Florida St.-Oregon Preview
And on New Year's Day, the two most decorated quarterbacks in college football will go head-to-head in the Granddaddy of Them All.
Defending national champion Florida State (13-0) will face West Coast king Oregon (12-1) in the 101st edition of the Rose Bowl, a tantalizing matchup determined by the College Football Playoff committee. The winner will face Alabama or Ohio State for the national championship.
"You have two of the greatest of all time at their position," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
The schools will meet for the first time in a playoff semifinal that could be a showcase for Winston and Mariota, who both finished up their regular seasons by leading their teams to victories in their conferences' championship games.
Winston threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in the Seminoles' 37-35 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC game, and Mariota threw two TD passes and ran for three more in the Ducks' 51-13 rout of Arizona in the Pac-12 final.
"You have two of the greatest college football players right now," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "It makes for great TV and great competition."
The Seminoles have never played in a Rose Bowl, but they were in Pasadena just last January, beating Auburn in the BCS national title game on the same hallowed turf in Arroyo Seco. Winston capped one of the greatest freshman seasons by a quarterback in the sport's history by throwing the winning TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left in Florida State's 34-31 victory, capping a 79-yard drive.
Oregon will be in the traditional postseason destination for the Pac-12 champion for the third time in six years, and the stands will be filled with green-clad faithful. The Ducks lost to Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State in 2010, but outlasted Wisconsin 45-38 in a thriller in 2012 for Oregon's first Rose Bowl win in 95 years.
Mariota hasn't won a national title or played in a Rose Bowl yet, but the junior from Hawaii has done nearly everything else during three incredible seasons as the Ducks' starter. He has thrown a touchdown pass in all 39 games of his college career while throwing just 12 interceptions - the same number Winston has thrown in his last six games.
While Winston wasn't even a finalist this year, Mariota picked up the Heisman in New York on Dec. 13 and is now focused on ending Florida State's 29-game winning streak.
"Everything starts with him at Oregon," Fisher said. "He's a tremendous football player, and he can affect you in so many ways. Not with just the arm and the feet, but with his mind and his intangibles."
Oregon is the second seed in the playoff, ranked higher than the unbeaten defending champs likely on the Pac-12's strength and the Ducks winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points. Florida State, which ended up seeded third despite its perfect record, appeared to work much harder down the stretch, yet remained unbeaten for the second straight regular season.
"Wherever you're ranked right now, I don't think matters that much," Fisher said. "Because every team in this playoff is going to be a great team."
It's not always pretty, but Winston and his Florida State teammates keep winning each week - 29 straight after outlasting Georgia Tech for their third straight ACC title. The Seminoles make defensive mistakes, and Winston has thrown 17 interceptions, but they execute well near both goal lines, ranking among the nation's best in red-zone defense and offense.
"When you get to 29, that's just extremely, extremely impressive," Helfrich said.
Oregon should have a decided home-field advantage in Pasadena, given the comparatively easy travel time from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California - along with a local base. When the Ducks beat UCLA here in October, the stands were filled with alumni and fans of the school jokingly known as the University of California at Eugene for its large percentage of Golden State students.
While the quarterback matchup is unparalleled, these teams' offenses have little in common. Florida State runs a pro-style offense designed to take advantage of Winston's arm and legs, while Oregon runs Helfrich's version of Chip Kelly's spread offense.
Whereas Mariota has dealt with the hoopla from the postseason banquet circuit for award ceremonies - something Winston and Fisher acknowledge can be a grind before the bowl games arrive - the Seminoles recently got a huge distraction out of the picture. Winston was cleared of the accusations he faced at a student code of conduct hearing involving an alleged sexual assault two years ago.
As for on the field, Winston could benefit from the Ducks missing star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The first-team All-America selection won't play after getting injured during a non-contact drill leading up to the Rose Bowl.
Ekpre-Olomu has been a cornerstone of the Ducks' secondary with 63 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups this season, and is widely considered among the top cornerbacks for next year's NFL draft. Redshirt freshman Chris Seisay will start in his place.
"I'm very confident we're going to be fine,'' secondary coach John Neal said. ''But the tough thing from a personal aspect is just to see Ifo in this situation. It's just really hard to look at him, as a coach and as a friend, and think of all the things he's done for us and to have something like that happen out of nowhere ... is very tragic."