SCOTTSDALE – A year ago, Michigan and TCU took part in one of the better college football games in the College Football Playoff era at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl.
Fueled by two stellar offenses, the second- and third-ranked teams, respectively, in the country combined for a Fiesta Bowl record of 96 points. TCU topped Michigan by six and advanced to the national championship game.
Fast forward a year later and the annual Arizona tradition of the Fiesta Bowl is once again taking place at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. The eighth-ranked Oregon Ducks and the 23rd-ranked Liberty Flames descend upon the Valley to play in the 53rd edition of the game Monday.
Like many Fiesta Bowls past, will this one, too, have a wild finish?
Although this game does not determine who gets a bid to the CFP title game in Houston, the two teams are excited to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“We’re thrilled to be here,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said when the team arrived at Sky Harbor Airport Tuesday. “We are certainly excited about being a part of the Fiesta Bowl. I know our players are anxious to get to work. But I’m also excited for them to reap some of the rewards of what bowl games mean and what the trips mean.”
Oregon comes into the Fiesta Bowl following a Pac-12 Championship game loss to Washington. The Ducks finished the season 11-2 with both losses coming from the playoff-bound Huskies.
Liberty enters the game as the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the country. As one of the last four undefeated teams in the FBS, the Flames won the Conference USA championship in their first season with the conference.
Liberty will be playing in its first New Year’s Six bowl in school history as well as C-USA’s.
“To see our name, our logo up there in the Fiesta Bowl was something beyond our dreams. And on top of that, to play one of the premier college football programs in the country with Oregon is something that typically doesn’t happen to programs like us,” Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell said when the matchup was announced Dec. 3.
“And we’re thankful to be in it. Thankful to be representing Conference USA.”
This year’s Fiesta Bowl matches two of the top three offenses in the country. Oregon ranked second in the country in yards per game (526.6) and Liberty ranked third (514.9). Both teams also rank top five in the country for points per game: Oregon is second (44.2) and Liberty fifth (40.8).
While these two offenses set the standard in college football, they get the job done in different ways.
Oregon’s offense is fast-paced and moves through the air.
Led by Heisman finalist Bo Nix, the Ducks had the second-best passing offense in the country behind their rival Washington.
The team averaged 342.8 passing yards per game through the air, and Nix led the country with 40 touchdown passes.
Unlike many NFL Draft prospects planning on taking the next step, Nix opted to play in the postseason. He will extend his record of most starts by a quarterback in college when he takes the field for the 61st time.
“This is the next game and it is the last one. I get one more chance to go out there with my teammates and compete for a win,” Nix said.
While Oregon is known for its passing offense, the team is not one-dimensional. Led by running back Bucky Irving, the Ducks are top 30 in the country, averaging 183.8 rush yards per game.
Irving, who has also declared for the draft, is following Nix and playing in the Fiesta Bowl.
With both Nix and Irving playing, Oregon’s offense will nearly be at full strength. The team will be missing top receiver Troy Franklin, who is also NFL-bound.
Even without Franklin, the Liberty defense will have their hands full with Oregon.
“The receiver corps is elite,” Liberty defensive coordinator Skylor Magee said. “The running back in space is a problem for everybody. So it’s not just Bo. He has a good cast around him that makes them very, very challenging.”
On the other sideline, Liberty’s offense gets the job done on the ground. The Flames lead the country in rush yards per game (302.9) and rushing touchdowns (39).
“First, as far as the offense, it’s a very difficult offense for teams to prepare for. It’s a lot of triple options that make people slow down and think a little bit,” quarterback Kaidon Salters said.
Salters has the third most rushing yards this season (1,064) for a quarterback in the country, following Heisman winner Jayden Daniels and Boston College’s Thomas Castellanos.
Liberty running back Quinton Cooley is also toward the top of most rushing categories in the nation. The 5-foot-7, 210-pound back is sixth in the country in rushing touchdowns (16) and top 15 in rushing yards (1,322).
Despite being a run-dominant team, Salter is second in the country in yards per completion (16.98) this year. His favorite target, senior wide receiver CJ Daniel, is 12 receiving yards away from securing his first career 1,000-yard season.
Even though Liberty is one of the only offenses that runs triple option in the country and has been successful with that scheme, it has yet to see a defense like Oregon’s.
With the extra time between games for the Flames, co-offensive coordinators Willy Korn and Newland Isaac have been trying to figure out the Ducks.
“We haven’t seen a defense like them,” Isaac said. “They are, really, really talented and that’s true. We feel like that’s one of our advantages. We watched those guys, the outside zone, and we have to slow down and think versus just turning around and running.”
Oregon ranks ninth in the country in rush defense, allowing only 97.5 yards per game on the ground this year. Liberty has yet to be held under 100 yards rushing through its first 13 games.
When these two teams step into State Farm Stadium on New Year’s Day, there is a strong possibility that last year’s Fiesta Bowl point total could be eclipsed by these two high-powered offenses.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for us and an exciting opportunity for everybody who supports Oregon and everybody that supports Liberty and people that are college football fans,” Lanning said.
“That’s what makes college football so great, is bowl season and games like this.”