Compelling Fiesta Bowl tinged with regret

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
10:00
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Marcus Mariota and Collin KleinUSA TODAY SportsWith quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Collin Klein, the Fiesta Bowl won't be lacking in star power.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Thursday night? Forget the corn chips; this matchup is about something else.

It's the Regret Bowl. The What Might Have Been Bowl. It's the Can the Mayans Make the Apocalypse Take Out Only Nov. 17 Bowl.

If Nov. 17, when No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 Kansas State both lost their only game of the season, were wiped away, this Ducks-Wildcats showdown likely would have been for the national title.

So, yes, when the Ducks and Wildcats turned on ESPN during the past month or so and watched reports on Alabama and Notre Dame, they often were nicked by a pang of regret, no matter how philosophical a pose their respective coaches tried to establish in the locker room.

Regrets? Yeah, both teams have a few.

"Yeah, a little bit, I'm going to be honest with you," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "It's one of those things you have to learn from. We lost at the wrong time."

Of course, denial can come in handy. Alabama-Notre Dame? Who are they?

"I think this is the best two teams in the nation in this game right here," said Kansas State receiver Chris Harper, who transferred from Oregon. "I know Notre Dame and Alabama have their game, but I think this is the best matchup."

It's certainly a good matchup. No other bowls -- other than that aforementioned matchup in South Florida -- matches top-five teams. You have plenty of star power, with Kansas State QB Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, both All-Americans. Then there's celebrated Ducks redshirt freshman quarterback Mariota, who was first-team All-Pac-12 and will be near the top of many 2013 preseason Heisman lists.

And then there are the coaches. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, the septuagenarian program builder, and Oregon's Chip Kelly, the wise-cracking mad scientist of offense, both would make just about everyone's top-10 list of college football coaches. An added dimension of intrigue is the possibility that Kelly may be coaching his last game as a Duck, as he's being eyeballed by a number of NFL teams.

Said Kelly, "I do not know what the future holds. I do know we have a football game [Thursday] night, and I'm going to be there."

Kelly's crew is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. It lost its first two, including here to Auburn in the national title game after the 2010 season, but beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last year. Kansas State is playing in its first BCS bowl game since 2003, and it has lost its past two bowl games.

So there doesn't seem to be much question about how hungry the Wildcats are to end their season with a victory.

"It would be huge," said Klein, who is 21-4 over the past two seasons. "We talk about finishing all the time. We haven't been able to finish the last two years. To be able to do that is very important to us."

Part of Kelly's coaching philosophy is that every game is the same -- a Super Bowl! -- because your preparation should always be your best. Yet the Ducks want to maintain their perch among college football's elite. A Fiesta Bowl victory likely would cement a 2013 preseason top-five ranking because the Ducks have a lot of talent coming back next fall.

"We have to make a statement to the rest of the country," Ducks offensive lineman Kyle Long said.

As for keys, you hear the usual from both coaches: turnovers, tackling, special teams, etc. But turnovers seem to be even more notable than usual in this one, at least based on the teams' performances this season.

Kansas State has the third-fewest turnovers (10) in the FBS this season and has forced the eighth-most (31). Oregon is tied for first in turnovers forced with 38, including 24 interceptions. The Ducks turned the ball over 19 times, second-fewest in the Pac-12.

Klein had three interceptions in the Wildcats' 52-24 loss to Baylor.

"When we've turned it over, we've struggled," Snyder said. "When we haven't, we've played reasonably well."

Sure, both teams wish they were playing for a national title. But the winner of this game will finish ranked in the top four. So that's better than 116 other FBS teams. Not too shabby, even if it includes a dose of what might have been.

Kelly was asked what he'd learned after playing in four consecutive bowl games.

"I think you learn really how hard it is to get there," he said. "That's the one thing I think as a team, as a staff, as a group of players, to not take it for granted. It's a truly special thing to be able to play in a BCS game."

Of course, it's more special to win one.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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