged last season. The redshirt sophomore threw 16 fewer touchdowns and seven more interceptions than in his Heisman season, his completion percentage dropped more than six points and his yards per attempt fell by over a full yard. Yet he still threw for 3500 yards and 24 scores and added three more touchdowns with his legs.
The regression didn’t show that far in the passing game, as Florida State was in the top 15 nationally with nearly 300 yards per game. Rashad Greene became the next big go-to receiver in Tallahassee, snagging 93 passes for 1306 yards and seven touchdowns. Three other receivers finished with at least 30 receptions and 400 receiving yards. Where the team truly suffered was on the ground. Before breaking out in the final two contests, tailback Dalvin Cook had been underutilized in Fisher’s offense. He’s the team’s leading rusher and has a chance to break 1000 yards on the season, but he’s the lone bright spot for a unit that ranked 104th nationally with just 135 rushing yards per game.
Like Oregon, Florida State was able defensively but rarely spectacular. They gave up just 23 points per game and held opponents to 35 fewer yards per game than the Ducks. The Seminoles had one of the best red zone defenses in the country, holding opponents scoreless on more than a quarter of their trips inside the 20. Where the team had the most difficulty was in generating pressure with its defensive line; the Seminoles ranked 112th nationally in team sacks and 67th in tackles for loss after being so dominant up front last year.
What is Likely to Happen
What is the biggest difference between two teams that are built around two of the best NFL quarterback prospects of the year? Turnovers. Oregon coughed up the ball just eight times total all season, the fewest turnovers in the nation that ranked the Ducks third nationally in turnover margin. Florida State is 79 spots further back in that statistic, with a negative turnover margin thanks to an offense that was among the 20 worst in the nation in giving the ball away. The Seminoles lost eight fumbles alone, to go along with 19 interceptions.
Think about what a team like Oregon would have done with the early interceptions Winston threw against
Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game Florida in the regular-season finale; those would have been touchdowns instead of field goals, and the game would have gotten out of hand quickly. Florida State’s defense is not as ferocious as the unit that was instrumental in last year’s championship run, and Mariota and the stacked stable of players at the skill positions will help give Oregon an insurmountable lead. A defense that showed maturity in its rematch against Arizona will do enough to stymie the Seminoles and guide the Ducks to their first shot at a national title since the 2011 BCS championship game.
Oregon 52, Florida State 35