The 2016 Alamo Bowl could very well go by another name and no, it’s not Valero, its title sponsor.

For Oregon and TCU, who meet Jan. 2 in San Antonio’s Alamodome on an ESPN broadcast, it will be tantamount to the What-If Bowl. 

The Ducks (9-3), the No. 2 team from the Pac-12 Conference, and Horned Frogs, at 10-2 and third in the Big 12, began the college football season in the national championship discussion with top-seven rankings despite questions about either team’s readiness for such a College Football Playoff push.

Neither, of course, are bound for a playoff semifinal. Those slots went Sunday to Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma. Instead, the season will end in Texas — the third consecutive year Oregon will play a bowl in that state — with both the Ducks and Horned Frogs still chasing a final top-10 finish. Such an ending would be just close enough to the college football spotlight that fans, coaches and players alike can’t help but wonder what could have been. 

What if quarterbacks Vernon Adams Jr. and Trevone Boykin hadn’t broken a finger or injured an ankle, respectively? What if a pair of depleted defenses had held up in key moments?

Oregon losses to Washington State in overtime and Michigan State on the road came by slim margins after UO failed to execute in critical moments. TCU, meanwhile, started 8-0 and was fifth in the country before losing two of its next four — including its own narrow loss to a CFP semifinalist, 30-29 to Oklahoma on Nov. 21, a game in which Boykin did not play.

“For us this is a playoff game,” said TCU coach Gary Patterson, who is in his 16th season at the controls in Fort Worth. “I think if Oregon … didn’t have injuries that would have been a top-four team and would have been able to do some things. And we feel like without a couple that we had, we would be like that.”

With a victory, what Oregon could be is a 10-win team for an eighth consecutive season, a streak that would tie Alabama (2008-2015), Virginia Tech (2004-11) and Miami (1985-92) for the fourth-longest run of 10-win seasons in college football’s modern era. TCU, meanwhile, is seeking its sixth season of at least 11 victories since 2008. Given such glass half-full perspectives, both Patterson and Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, who is making his second Alamo trip in his three seasons as coach, chose to think of the game as a springboard into next season rather than play revisionist history.

Texas Christian quarterback Trevone Boykin is eighth nationally with 31 passing touchdowns and 14th with 3,575 passing yards this season. 

“We always talk about ending the season on an exclamation point instead of a period,” Helfrich said. “You’re sending out your seniors and the guys on the way out on an uptick and ramping up the guys still in the program and setting the tempo in the offseason.”

Oregon won six consecutive victories to close the season, with wins against the Pac-12’s North and South division champions along the way. 

TCU’s challenge was massive attrition to its renowned defensive identity, the very foundation Patterson built his program around since becoming TCU’s defensive play caller in 1998 and its head coach two years later. The Horned Frogs have led the country in total defense five times since 2000 but within this season’s first three weeks, six defensive starters were lost to injury and two more to defection or suspension.

Said Patterson: “You always have a little bit of bad taste in your mouth if you don’t win the bowl game.”

There was little suspense about where Oregon would go bowling once Alabama and Clemson avoided upsets in their respective conference title games Saturday. That ensured Stanford would not leap into the four-team playoff and Oregon would not take the Pac-12 champion’s traditional place in the Rose Bowl.

What does remain unknown is the involvement of former UO offensive coordinator Scott Frost, if any, in the bowl. Central Florida hired Frost, 40, as its head coach Tuesday and he was vague when asked whether he would call the Ducks’ plays one last time. On a conference call Sunday moderated by a bowl representative, Helfrich was not asked about who would call the plays.

“I’ve known coach (Helfrich) and a lot of the guys who’ve been on the staff for many years,” said Patterson, noting his players were happy to stay in-state for the bowl. “They do an unbelievable job.”

Helfrich is due a $100,000 bonus for the bowl appearance, while UO’s assistants will earn bonuses equal to 1 1/4 months of their salaries.

Though injuries to Adams and Boykin are reason to wonder “what if,” their improved health makes this matchup one to look forward to for fans of offense. Adams finished the season as the nation’s most efficient passer, the second consecutive season a UO quarterback has earned that distinction. Boykin, a one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner, played at “75 percent” of his full health in TCU’s last game on Nov. 27, a win against Baylor, but “we expect him to be at full strength” for Oregon, Patterson said. Boykin’s 31 passing touchdowns rank eighth-best nationally, and if injured receiver Josh Doctson can return, it will provide Boykin one of the most talented targets in the nation.

“He’s just done a fantastic job,” Patterson said of Boykin. “We probably wouldn’t be in the position we are without him.”

In national total offense, TCU is third (564.3 yards per game) while Oregon is sixth (548.2). In scoring average, Oregon is sixth (43.2) and TCU eighth (41.7).

“If you can score mid-50s and up (along) with coach Patterson’s defense, that’s a pretty lethal combination,” Helfrich said. 

Once players are finished with academic finals this week, and coaches return from recruiting across the country, the Ducks will begin preparations with a “forward lean,” Helfrich said. 

In other words, they won’t be looking back.

— Andrew Greif
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