LOS ANGELES — For years, college football fans pleaded for a playoff. Now it's here and it starts at the sport's most hallowed venue, with two Heisman Trophy winners and the defending national champions.
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.
Ducks coach Mark Helfrich and Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher held their final news conferences Wednesday at a downtown Los Angeles hotel. They posed for pictures with the Rose Bowl trophy, shook hands and went their separate ways.
“We're looking forward to the challenge,” Fisher said. “We know it's a heck of a challenge. They've got a great team. We've got a great team. It ought to be fun.”
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 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,” Helfrich said.
When we last saw Oregon playing, the Ducks played their best game of the season, winning the Pac-12 championship with a 51-13 beating of Arizona.
Mariota had all but locked up the Heisman Trophy by then, but he added an exclamation point against the Wildcats and ended up being a landslide winner. The Hawaii native has accounted for 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 for 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 games, including the Atlantic Coast Conference championship against Georgia Tech (37-35).
The 'Noles have looked vulnerable, which explains why Oregon is a 9 ½-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 the game has 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.
Oregon has been at the forefront of the up-tempo offense revolution in football. While many have copied it, few do it better than the Ducks.
Florida State players have said they have done more conditioning to get ready for the fast-paced attack, but you never how much it will affect a team until it's live. Especially those big defensive linemen, who will also have their hands full chasing around the elusive Mariota.
The good news for Florida State is its defensive line is has 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.