The Alamo Bowl is almost sure to be a high-scoring affair, but ultimately, No. 15 Oregon will surge past No. 11 TCU because the Ducks will be more motivated to bring their A-game.
Since Oregon played its first-ever national championship game in 2011, the program has whole-heartedly believed it can achieve anything. The Ducks were 12-0 heading into that game, and if not for a game-winning field goal as time expired, they would have gone down as one of the greatest college football teams of all-time.
Since then, Oregon has won two Rose Bowls, a Fiesta Bowl and an Alamo Bowl, been gifted a $95 million football performance center, chanted “We want ‘Bama,” secured its first Heisman Trophy in school history and played in and lost another national championship game last year. Each year, fans and critics alike have reinforced the notion that the Ducks can hang with the best, even though the grand title eluded them.
The 2015 season was a different story. It was the first time the current players were told they weren’t good enough. With a 3-3 record at the halfway point, the Ducks were written off and told their era of greatness was over. Student fans walked out on games before they ended, national reporters stopped showing up to practices and few people still believed in Oregon.
The Ducks played the rest of their season with chips on their shoulders and a mission to accomplish. They proved the doubters wrong, winning their last six games by an average of 10 points and dragging No. 7 Stanford out of College Football Playoff contention with them.
Perhaps no one player will be more motivated in San Antonio than quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. An FCS transfer, Adams almost didn’t graduate in time to enroll at Oregon. His work ethic and priorities were called into question, and the scrutiny only multiplied when he overthrew the would-be, go-ahead touchdown against Michigan State. Fans chanted, “Lock-ie, Lock-ie,” when Adams, whose right index finger was broken, failed to get anything going offensively against Utah and was subsequently benched.
Since his return to full-strength and action against Washington, Adams has been one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He posted a 179.6 QB rating — good for second nationally — after being told he can’t succeed in Division I football. He’s still told he can’t play in the NFL; he’s never been more motivated to deliver a signature performance in front of the pro scouts than in his final college game.
Running back Royce Freeman shares that motivation. He was completely overlooked as a Heisman candidate despite finishing fourth in the nation in rushing yards with a 6.6-yard average. He’ll set out to make a statement to those who didn’t give him a chance as to why they’d best not toss him aside next season.
The coaching staff has every reason to bring its A-game, as well. The game represents a huge opportunity for Helfrich to impress a hotbed of potential Texan recruits by embarrassing a perennial powerhouse on its home soil. It’s also essentially a tryout for wide receivers coach Matt Lubick to take over Scott Frost’s old job as offensive coordinator. Expect a dominant showing on offense.
Oh, and let’s not forget the matter of an eighth consecutive 10-win season at stake.
Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @KennyJacoby