SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Kansas State and Oregon were in perfect position at the start of Nov. 17, Nos. 1 and 2 in the BCS standings, seemingly on a crash course toward the national championship game.
By day’s end, the Wildcats had been run over by Baylor, the Ducks lost a heartbreaker to Stanford and both of their national title hopes were all but gone.
Disappointing? Certainly. Every team goes into the season hoping to play for a national championship and to have it snatched away so late in the season is unquestionably a letdown.
Unlike many teams in college football, Kansas State and Oregon ended up with a nice consolation prize: A trip to the Valley of the Sun to face each in the Fiesta Bowl.
“This game could have been for the national championship,” Oregon linebacker Boseko Lokombo said. “A couple weeks ago, that’s where we were both headed.”
They’re headed to the desert instead, setting up one of the most anticipated games this bowl season.
A year ago, the Fiesta Bowl hit it big with Oklahoma State and Stanford, two high-profile programs that didn’t disappoint, putting on an offensive show won by the Cowboys 41-38 in overtime.
This year’s game, Thursday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, has the potential to be even better.
Oregon (11-1) is in its fourth straight BCS bowl game under coach Chip Kelly, following a trip to the 2011 BCS championship game and two Rose Bowls, including the program’s first win in the Granddaddy of Them All in 95 years last season.
The Ducks fly fast, overwhelming opponents with where-did-they-all-come-from speed, their touchdown drives measured not in minutes but seconds.
Oregon has one of the nation’s most explosive running back tandems in Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas, threats to score on every touch, and redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota played well beyond his years while proving to be a dynamic force in his own right.
The Ducks were second nationally with 50.83 points and 323.25 yards rushing per game and fourth in total offense at 550.08.
“Basically, only one team stopped them the entire year and that was Stanford,” Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said. “It’s a challenge. We need to meet the challenge if we have any wishes for a victory.”
It doesn’t figure to be any easier for Oregon going against Kansas State (11-1) in its second resurrection under coach Bill Snyder.
The studious coach orchestrated one of college football’s greatest turnarounds his first stint in the Little Apple, turning a program that had lost more games than any other into a national championship contender.
After a three-year retirement, Snyder again lifted the Wildcats out of the doldrums, leading them to a bowl game his second season, 10 wins a year ago and all the way back to national prominence this season.
Fitting the mold of their 73-year-old coach, the Wildcats are meticulously prepared and run Snyder’s schemes to near perfection.
Kansas State doesn’t play nearly as fast as the Ducks, but can put up points in a hurry and is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist, do-everything senior quarterback Collin Klein.