Photo: Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports
Oregon and TCU came into the season with high expectations, with hopes of a spot in the College Football Playoff a seemingly realistic goal.
Key injuries - including ones to their star quarterbacks - and poor play at different points prevented that from becoming a reality, and the Ducks and Horned Frogs are left to wonder what might have been as they get set to meet in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday night.
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The No. 15 Ducks (9-3) came into 2015 off a loss in the national title game to Ohio State last season. With Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams Jr. winning the job at quarterback to replace Marcus Mariota, Oregon hoped its high-scoring ways would again carry it into the CFP.
The Ducks, though, had those dreams dashed quickly as they split their first six games, including a blowout by then-No. 18 Utah and a home loss to Washington State. Adams suffered an injury to the index finger on his throwing hand in a win over the Eagles, his former team, on Sept. 5 and missed three of the first six contests, though Oregon won two of them.
Once he returned healthy Oct. 17, the Ducks showed that their preseason No. 7 ranking wasn't entirely undeserved. Adams helped Oregon top 40 points four times during its 6-0 close, winning at then-No. 7 Stanford and beating then-No. 22 Southern California at home in back-to-back weeks.
Adams threw for 1,865 yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions in that span, with an FBS-high 195.2 rating.
The Ducks capped their season-ending surge with a 52-42 home victory over Oregon State in the Civil War on Nov. 27. It was somewhat bittersweet given the heights of last season they were unable to match or surpass in this one.
"Well, I think this says a lot about our players and assistant coaches of keeping guys focused," coach Mark Helfrich said of bouncing back from the 3-3 start. "There are so many gurus and voices who have all the answers. To come in every single day and look at the film good or bad and own it and fix the bad stuff, continue to do good stuff and stay focused on the process.
"So I think it just, again, says a ton about their character. And the assistant coaches that kept them pointed in the right direction."
Adams and Royce Freeman (1,706 rushing yards, 16 total touchdowns) have helped Oregon average 548.2 yards, sixth in the country, but that represents the second-best offense in this game. Add TCU's third-ranked unit - and the artificial turf of the Alamodome - and the matchup seems guaranteed to be an offensive showcase.
Trevone Boykin looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate as No. 11 TCU (10-2) opened 8-0, passing for 2,928 yards with 28 TDs and five INTs while rushing for 524 yards and six scores. However, he threw four interceptions in a 57-35 loss at then-No. 12 Oklahoma State on Nov. 7, injured his ankle in a win over Kansas the next week and missed a 30-29 defeat to then-No. 7 Oklahoma.
The senior was back for the finale against then-seventh-ranked Baylor on Nov. 27 and went 18 for 33 for 148 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 28-21 double-overtime victory.
The Sooners, however, won the Big 12 and went on to earn a spot in the CFP. Like Oregon, TCU settled for the consolation prize of playing in a stadium that should ideally suit both teams' abundant offensive talent and wide-open styles.
"The only negative of coming here is you play against a really, really good football team," Helfrich said. " ... I think we have very similar seasons this year in terms of some untimely injuries and that kind of thing. But two extremely talented teams that are very excited to be in San Antonio."
Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, whose squad was ranked No. 2 in the preseason Top 25, also saw the parallel in the season of his team's bowl opponent.
"So to play a team like coach Helfrich said, really probably come down the same path this year of injuries and then getting healthy, he's probably on the other end where they're getting a little healthier. We kind of got banged up at the end."
Patterson has his fingers crossed over the health of first-team All-America receiver Josh Doctson, who despite missing the final two games and parts of two others with a broken left wrist, set TCU records with 79 catches, 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns. His 132.7 yards per game led the nation.
He's hoping to be on the field for his final college game.
"Just listening to my doctor and trying to get as healthy as possible in time for Oregon," said Doctson, who underwent surgery. "I want to be back more than anything, but I've just got to let time heal."
TCU's defense was hardly a formidable unit, allowing 396.7 yards a contest, but it was certainly better than Oregon's. The Ducks are giving up 480.3 yards, toward the bottom of the FBS.
Oregon is making its 11th straight bowl appearance and had won four straight postseason games before the 42-20 loss to the Buckeyes on Jan. 12. This is the Ducks' second appearance in the Alamo Bowl, winning 30-7 over Texas on Dec. 30, 2013.
The Horned Frogs, heading to a bowl for the second straight season, have won seven of their last nine bowl appearances and are 3-1 against ranked teams in that span. They are making their first Alamo Bowl appearance.
Oregon and TCU are meeting for the third time and first since 1978. The teams have split the first two.
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