Kansas State and Oregon have proven that it is possible to change your standing on the college football food chain. Consider the following: These two programs have a combined 11 appearances in the final AP top 10 since 1995; they combined for one (Oregon in 1948) prior to ’95. Kansas State, in particular, was viewed by most as the worst major college program in the nation for several decades.
How things have changed. Both teams were one game away from playing for the BCS National Championship this season. Oregon lost by three points at home to Stanford on the same night that K-State lost at Baylor 52–24.
Fiesta Bowl — Kansas State (11–1) vs. Oregon (11–1)
Date and Time: Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. EST
Location: Glendale, Ariz.
When Oregon has the ball:
Four the third time in the past three seasons, the Ducks rank in the top six in the nation in total offense (550.1 ypg) and top three in scoring offense (50.8 ppg). Oregon scored 42 points or more in all 11 of its wins but was held to 14 points and 405 total yards in the overtime loss to Stanford.
The triggerman for the 2012 version of Chip Kelly’s attack is Marcus Mariota, a redshirt freshman from Hawaii who didn’t earn the starting nod until just a few weeks before the season began. Mariota led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency — thanks in large part to a 30-to-6 touchdown-to-INT ratio — and ran for 690 yards and four touchdowns. He was at his best in the Ducks’ 62–51 win at USC, throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns while adding 96 yards rushing on 15 attempts.
The Oregon offense is far from a one-man show. The Ducks are blessed with a host of playmakers to complement Mariota, most notably tailback Kenjon Barner and all-purpose threat De’Anthony Thomas. Barner ranks fifth nationally in rushing (135.3 ypg) despite averaging only 20.7 carries per game. He could have been a serious Heisman candidate with a bigger workload. Thomas, considered to be among the fastest players in college football, averages 7.6 yards per carry (second nationally among players with at least 90 attempts) and also leads the Ducks with 41 receptions.
Oregon ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game (323.3) — ahead of option teams Georgia Tech and New Mexico — and first in yards per attempt (6.06). The Ducks have rushed for over 250 yards in all but three games.
Junior Josh Huff was the only wide receiver with more than 22 receptions. The 5’11 Houston native missed significant action with a knee injury but still caught 29 passes for 467 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Huff combined to catch 11 passes for 234 yards and five scores in consecutive weeks in early November.
Kansas State was solid for much of he season defensively but had trouble with both Oklahoma State (504 yards) and Baylor (580) in the final month. Baylor rushed for 342 yards and passes for 238 in its 52–24 win over the Cats. Baylor has good speed. Oregon has great speed.
When Kansas State has the ball:
Kansas State translates rather ordinary yardage totals into a high volume of points because it does several things very well — win the turnover battle (first in the nation at plus-1.75 per game), convert in the red zone and excel on special teams (first in the nation in both kick and punt returns).
Quarterback Collin Klein is the heavy lifter on the Wildcats’ offense. The fifth-year senior has throwns for 2,490 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions and added 890 yards rushing and 22 scores on the ground. Klein had over 250 yards passing and 100 yards rushing three times in 2012 — in wins over Kansas, Iowa Stat and Texas.
Tailback John Hubert has emerged as a productive sidekick for Klein in the Wildcats’ backfield in the past two seasons. Lightly recruited out of Waco, Texas — he had no other BCS conference offers — Hubert has rushed for 892 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior after netting 970 yards as a sophomore in 2011.
K-State isn’t known for its playmakers on the outside, but the Cats feature three quality wide receivers who are capable of making big plays down the field. Chris Harper, who began his career as a quarterback at Oregon, leads the way with 50 catches and 786 yards. Tyler Lockett, a multi-purpose threat, is next with 40 receptions for 657, and Tramaine Thompson has 36 catches for 514 yards. All three have at least one 100-yard receiving game this season.
Statistically, this is the best Oregon defense of the Kelly era. The Ducks overall numbers aren’t great — they rank 47th in total yards allowed — but this is a defense that is on the field quite a bit because the Oregon offense scores so quickly. Broken down by yards allowed per play, the Ducks rank a respectable 27th in the nation at 5.06. Only two teams have scored more than 26 points against Oregon — Arkansas State had 34 (31 of which came after Oregon led 50–3) and USC scored 51.
Despite the fact that Oregon is favored by nearly 10 points, this is considered by most to be the most attractive of the non-title BCS bowls. Both teams hovered near the top of the polls for most of the season and — as stated above — both teams were one win away from playing in the title game.
Kansas State has made a habit out of proving its doubters wrong over the past two seasons, but Oregon has the superior roster. The Ducks’ prowess on offense is well known, but this is also a very strong defensive team that will be as healthy — especially on the front seven — as it’s been since the beginning of the season. Kansas State will score some points, but not enough to beat the high-flying Ducks.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Kansas State 21
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