Ducks, 'Noles ready for Rose Bowl like no other
LOS ANGELES (AP) A Heisman Trophy winner on each side. The most hallowed venue in college football. The defending national champion on a 29-game winning streak. A game that's never been played before.
Welcome to the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl, where the past and present intersect to usher in a new era.
Marcus Mariota and second-seeded Oregon (12-1) face Jameis Winston and third-seeded Florida State (13-0) on Thursday in the first national semifinal ever played at college football's highest level.
''They've got a great team. We've got a great team. It ought to be fun,'' Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Wednesday during his last pregame news conference at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Next stop, Pasadena. But it's not the last stop. The winner gets a trip to Texas to play either Alabama or Ohio State on Jan. 12 for the national championship.
The Seminoles bring in a 29-game winning streak and last year's Heisman winner, Winston, into its second straight trip to the Rose Bowl. Florida State won the national championship there last season, beating Auburn 34-31 in the last BCS title game.
The Ducks are led by this year's Heisman winner, Mariota, and are in search of their first national championship. Oregon is a relative newcomer among college football powerhouses. The only thing left for the Ducks to confirm their status as a member of the nation's elite is a national title.
''It would validate things externally a lot more than I think internally,'' second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
Mariota was a landslide winner of the Heisman this year, much like Winston was in 2013. The Hawaii native has accounted for a Pac-12 record 53 touchdowns (38 passing, 14 rushing and one receiving) and is the top-rated passer in the country.
''I think he's been an amazing guy and amazing player,'' Winston said.
Here's what to watch for when Oregon and Florida State play in the first College Football Playoff game:
FLORIDA STATE'S GREAT ESCAPES
After romping to a perfect season last year, this season has been filled with great escapes for Florida State. Five times the Seminoles have overcome a halftime deficit. Seven times Florida State has won a one-score game, including the Atlantic Coast Conference championship against Georgia Tech (37-35).
''You don't win 29 games in a row with luck ever,'' Helfrich said. ''They're just unflappable in a lot of way.''
But the `Noles have looked vulnerable, which explains why Oregon is a 9 1/2-point favorite.
''Our team has never walked on the field and thought we were an underdog,'' Fisher said.
The conventional wisdom is that both Winston and Mariota will enter the NFL draft after this season, though both have at least a year of eligibility left. So one of them is likely about to play his last college football game.
Winston hasn't been as consistent this season as he was last year. The third-year sophomore has thrown 24 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and has been plagued by slow starts. But when games have been on the line, he has more often than not made the big plays.
''I think it actually makes me better as a quarterback because things are not always going good, and when you get to the next level or even in life, when things are not going your way, you can't just hide up under a rock,'' he said.
In many ways it is as if this season has been a continuation of last year's title game against Auburn, when Florida State fell behind 21-3 in the first half and Winston led a game-winning drive in the final minute.
Florida State's defensive line is as healthy as it has been in months, with defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., having had time to heal up nagging injuries. Also, Nile Lawrence-Stample should be ready for the Seminoles after missing much of the season with a shoulder problem.
Two freshman running backs could take center stage.
Royce Freeman ran for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Ducks, adding power to Oregon's speedy offense.
''Royce has been incredible,'' Mariota said. ''From the moment he stepped on campus, we made certain that he was going to contribute.''
Dalvin Cook came on late for the Florida State, running for 321 yards in the Seminoles' last two games.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP