The college football playoff officially begins when Florida State and Oregon meet on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl for the first national semifinal matchup. The Seminoles and Ducks are two of the nation’s most successful programs in recent years, and the Rose Bowl semifinal could be one of the best bowl matchups of the 2014-15 postseason. And there’s no shortage of storylines between Florida State and Oregon, as both programs are among the nation’s best on offense and feature the last two Heisman winners in Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
After dominating its opponents last season, it’s been a different story for Florida State in 2014. The Seminoles won seven games by a touchdown or less, including the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech (37-35) and a road win at Miami (30-26) in mid-November. Pinpointing the reasons for the drop in margin of victory for Florida State isn’t easy, but it’s largely due to the turnover in personnel on defense and an increase in turnovers. Despite problems in those areas, the Seminoles finished the regular season unbeaten and enter the Rose Bowl with a 29-game winning streak. Oregon finished its regular season with one blemish – a 31-24 loss to Arizona – but dominated most of the opponents on its schedule. The Ducks crushed the Wildcats 51-13 in a rematch against the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship, defeated Utah 51-27, beat Stanford 45-16 and used a second-half rally to knock off Michigan State 46-27 on Sept. 6. Oregon has suffered its share of key injuries this year and has struggled to find consistency on defense under first-year coordinator Don Pellum. However, having Mariota and a lethal group of skill players helps to alleviate many of the team’s issues on defense.
This is the first meeting between Florida State and Oregon. The Seminoles are making their second consecutive postseason trip to Pasadena after beating Auburn for the BCS National Championship last season. The Ducks won earlier this year in the Rose Bowl by defeating UCLA 42-30. Oregon’s last trip to the Rose Bowl as a postseason game occurred in 2012, as Chip Kelly’s Ducks defeated Wisconsin 45-38.
Florida State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota
Assuming both players declare, it’s no secret Winston and Mariota are expected to be high picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. And as the last two Heisman winners, there’s plenty of hype and anticipation for this quarterback duel in the Rose Bowl. Winston’s interceptions increased from 10 (2013) to 17 this year, which was largely due to a struggling offensive line and new faces at receiver. Despite the uptick in turnovers, Winston was still performing at a high level. The sophomore completed 65.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,559 yards. Winston was at his best late in games, completing 68.4 percent of his passes in the second half, while tossing only four picks in the final two quarters. The matchup of Winston versus the Oregon secondary took an interesting turn when the Ducks announced top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would miss the playoffs due to a knee injury. Without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks will ask more of senior Troy Hill and freshman Chris Seisay in coverage, which is a tough assignment against Florida State’s group of receivers – including standout senior Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. On the other sideline, Mariota has been virtually unstoppable all year. The junior passed for 3,783 yards and 38 scores, while recording 669 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Similar to Winston, Mariota also had to deal with inconsistency on the offensive line and a new group of targets at receiver. While the huge passing and rushing numbers always get first mention when discussing Mariota, it’s his efficiency that deserves more attention. The junior has completed at least 68 percent of his passes in two out of his three years in Eugene and tossed only two picks on 372 attempts in 2014. Mariota and Winston are the nation's most-talented quarterbacks. And with both players facing defenses that have been less than elite this year, the two quarterbacks should close out the 2014 season with a huge performance. The showdown between Mariota and Winston might be one of the most-anticipated matchups to occur in a bowl.
2. Which defense gets timely stops?
Considering the firepower on both sidelines and on the stat sheet this year, it would be a huge surprise if this game turns into a defensive battle. With that in mind, it’s unrealistic to expect either defense to be perfect in this game. Florida State has dealt with injuries all season on defense, but the time off between the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl should help return this unit to near full strength. Tackle Eddie Goldman suffered an ankle injury in the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech and is expected to return to the starting lineup against Oregon. But Goldman’s return isn’t the only key injury tidbit for Florida State, as tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample may play after suffering a pectoral injury earlier in the year, and a banged up linebacking corps should have a full complement of players available. For Oregon, Ekpre-Olomu is a huge loss against a talented Seminole passing offense. However, if there’s a bright spot for the Ducks, it’s the depth this unit has established over the course of the season. Additionally, Oregon held four out of its last five opponents to less than 20 points and limited each of its final three offenses to less than 4.6 yards per play. Both teams have struggled to get off the field on third downs, but Florida State is 11th nationally in red zone defense. In a tight game, turnovers could play a critical role in the outcome. Oregon has forced 25 takeaways this year, and the Seminoles have 24. There’s no doubt both defenses are going to have their hands full on Jan. 1. Don’t expect either to have a particularly effective day, but the determining factor could be key stops in the fourth quarter, turnovers and sacks. One or two plays on defense could decide this game.
3. Offensive Lines
Both teams had question marks about their offensive lines at various points in 2014. Oregon started the year with a significant setback, as tackle Tyler Johnstone was lost for the season with a knee injury. Johnstone’s injury wasn’t the only setback for the Ducks, as tackles Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena and center Hroniss Grasu missed time due to various ailments. Fisher’s return sparked the offense in the second half of the year, while Grasu is expected to play in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury suffered against Utah kept him on the sidelines for the final three regular season games. Having Grasu back in the mix is critical with the Seminoles regaining the services of tackle Lawrence-Stample and the strength of Goldman on the interior. End Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the nation's best at stopping the run and holding his own at the point of attack. Florida State had to replace standout center Bryan Stork this season and struggled to find consistency on the ground and in pass protection early in the year. However, this unit has thrived since moving Cameron Erving to center and inserting freshman Roderick Johnson at left tackle. Since the line shuffle, the Seminoles are averaging 146 rushing yards per game and recorded 5.4 yards per carry against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. This unit has also benefited from the emergence of true freshman running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 321 yards and one touchdown over his last two games. In addition to protecting the two quarterbacks (Winston and Mariota), it’s also critical that both teams are physical at the point of attack and open up rushing lanes.
This game has all of the makings for an entertaining shootout. Mariota versus Winston will be one of the top quarterback duels in recent memory, while both players are surrounded with talent, including receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and running back Dalvin Cook for Florida State, along with receivers Devon Allen and Byron Marshall, running backs Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman for Oregon. Offenses are going to dictate the flow of the game. Expect Florida State to use its rushing attack and Cook to keep the Ducks’ offense and Mariota on the sidelines, while Oregon hopes to get the Seminoles into an up-tempo shootout. It’s going to be a tough day for both defenses. However, whichever unit gets timely stops or generates a couple of turnovers will make a huge difference. This game could go either way and may not be decided until the final possession. Florida State can’t afford to commit turnovers like it did during the regular season, as a second-half deficit against the Ducks will be too tough to overcome. However, the loss of Ekpre-Olomu is huge for Oregon, and the Seminoles do just enough on defense to leave the Rose Bowl with a victory and a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 12.