GLENDALE, Ariz. — Were Thursday night’s Fiesta Bowl played a couple of seasons from now, No. 4 Oregon might be on its way to a national championship game.
But with a college football playoff system yet to be implemented, the Ducks instead will finish out another season ranked in the top five nationally and winners of back-to-back BCS games after topping No. 5 Kansas State 35-17.
Oregon appears poised to remain among college football’s elite entering next season, but after a 12-1 campaign it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had the Ducks not slipped up against Stanford.
What if Alejandro Maldonado’s 41-yard overtime field goal had gone through the uprights? Might Oregon be preparing to play Notre Dame or Alabama in Monday’s BCS National Championship Game? Or what if a playoff had been established already? Might the Ducks be on their way to the pinnacle of college football?
If Oregon coach Chip Kelly or any Ducks players asked themselves such questions after celebrating on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday, they weren’t prepared to admit it.
“We’re not a ‘what-if’ operation,” Kelly said. “We control our own destiny. We control our own fate.”
Added senior running back Kenjon Barner: “You’ve got to take it for what it’s worth. We’re not in (the National Championship Game), we’re here in this Fiesta Bowl. So we’re going to take this win for exactly what it is. It’s a BCS win, it’s a Fiesta Bowl win, and we’ll just leave it at that.”
Players and coaches might privately entertain the question of their ability to beat the winner of Monday’s game, but Kelly made it clear Thursday the Ducks have no one to blame but themselves for their sole loss.
“We knew the rules of engagement coming in, and we lost to a real good Stanford team,” Kelly said. “That happens. The unique thing about our sport right now, until there’s an expanded playoff system, is that the playoffs start in Week 1. If you lose a game, then you’re kind of leaving it up to chance.
“Alabama lost a game and everybody said they were out. Then we lost and K-State lost and (Alabama was) back in.”
Beyond any what-if or what-might-have-beens, though, the Ducks look set for repeat success in 2013 with or without Kelly, who acknowledged Thursday he will entertain offers to coach in the NFL. That much was evident on the very first play of the game, when sophomore running back De’Anthony Thomas ran the opening kickoff 94 yards to the end zone to give Oregon a lead it never relinquished.
Then there was redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, who dazzled in his first season under center and Thursday earned offensive MVP honors by passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns and running for 62 yards and another score. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be mentioned in early Heisman Trophy conversations next season.
That Oregon continues to replenish its talent year after year is nothing new. In fact, the Ducks did exactly so this season after losing quarterback Darron Thomas, running back LaMichael James and tight end David Paulson after last year’s Rose Bowl season. Oregon simply reloads, and that, players contend, is a testament to the work Kelly has done for the program.
“What Coach Kelly brought to this program has taken it to another level,” Barner said. “It sets the tone for teams to come and for the future. We’ve been on an amazing road and couldn’t have ended on a better note.”
With Thomas ready to slide into the starting role for Barner, Mariota back for at least another year and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich ready to take over if Kelly decides to go pro, Oregon isn’t going anywhere.
It’s possible sanctions from a pending NCAA investigation of the program could hinder the Ducks’ efforts to remain in the upper echelon of college football, but in the meantime Oregon remains Division I royalty after its latest triumph.
“The deal for us was we had an opportunity to play one more time,” Kelly said. “It was a chance for us to improve on our season, and that’s what our guys did.”