It wasn't exactly the matchup Oregon expected when the Ducks suited up to play the Pac-12 championship with hopes of clinching the conference and a spot in the College Football Playoff. But in the end, playing Liberty in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl was the matchup they -- after two losses to Washington this season -- got.
In some ways, this game strongly resembles last year's Cotton Bowl, where a USC team coming off their second loss of the season to Utah in the Pac-12 title game (one that also kept them from the CFP) faced a motivated Tulane team looking to make their mark. In that game, the Trojans deteriorated in rapid fashion, allowing Tulane to come back and win the game.
Oregon, in this case, is hoping that's not their fate as they face an undefeated -- and equally motivated -- Liberty team looking to prove they belong in a New Year's Six bowl.
No. 23 Liberty vs. No. 8 Oregon
Vrbo Fiesta Bowl
When: Monday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line: Oregon -16.0
Key player: QB Kaidon Salter
Salter, who transferred to Liberty from Tennessee ahead of the 2021 season, has been one of the revelations of the 2023 season in guiding Liberty to the best season in program history. Salter (3,814 total yards and 43 total touchdowns) is the straw that stirs the drink for the nation's third-best offense (514.9 YPG) and top rushing offense (302.9 YPG). Seven times this season, he has accounted for at least four touchdowns for an offense that scored at least 30 points in all but one game on the way to averaging 40.8 points per game (fifth nationally). If the Flames are able to keep pace and potentially upend the high-powered Ducks, Salter figures to be in the middle of it.
X factor: CB Kobe Singleton
Junior cornerback Singleton's four interceptions ranked second in Conference USA this season -- right behind his teammate, sophomore safety Brylan Green. The Flames are allowing 244.8 passing yards per game (fifth in C-USA and 103rd nationally) as the Ducks' dynamic passing offense (342.8 YPG) -- second in the FBS -- looms. In addition to those four interceptions, Singleton has recorded 35 tackles (24 solo) and has broken up 12 passes. Singleton and the rest of the Flames' secondary faces its stiffest challenge yet as Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, one of four Heisman Trophy finalists, has picked apart opposing defenses all year (FBS-leading 77.2 completion percentage with 4,145 passing yards and 40 touchdowns). The Flames will need to get Nix off schedule as best as they can.
How Liberty wins: Control the clock and keep Bo Nix off the field
The Flames could very well be positioned to do just that, courtesy of the country's best running game (302.9 YPG). First-year Jamey Chadwell's team has eclipsed 300 yards rushing seven times and they'll be coming into the Fiesta Bowl having rushed for 441 and 393 yards, respectively, in their last two games -- victories over UTEP and New Mexico State. Junior running back Quinton Cooley (1,322 with 16 touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Kaidon Salter (1,064 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns) paced Conference USA in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns this season. Cooley and Salter will have to do much of the same if Liberty is to pull off a stunner in Arizona. -- Blake Baumgartner
Key player: QB Bo Nix
The senior quarterback looked to be all but done with his long, college career following a disappointing loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship, But Dan Lanning said this week that Nix is expected to play in the Ducks' bowl game matchup against Liberty. Nix, one of this year's Heisman finalist, finished his season with 4,145 yards in the air, 40 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Once he departs for the NFL draft, Oregon will have to look elsewhere for a quarterback that can replicate Nix's talent and production. But for at least one more game, they'll be able to rely on him to lead them to a season-sealing victory.
X factor: Running back Jordan James
With Bucky Irving likely headed to the NFL draft, the bowl game could be a great spot for sophomore James to gain some momentum heading into next season. James didn't quite have the touches or the output that Irving did this season, but he did average 7.1 yards per carry (98 total carries) and got into the end zone 11 times on the ground. Liberty's rushing defense was 22nd in the country, so James -- and Irving should he play -- will have to be at their best for the Ducks' running game to help set the tone on offense.
How Oregon wins: Don't change.
If Nix plays in the game, well, the recipe is simple: Keep playing the kind of game that helped them beat everyone but Washington this season. With Nix at the helm, Oregon's offense (the top-ranked unit in the country) can control the pace of the game to their liking, while the defense is one of the best run defenses in the country, so Liberty's strong running game (302.9 yards per game) could meet their match. If the Ducks are able to establish the ground game -- something Lanning pointed out they were not able to do in the Pac-12 title game against Washington -- they'll be in good shape to avoid the upset. -- Paolo Uggetti