Sizing up tonight’s Fiesta Bowl, give the offensive edge to Oregon, the special teams’ advantage to Kansas State and call defense and coaching a draw.
What intangibles could play a factor? Let’s break down three.
1. NFL rumors surrounding Oregon Coach Chip Kelly
Kelly’s deflection of his potential future employment has been text book during bowl prep. He’s even benefitted by timing. Not until late in the process, after all scheduled media opportunities, did reports of meetings between he and NFL teams _ Eagles, Bills and Browns –surface.
These types of coaching rumors are part of the bowl season, and I can’t imagine a scenario were Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota dogs a play tonight because he’s concerned about his head coach leaving.
As it impacts a team’s psyche, programs in between coaches is the bigger problem. Two that fired coaches before the bowl game _ North Carolina State and Purdue _ looked lifeless.
Northern Illinois should have been able to share its greatest football moment with the coach, Dave Doeren, who helped shaped it. But the coaching carousel timetable doesn’t work that way. Doeren had already accepted the job in Raleigh before NIU was assigned the Orange Bowl.
Wisconsin gave a good effort in the Rose Bowl but fell short against Stanford with athletic director Barry Alvarez in charge.
Remember when Brian Kelly took the Notre Dame job? It happened just after his Cincinnati Bearcats wrapped up a 12-0 season in 2009. He didn’t coach the team in the Sugar Bowl and Cincinnati got hammered by Florida.
The smart money says Chip Kelly won’t coach Oregon after tonight. But he’s there through tonight, and that’s what matters.
2. Kansas State’s slow-starting nature
Whether it’s a bowl game or a season-opener, the Wildcats have established the habit of a slow break after a long layoff.
It took 2 ½ quarters to put away Missouri State in this year’s opener. Arkansas jumped to a quick lead in last year’s Cotton Bowl. The Wildcats escaped Eastern Kentucky in the 2011 opener. They played catch-up for much of the previous season’s Pinstripe Bowl loss to Syracuse.
Every game assumes its own personality, and clearly vanilla playbook openers against lesser opponents require different prep than a bowl against an evenly matched foe. Still, after a prolonged layoff K-State seems to need more time to warm its engine.
Stall a bit at the outset tonight, and uptempo Oregon could jet past the Wildcats early.
I think K-State should be okay. The magnitude of the game, the experience of Collin Klein, the awareness of Oregon’s speed all should have the Wildcats in sync from the opening whistle.
3. Who wants to be in Glendale more?
This is the intangible with the biggest swing potential.
Both programs were crushed by the Nov. 17 losses that ended the national title game hopes, but more opportunities awaited Kansas State.
There was a Big 12 championship, only the third league title in a century of conference affiliation, and the Wildcats rose to the occasion by thumping Texas. A 12-victory season and the highest finish in BCS standing/poll history will belong to the Wildcats with a victory. Those are meaningful accomplishments.
The Ducks are playing in in their fourth straight BCS bowl, but this one doesn’t carry the meaning of the previous three. Two were in the Rose Bowl, the coveted destination of the Pac-12, and a third was the BCS title game loss to Auburn in Glendale. This one isn’t for a title or in Pasadena.
Like Kansas State, Oregon is 11-1 but the Ducks won 12 in two of the previous three years.
Oregon’s biggest motivation is to prove to the nation that the loss to Stanford was something of a fluke and that the Ducks can play with anybody. If the SEC continues its postseason mediocrity – a 3-3 record with three remaining _ Oregon, which blew out everybody else on its schedule, can leave the impression that it is college football’s best team and had one bad night against a fellow BCS bowl winner.
Heck, the Ducks could even pick up a first-place vote or two in the final Associated Press poll with a convincing victory.
Still, watching Florida, which didn’t win its conference and didn’t seem to want to be in New Orleans in Wednesday's loss to Louisville, it’s not a reach to think Oregon could turn in the same type of performance.
If nothing else, the stakes seem higher for Kansas State.