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 other 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, tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium, has the potential to be even better.
Oregon (11-1) is in its fourth straight BCS bowl game under head 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 head 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 — ninth nationally with 40.67 per game — and is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist, do-everything senior quarterback Collin Klein.
This is the Wildcats’ 14th bowl appearance under Snyder and with a win over Oregon, they can finish with the first 12-win season in school history.
“Obviously, you can’t help as a coach (but) admire what Coach Snyder has done,” Kelly said. “He had an opportunity when he first got to K-State that he created a legacy that I don’t think anybody could ever imagine when he first took over that program, what one man could do to a university. Retired for a couple years, then came back and is building upon that legacy.
“It’s really a special story in college football that will (have him) go down, like I said, as one of the top coaches in the history of the game.”
Snyder’s quarterback has a pretty good story, too.
Lightly recruited and switched to receiver early in his college career, Klein had a superb first season as Kansas State’s starter, throwing for 1,918 yards, rushing for 1,141 more and accounting for 40 touchdowns as a junior.
He became a bona fide star his final season in Manhattan.
A fifth-year senior, Klein earned the moniker Optimus Klein for his grittiness and ability to grind out victories any way he could, seemingly topping himself every game.
A sturdy 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, Klein became the first quarterback in the BCS era to run for at least 20 TDs and throw for 10 in consecutive seasons, and broke the FBS record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in two seasons with 49.
He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, the Big 12 player of the year and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.
Whatever happens Thursday night, Klein will leave the Little Apple as one of the greatest and most popular players in Kansas State history.
“He’s very good, he runs that offense efficiently, he’s a poised guy, appears to be a very smart football player,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “He knows what they want him to do in their game plan.”
Many of those attributes could be used to describe Mariota, too.
The first freshman to start at Oregon since Danny O’Neil in 1991, he was considered one of the few question marks for the Ducks heading into this season.
Mariota answered them all and then some, showing poise beyond his years while leading a veteran, talent-laden team.
A bit more wiry than Klein at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Mariota is an athletic dual-threat quarterback who’s a better passer, but can use his speed to break off long runs.
Mariota threw for 2,511 yards and 30 touchdowns, ran for 690 yards and four more scores, and cemented his place as Oregon’s quarterback of the future.
“He does so many things from the skill standpoint, his quickness, his speed, ability to throw the ball accurately two out of three times,” Snyder said. “He’s gifted from a physical standpoint. I think as much as anything, the fact that for a very young person on the field playing in some very highly competitive environments, he seems to be a very, very poised young guy, doesn’t seem to get ruffled.”
Between the two star quarterbacks and all that talent on both sides of the ball, it should be a fun Fiesta Bowl.
No. 7 Kansas State (11-1) vs. No. 5 Oregon (11-1), Tonight, 7:30 (ESPN)
Line: Oregon by 8½.
Series record: First meeting.
• WHAT’S AT STAKE
Once national championship front-runners, Kansas State and Oregon get a nice consolation prize by playing in one of the bowl season’s most anticipated games. The Wildcats (5) and Ducks (4) are both in the top 5 of the BCS standings and have two of the nation’s most dynamic offenses, setting up what should be a second straight marquee Fiesta Bowl matchup after Oklahoma State outlasted Stanford 41-38 in overtime last year.
• KEY MATCHUP
Oregon’s speed vs. Kansas State’s power. The Ducks play at a pace like few teams in college football and often score quickly with 44 of their 80 TD drives this season coming in two minutes or less, including 22 in 60 seconds or less. The Wildcats are a bit more methodical and will need to use their ball-possession ways to keep the ball away from Oregon’s offense.
• PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kansas State: QB Collin Klein. A dual-threat quarterback, he became Kansas State’s second Heisman Trophy finalist (with Michael Bishop in 1998) after throwing for 2,490 yards, rushing for 890 more and accounting for 37 TDs.
Oregon: RB Kenjon Barner. A threat to score every time he touches the ball, Barner helped the Ducks overcome the loss of all-time leading rusher LaMichael James, now playing in the NFL. Barner ran for 1,624 yards and 21 TDs, combining with DeAnthony Thomas to give Oregon one of the most explosive running back tandems in college football.
• FACTS & FIGURES
Kansas State is in its 16th bowl in school history and 14th under coach Bill Snyder. The Wildcats are in a BCS bowl for the second time after playing in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. ... Oregon is in its fourth straight BCS bowl under Chip Kelly after playing in the 2010 Rose Bowl, the 2011 BCS national championship game and winning the Rose Bowl last year for the first time in 95 years. ... Oregon QB Marcus Mariota set the Pac-12 freshman record for TD passes with 30. ... The Wildcats have lost their last four bowl games, including 29-16 to Arkansas in last year’s Cotton Bowl. Kansas State’s last bowl win was 34-27 over Arizona State in the 2002 Holiday Bowl. ... Barner and Anthony are the only Oregon players since 1965 to score TDs rushing, receiving, on punt returns and kick returns in a career.