Finally, we start getting into the meat of the bowl season. Over the next two weeks, teams will realize the payoff for their superb regular season play as they enjoy the perks and swag of their bowl appearances.
Watching the Oregon State Beavers stroll San Antonio's divine River Walk in advance of their Alamo Bowl matchup with Texas, it's easy to realize how fun moments like this can motivate individual players to want more and better next year.
The Fiesta Bowl, one of the jewels in the Bowl Championship Series crown, will show the Oregon Ducks and the Kansas State Wildcats a gem of a good time. But there is much more at stake for the Ducks than just a fun romp in the Valley of the Sun.
The outcome of the Fiesta Bowl will go a long way towards determining the Associated Press (AP) preseason rankings in 2013. If the Ducks still have returning to the national championship as a goal, it's imperative that Oregon be ranked in the preseason top five...and the higher, the better.
Oregon started last season ranked No. 5 in the AP poll; can the Ducks top that ranking in 2013?
Here's what needs to happen.
All Duck fans want the 2012 team to have a great time in Phoenix and really live it up—they've earned it. Especially the seniors who have given the fans the best years in Oregon's history. And, super-especially, seniors like John Boyett and Carson York who were cut down far too soon.
So, enjoy the sunshine and party on, Ducks. Just don't forget to Win the Day, OK?
The Fiesta Bowl is the only bowl game on January 3. It's a prime-time game on ESPN during a week in which most football fans, sportswriters and poll voters don't get too far from their TVs and their leftovers.
Win this game in convincing Duck fashion, Oregon, and you will vault to top-of-the-mind awareness with these important constituent groups. A score of, say, 43-28, with Kenjon Barner running at will and Marcus Mariota crisp, cool and clean will erase all doubts that the Ducks are one of two elite teams in the nation.
P.S. A little dash of De'Anthony Thomas' voodoo would only add to the Ducks' magic.
It matters to Oregon who wins the BCS National Championship Game.
If Alabama wins—especially, convincingly—they will start the 2013 season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. You know, that SEC thingy.
If Notre Dame is successful in exposing the SEC fraud and wins the Natty, it really changes everything, especially for Oregon.
Poll voters are not yet completely sold on the Irish. There is the feeling that, yeah, a team can put together one magical season.
But will Notre Dame build on this year and become an elite program like Alabama, LSU, Oregon, USC (perhaps a bad example, at least this year) and make it to big BCS bowl games in consecutive years?
Tennis great John McEnroe used to call players who won one Grand Slam event and then were never heard of again "one Slam wonders." Will Notre Dame be a "one BCS wonder?"
If Oregon wins the Fiesta Bowl, and looks good doing it, and Notre Dame beats Alabama, the Ducks could start off 2013 ranked No. 1.
But hold on, you say, there are other factors at play...
The night before Oregon and Kansas State take the stage, the Florida Gators will have most likely destroyed Louisville at the Sugar Bowl.
As with the Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl matchup will have the stage all to itself as the prime-time ESPN game on January 2.
It's important for Oregon's 2013 preseason ranking that the Gators not impress too much. Florida will win this contest, but if Louisville can manage to make a game of it, it will dull the Gators' star a little.
As long as Florida doesn't knock everyone's socks off, the Ducks still look good for No. 1.
What about this year's darling favorite team, Texas A&M?
If the Aggies beat former conference foe Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl—and I'm not convinced they will—Johnny Football's team should be ranked somewhere around No. 8 preseason.
If Oklahoma does knock off A&M, look for the Sooners to come in at No. 7 or 8 preseason.
Georgia, South Carolina, Clemson, Florida State and LSU—all good teams. But with two losses each in the regular season, none of these teams belong in the preseason top five no matter how good they look in their bowl games.
Nebraska or Wisconsin?
Assuming that Oregon wins the Fiesta Bowl—I know, I know, they still have to play the actual game—the Ducks will have been one eight-inch miss on a field goal away from being undefeated.
That's a great year of college football, folks.
And, while Oregon will lose some key players to graduation—Kenjon Barner, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, John Boyett—much of 2012's exciting, dynamic, successful team will return with a year of tough experience under their belts.
But there are some clouds on Oregon's horizon. Unless you have been living in a forest with Sasquatch you know that head coach Chip Kelly might leave for the NFL.
The dreaded NCAA might finally make a move next spring on the Ducks' little recruiting issue.
Pollsters, like my Aunt Mildred, don't like change. The offseason issues may factor into the Ducks' preseason ranking.
But if Kelly stays and the NCAA remains mum, Oregon rockets to the top.
So, here's the prediction for the 2013 AP poll preseason top five:
2. Notre Dame
5. Stanford or Ohio State
To recap how we get there, here's the scenario:
1. Oregon dazzles while destroying Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.
2. Notre Dame beats Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
3. Florida wins the Sugar Bowl, but it's closer than it should be.
4. Stanford (who really beat Notre Dame in 2012 and the whole world knows it) takes it to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
5. Ohio State just because.
Before all you Oregon fans start celebrating your preseason No. 1 ranking, it might be useful to remind you which team was the 2012 AP poll No. 1.
That would be the USC Trojans.
Kay Jennings is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.