When the Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles face off in the first-ever College Football Playoff game, much of the focus will be on two players unlikely to take the field at the same time.
The matchup pits the newest Heisman Trophy winner — Oregon redshirt-junior quarterback Marcus Mariota — against his predecessor, Florida State redshirt-sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman recipient. But when Mariota is on the field, 11 Seminoles not named Jameis will lineup on the other side, and when Winston is on the field, he’ll face a Duck defense that has tallied 34 quarterback sacks this season.
With Winston — who finished sixth in this year’s Heisman vote, one spot behind Ohio State redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — the Seminoles have compiled a 13-0 record, and haven’t lost in their past 29 games, something Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has taken notice of.
“To stay focused for 29 seconds in this business is really hard for some of our players, and they (Florida State) have done it for 29 games and that’s incredible,” Helfrich said during a Dec. 11 College Football Playoff media conference.
Moments after Helfrich praised Florida State’s relentless winning, Seminole coach Jimbo Fisher found praise for the Ducks as well.
“It’s a program we’ve had a ton of respect for for a long time,” Fisher said during the media conference. “They have been on the scene here and they are as good as anybody in America.”
Unlike Fisher’s team, the Ducks weren’t undefeated this year, but capped a 12-1 record with a 51-13 thrashing of Arizona — which happens to be the team responsible for Oregon’s lone loss as well. But outside of that loss, the Ducks had just one game that was decided by seven points or less.
On the opposite sideline, the Seminoles played seven games that were decided by one possession or less, and haven’t won a game by more than five points since Nov. 8.
Helfrich noted the focus that has been on Florida State’s close games, but stressed how impressive it is to go undefeated for such a long stretch, regardless of the margin of victory.
“A lot has been made of them (the Seminoles) being a second-half team and all this stuff and not winning decisively,” he said. “Winning is really hard, and again winning once is hard, and you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
If Fisher wants to keep the winning streak alive, much of the task might fall on the shoulders of Florida State’s defense, instead of the Winston-led offense. And if the Ducks want to break the streak, they might have to find a way to close out a game against a team that has found a way to win late throughout the season.
The No. 2 Ducks and the No. 3 Seminoles are set to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on New Years Day at 5 p.m.
Oregon boasts the nation’s No. 3 offense — averaging 546.2 yards per game — while Florida State doesn’t rank in the top 50 for total offense or total defense. But something can be said for scoring when it matters most, as the Seminoles have put points on the board in 93 percent of their trips to the red zone this year.
When Oregon has the ball
Mariota will be the focal point for the Ducks, as he’s thrown for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns with just two interceptions this season, while adding 669 yards and another 14 scores on the ground. But he’s not the team’s only weapon, as freshman running back Royce Freeman has made his mark with 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground and junior running back Byron Marshall 1,217 all-purpose yards and six total touchdowns.
Oh, and Mariota has a touchdown as a receiver, as well.
After defeating Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game on Dec. 6, Fisher and his players will have ample time to prepare for the multidimensional Duck attack. But he said even more time would be nice, but noted the time off means Oregon has time to prepare as well.
“The thing about that, they (the Ducks) have three weeks to adjust and change little things on them, too,” Fisher said. “I think that’s what makes this whole thing kind of unique in college football.”
Despite Oregon’s offensive advantage on paper, Helfrich said he expects a challenge from Florida State — which just happens to be the defending national champion.
“They are coming out, you know, guns blazing, and so I think it shows how well they are coached, I think how confident they are, how much of just the mindset of winning takes over in the end,” he said.
When Florida State has the ball
While Oregon’s offense has been significantly more prolific this season, the Seminoles have put up points and yards in big chunks as well.
Florida State averages 34.8 points per game and 434.7 yards per game, and boasts one of the top kicking units in the country as redshirt-sophomore kicker Roberto Aguayo was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after winning it last season.
Winston — by his standards — had an off year, throwing 24 touchdowns and tallying 17 interceptions, but still managed to post over 300 yards of total offense per game on his own.
Alongside him in the backfield, freshman running back Dalvin Cook has tallied 905 yards and eight touchdowns rushing while senior running back Karlos Williams added 609 yards and another 10 scores rushing.
Winston’s top target — senior wide receiver Rashad Greene — is one of the nation’s best as well, as he’s racked up 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns on 93 receptions.
Heading into the matchup, Helfrich stressed Winston’s ability to keep getting the job done, no matter what numbers he has in the final box score.
“Obviously, Jameis is — again — a winner,” he said. “Hasn’t lost a game in two years. You can tell absolutely when they need a play, when they need to throw, it usually involves him making something spectacular.”
But on New Year’s Day, Winston and his offensive teammates are set for an Oregon defense that Fisher said does many things well.
“They keep greatest leverage on the ball on defense, they tackle very well,” Fisher said. “They give up very few big plays behind them.”
No matter how many tackles a team has made or how many touchdowns the Ducks have scored, neither coach will be able to decide the outcome, and neither team will have a chance to win until 2015.
For now, both Fisher and Helfrich stressed how proud and excited they are to take part in the inaugural playoff.
“It’s an absolute honor to be here, to represent our team, our program and the University of Oregon, and our fans in something fresh and new, the College Football Playoff,” Helfrich said.
And with a shot at back-to-back titles on the line, Fisher said the Seminoles are simply waiting for the next step in the road.
“We are proud to be part of this whole inaugural playoff and looking forward to the challenge,” Fisher said.
The winner of the matchup is set to take on the winner of the second semifinal game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1 after the Rose Bowl showdown.