FSU vs. Oregon Preview
On New Year’s Day the inaugural playoffs will begin with the Rose and Sugar Bowls. FSU and Oregon will face off in the Rose Bowl. This game has the feeling of something special, something that may be remembered as one of the great games in College Football (CFB) History. Two all-time great quarterbacks will face off. One team is looking to extend its greatness while the other is looking to finally reach the mountain top.
Game: Rose Bowl (CFB Playoff)
Teams: FSU vs. Oregon
Day & Time: January 1, 2015 at 5pm
Location: Pasadena, CA
Stadium: Rose Bowl
Oregon is coached by Mark Helfrich, and quarterbacked by Marcus Mariota (the 2014 Heisman trophy winner). The key to Oregon’s success rests with its superstar quarterback, Mariota. He is a very good passer, and maybe a better runner. He has won virtually every major award available to him in 2014. Oregon runs a spread offense that revolves around two key plays: Inside and Outside Zone Read. Essentially how the quarterback and running back lines up before a snap tells you what kind of play is about to happen.
I think most people are not surprised that Oregon runs to the outside a lot, but most are probably surprised to learn that Oregon also relies on inside running. A team that runs the ball like Oregon is actually Georgia Tech (GT). They are not exactly the same but there is a similar aspect of reading the defense by the quarterback and deciding to move the ball inside or out. Both offenses are similar in that they pound it up the middle and then bounce to the outside when the defense is staggered. Where Oregon takes it to another level is Mariota’s ability to consistently pass at a high level. Considering how much FSU struggled with GT’s offense that really could not pass the ball effectively is startling, because Oregon can pass effectively. In some ways Clemson’s offense under Watson is closer to what FSU will see against Oregon.
Oregon has had a revolving door at offensive line due to injuries all year, and this has caused Mariota to be under assault all year. This makes his Heisman win all the more impressive. Also, Royce Freeman along with other Oregon running backs will be key to Oregon’s success. They need to be able to run up and around the FSU defense to keep pressure off Mariota.
On defense Oregon has had its ups and downs. It started the year with a new defensive coordinator in Don Pellum. Oregon gives up a lot of yards, often due to random big plays. Normally Oregon plays a lot of zone on defense, often avoiding man to man coverage. Going into this game it was thought All American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was the second most important player. He was thought capable of shutting down Rashad Greene. He is by far the best corner Oregon had this year, but he went down with an injury recently and will not play. This injury is likely to result in Oregon playing a lot more zone than it would have liked, and now these other players will have to step up to attempt slow down FSU: Freshman Chris Seisay, Senior Troy Hill, and Senior Erick Dargan. None are as good as their injured teammate, but they will try and step in for him. One area that may see the biggest impact from his injury is in tackling running backs. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a great tackler, often coming up to help the run, and his physicality will be missed.
All of us in the ACC know about FSU, but just in case you I will go over some key facts about the team. FSU is coached by Jimbo Fisher (now expected to be a top 5 paid coach in all of CFB), and quarterbacked by 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Similar to Oregon, FSU’s offense rolls through Winston. Unlike Oregon, Winston is not a major part of FSU’s run game. FSU runs a very complex offense. It is not just pro-style, but it has also been known to have pistol formations. Jimbo has been accused of forcing the pass at the expense of the run, but in reality that is unfair. Fisher strives to call a very balanced game, but he often changes his play calling as the game goes on. He is hard to prepare for because he does not have a whole lot of tendencies, and instead he focuses on calling the game as it warrants. Some coaches will script a lot of their game plan or will go into a game committing to running or passing it. Fisher goes in with a general plan, but really coaches by feel. This style makes it hard to predict how FSU will come out in any given drive… unless you know Fisher’s signals due to having former FSU coaches on your staff (cough cough Auburn).
Early on this year FSU struggled running it and protecting Winston, and with key injuries to its original center this problem seemed to get worse. Then in the UM game, Fisher and Tricket (offensive line coach) decided to move the OT Irving to center and bring up freshman Johnson to the Tackle position. This move has turned out to be the most important of the year. Since that move, FSU’s running game has exploded, and generally Winston has been protected.
Key players on offense other than Winston include: Rashad Greene, Delvin Cook, Nick O’Leary, Karlos Williams, and Travis Randolph. Greene is the silent leader on this team, and will need to have a strong game. Winston loves to throw it to Greene, but O’Leary is his second favorite target. O’Leary matches up well with Oregon’s defense, and look for him to have a big game. Cook has been lighting the world on fire at running back, but Williams will bring the thunder. If FSU is going to win, it will need its running backs to have big days. Look for FSU to try and eat up yards and clock to keep Mariota off the field. Randolph, a freshman will also be key as FSU’s second best wide receiver.
FSU essentially runs the same style defense it ran under Pruitt last year, but Charles Kelly is now DC. FSU has been banged up on defense in its front line, which has caused much of their struggles. It has virtually eliminated FSU’s pass rush. Interestingly, FSU received great news when it was announced Nile Lawrence-Stample might be able to play against Oregon. He has been out since Clemson, and as a starting defensive tackle that injury hurt FSU up the middle. On top of that, FSU’s front line has looked much better the last 5 games or so. Couple that with Eddie Goldman’s exceptional play, and suddenly FSU’s front line look’s a lot better than it did in October. In the secondary PJ Williams, Darby, and of course Jalen Ramsey will be key to slowing down Oregon. If Ramsey plays like he is capable, Mariota may be surprised by FSU’s ability on defense. FSU’s linebackers will be healthier than they have been all year (FSU only had two linebackers against Louisville), so this should help. If this defense can slow down Oregon just a little, then FSU stands a very good chance of shocking the world.
-FSU has won 29 straight, and the last time it lost was in President Obama’s first term.
-Despite its win streak, Vegas had opening lines of -8.5 Oregon which are now at -9 Oregon.
-FSU has not been this big an underdog since Tim Tebow was in his senior year at quarterback.
-Jimbo has only coached FSU as an underdog six other times (Clemson 2011, Okl 2011, UM 2010, Okl 2010, South Carolina 2010, and VT 2010), and he is 2-4 in those games.
-Oregon has not been an underdog since Stanford in 2011, and only by 3 points.
-Oregon has only been an underdog 2 times in five years.
-The last time Oregon was an underdog by more than 1 score was against USC (-16) in 2008 (FSU is a 2 score underdog with its opening line at -8.5 which now is -9 with most casinos).
-This year Stanford (+7) and UCLA (+1.5) were both less of an underdog than FSU will be going into this game, and FSU is only a point better than Utah (+9.5).
-This game will be FSU and Oregon’s first ever meeting.
-FSU has only played 3 current Pac 12 teams on 5 occasions since 1980.
-Oregon has faced only 2 current ACC teams on 3 occasions since 1980.
-FSU is traveling further than any other CFB Playoff Team.
-Oregon has never won a national title, and only competed for 1 prior this playoff run.
-FSU has 3 national titles, and competed for at least 8 national titles.
If you just look at Oregon’s statistical rankings compared to FSU, Oregon is vastly superior. Oregon has a higher ranking in 22 of 39 observed rankings, and generally leads in the vast majority of important stats. Oregon protects the ball better than any team in the country, while FSU is one of the worst. If FSU is to win, it will need to somehow protect the ball and or get Oregon to break its tendency of not coughing it up. Oregon has a top 3 offense, number 1 in pass efficiency, 3rd in scoring offense, 11th in passing offense, 2nd in first downs, and 5th in third down conversions. FSU does have substantial leads in two offensive categories: FSU is 35th to Oregon’s 81st in sacks given up, and FSU is 5th to Oregon’s 42nd in red zone offense.
On defense both teams are probably about even. Oregon is barely better on third down defense, rushing defense, scoring defense, turn overs gained, and pass efficiency defense. Oregon is much better at sacking the quarterback and getting tackles for loss. FSU is much better on fourth down defense, first down defense, passing defense, red zone defense, and total defense.
FSU is better in terms of special teams as it punts the ball, performs on kick-offs, and kicks the ball through the up-rights better. Oregon is better when it comes to punt coverage and returns. FSU is much better when it comes to penalty yards, which is surprising.
Aside from purely stats among the two teams, FSU probably has two more edges. I think Jimbo is probably the better coach, or at least he is used to these big games. Also, Winston has more experience performing at a high level when all eye balls are watching. Yes, Mariota is the Heisman winner this season, but Winston has one as well… and won the last BCS title against the vaunted SEC a year ago. Also, FSU’s offensive line is far more experienced and battle tested. Although, Oregon’s defense is probably a bit more prepared for what FSU will bring when compared to what FSU’s defense will deal with against Oregon.
When you exam the statistical rankings of the teams that FSU and Oregon have played this year, two things jump out. FSU has faced much better defenses when compared to what Oregon has faced, and Oregon has faced much better offenses than what FSU has faced this year. Of course it becomes a chicken and egg argument, meaning “is the reason Oregon’s opponents had such good offenses because of the poor defenses in the Pac 12 or is it that the defenses struggle because of the great offenses.” The reverse scenario applies to FSU’s opponents. I guess we will never answer the chicken and egg question, but statistically speaking FSU opponents were far more disciplined when it comes to penalties with an average ranking of 52nd versus Oregon’s opponents at 91st on average. Also, I want to point out that FSU as it stands now is a good offense (trending up recently) among Oregon’s opponents. FSU has done this against some of the most elite defenses, including the 1st, 6th, 27th, 30th, 14th, 12th, and 9th ranked defenses. FSU still has a great offense despite playing elite defenses. Interestingly, Oregon has the 2nd worst total defense among FBS schools FSU faced this season. Total defense is not the greatest stat to use, but it gives you the general idea that Oregon hardly has a great defense.
Before I give my prediction, I will mention a few more key factors to consider. Winston could be a very different quarterback at game time when compared to the rest of the season. He injured his leg during the Louisville game, and struggled from that point on. During those 6 games Winston threw 11 of his 17 interceptions, and you could tell not being able to properly plant his foot bothered him in most of those games. If Winston’s leg has improved, Oregon may be in for a surprise. Also, Winston’s hearing results came back, and he was not found responsible for any student code of conduct violations. For the first time in a long time Winston has much of the pressure lifted from his mind… it could mean he plays very loose in the game.
Also, it should be interesting how each team handles the pressure or lack of pressure in this game. FSU is a huge underdog according to most experts, has a title already in its back pocket, knows it can get to the playoffs again with how it recruits, and has little expectations going into this game. Also, its main rivals are all floundering, so winning a big game to edge out perception among recruits is not as great as it was in past years. Long story short, I cannot remember a time FSU is walking into a game with less pressure than it has right now. Yes it has the win streak, but the real pressure for FSU was getting into the playoffs, which it has accomplished. You get the feeling from everything you hear coming out of the FSU camp that it feels like a million pounds has been lifted from its shoulders. You may see one of the loosest FSU teams you have ever seen in Pasadena. Generally, when FSU is loose it is very dangerous.
On the opposite side of the field you will have an Oregon team that has every reason to be tight. It is a huge favorite, and 99% of America is rooting for Oregon. Oregon has a Heisman trophy winner in Mariota, its first, who has been busy at banquets the last few weeks. Oregon has never won a title, and was possibly a missed tackle away from winning it a few years ago. Oregon has boosters linked to Nike that are probably expecting a return on investment in the form of a title. Oregon has easily the best team it has ever produced this season, and it has to begin to ask itself if it does not do it this year, will it ever happen. Also, Oregon is generally used to dominating early, and not used to tight games at the end (unlike FSU). If Oregon has any struggles early on it may begin to tighten up and continue to struggle.
I know I gave several reasons FSU has a shot to win, but I think Oregon has been too good this year and FSU has played with fire too much this year for me to ignore. Oregon should win, but FSU has a shot to win or keep it close. I give FSU a 30% shot to win. If I had to predict a score I would say Oregon wins 48-42. I think Oregon takes a big lead in the third quarter of 21 points, FSU storms back in the fourth, but comes up short in the end.