The two programs, playing for the first time ever, both reached their conference championship games. Iowa State's appearance in the Big 12 title game marked the Cyclones' first since the conference's inception in 1996, while Oregon's upset of USC pushed the Ducks to 4-0 all-time in the 10-year history of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Winning that game earned the Ducks their second straight conference title and punched their tickets to the Fiesta Bowl — never mind that they weren't supposed to be there. The record book will read 2020 Pac-12 champs all the same, and no asterisk will go on a Fiesta Bowl trophy should Oregon win.
Should is the operative word, though. Iowa State's path to Arizona began with a deflating loss to Louisiana, taking away some of the enthusiasm from an offseason of hype. Since rebounding, the Cyclones have been one of the most exciting teams in college football — and one of the best on defense.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: No. 25 Oregon (4-2) vs. No. 10 Iowa State (8-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa State -4
When Oregon Has the Ball
Oregon's offensive identity has been in flux much of this shortened season. Replacing likely NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert was going to be a tall order no matter, and potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Penei Sewell opting out left a considerable hole on the new quarterback's blindside. Still, Tyler Shough looked impressive for critical stretches in the Ducks' two season-opening wins.
In losses to Oregon State and Cal, however, inconsistency in the passing game hindered Oregon. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead mixed things up in the Pac-12 Championship Game, relying on a multidimensional run-game approach that included Boston College transfer quarterback Anthony Brown taken extensive snaps.
Oregon managed just 135 yards on 41 carries, an undeniable byproduct of not having leading rusher C.J. Verdell. Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal said in his Tuesday press conference that Verdell could be available in the Fiesta Bowl — and Oregon needs it. Iowa State ranks 10th in the nation against the run, holding opponents under 105 yards per game.
The Cyclones' defense — led by the defensive line tandem of Will McDonald IV and Jaquan Bailey, along with linebacker Mike Rose — have produced an incredible 35 tackles for a loss. Such consistent pressure without an effective ground-game counter could lead to turnovers from an Oregon offense struggling to pass consistently.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
If making a list of Heisman finalist snubs this season, start with Breece Hall. The Iowa State running back went off for 19 touchdowns — more than fellow Cyclone Troy Davis produced in his Heisman finalist 1995 campaign. Tack on another two receiving scores, and Hall matches Davis' output when the latter was runner-up for the award in 1996.
At 5.9 yards per carry, Hall also outpaced Davis' production in both 1995 and '96. He's a matchup nightmare for any defense, but an Oregon side that gave up well over 200 yards on the ground to both UCLA and Oregon State could have its hands full. The Ducks held Cal to 88 yards, but the Golden Bears were struggling with running the football previously; then limited USC to 38, but the Trojans operate in an air raid-oriented system.
There may be a limit to how contained Hall can be, even with Oregon boasting standout linebacker Noah Sewell. As was the case in the Pac-12 Championship Game, when the Ducks picked off three passes, turnover generation will be key.
Hall was nowhere near the Heisman conversation heading into 2020; that designation went to quarterback Brock Purdy. Purdy finished well out of the race with nine interceptions against 18 touchdowns. Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux, coming off his best game of 2020, will be central to pressuring Purdy into misguided pass attempts.
Iowa State may have fallen short in its pursuit of a Big 12 championship, but the Cyclones can still make history with a New Year's Six bowl win. That won't be lost on Matt Campbell's bunch. Breece Hall is in position to have a marquee game, while the aggressive Iowa State front seven is a matchup nightmare for a patchwork Oregon offense.
Prediction: Iowa State 38, Oregon 24
Podcast: CFB Playoff: Did the Committee Get it Right? And Early Playoff Breakdown and Picks
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.