A month and a half ago, the Oregon Ducks and Kansas State Wildcats needed only to win out the few remaining games on their schedules to punch their tickets to Miami for the BCS National Championship Game.
Though both teams will have to settle for the hardly paltry consolation prize of the Fiesta Bowl, college football fans are the true winners, as they now have a second bowl game of national championship quality in what is perhaps the most compelling matchup in the entire bowl schedule.
ESPN will provide television coverage of the game on Thursday, Jan. 3, beginning with pregame coverage at 8:00 p.m. EST. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. EST.
For those away from a television, ESPN will also live stream the game through its ESPN3 service, available at both ESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app. ESPN Radio will offer a radio broadcast of the game beginning at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Kansas State will be led by Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein at quarterback. Klein has played dominating football in nearly every game he played this year, faltering only in the team's sole loss at the hands of Baylor, a game in which he still managed to throw for more than 300 yards despite three interceptions.
Klein is a dual threat who gives fits to defenses, throwing 15 touchdowns and rushing for 22 more. Klein has been ignored in most pre-draft discussion, and he will likely view the Fiesta Bowl as a final chance to impress pro scouts.
A strong performance by the Wildcat defense will be essential, as Oregon's notoriously fast-paced offense has crushed nearly every team it's faced this year. Kansas State's rushing defense is ranked 18th in the nation, and linebacker Arthur Brown will need to focus on stopping Oregon star running back Kenjon Barner. K-State's passing defense has been far less effective—90th in the country—opening up and opportunity for Oregon to beat the Wildcats through the air.
Even against K-State's strong run defense, Oregon is likely to give many touches to Barner, who rushed for a hair less than 200 yards in the Ducks' last game, a victory over rival Oregon State.
Barner has not been the model of consistency this year though, turning in a few merely average performances. However, he's also turned in perhaps the best performance in all of college football in 2012 against USC, rushing for more than 300 yards and five touchdowns. Even when he is not at his best, Barner draws a disproportionate amount of attention from defenses, opening up Oregon's under-appreciated passing game.
Neither team wanted or expected to spend the first week of 2013 in Arizona, but unlike some games in which a disappointed team comes to play without fire or passion (I'm looking at you, USC), expect both squads in this matchup to be looking to prove that they are National Championship caliber teams.