Ohio State and Oregon both ended the regular season playing their best ball. Whichever team plays better New Year's Day will be crowned Rose Bowl champion.
Big Ten champions for the fifth straight season, the No. 8 Buckeyes will carry a five-game winning streak into Pasadena to face a seventh-ranked Ducks team that overcame early season adversity to claim its first Pac-10 title since 2001.
Following a 26-18 loss at Purdue on Oct. 17, Ohio State (10-2) closed the month with a pair of easy wins, setting the stage for a banner November. The Buckeyes won 24-7 at then-No. 10 Penn State and 27-24 in overtime over then-No. 13 Iowa before wrapping up the outright Big Ten title with a 21-10 victory at Michigan.
The surge earned Ohio State its fifth straight BCS bowl appearance and first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1996 season, when it defeated Arizona State.
"When you're undefeated in November, good things are going to happen over the holidays," coach Jim Tressel said.
Oregon (10-2) probably couldn't have envisioned a happy holiday season after its opener, a 19-8 loss at then-No. 14 Boise State which ended in ugly fashion when senior running back LeGarrette Blount punched Broncos defensive end Byron Hout after the game. The Ducks suspended Blount for the season the next day.
They quickly put the incident behind them, though, as redshirt freshman LaMichael James took Blount's place in the lineup and the entire team stepped up. James ran for 1,476 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry for a Ducks team that averaged 44.4 points while winning 10 of its final 11.
The Ducks claimed the Pac-10 crown Dec. 3 with a 37-33 victory over then-No. 13 Oregon State in the annual Civil War game. They're 4-0 against ranked opponents since losing to Boise State, including a pair of routs against teams in the top 10 -- 42-3 over then-No. 6 California and 47-20 over then-No. 4 Southern California.
"That team battled through a lot, but they never doubted themselves," first-year coach Chip Kelly said. "They are a great group to be around. They know how to fight and fight back and they are a great group to be around."
Kelly's Ducks ended the Trojans' seven-year reign as Pac-10 champions and earned their first league title since 2001, when they went on to beat Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. This is Oregon's first trip to the Rose Bowl since losing to Penn State on Jan. 2, 1995.
Even more surprising in light of the events in the season opener, Blount will be a part of this trip to Pasadena. Kelly reinstated him in mid-November after meeting certain academic and behavior conditions, and he returned to the field to face the Beavers, running nine times for 51 yards and a touchdown.
"We made him do a lot and he did it," Kelly said. "He wasn't handed anything. I am a believer that you define yourself everyday and he needs to continue to work hard."
In addition to working hard, Blount -- who ran for 1,002 yards and 17 TDs as a junior -- appears contrite.
"I was wrong for what I did," he said. "I never expected to be back with this team. I just expected I'd practice and do what I did."
Along with Blount and James, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli gives the Ducks another threat on the ground. The junior ran for 659 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,066 yards with 15 TDs and five interceptions.
Oregon's offense will be tested by a defense that's limiting opponents to 12.2 points and 262.5 total yards per game, and an average of 83.4 yards on the ground -- fifth in the nation. Ohio State is one of five FBS teams that did not allow a 100-yard individual rushing performance.
The Buckeyes are no slouches on the other side of the ball, either. Led by sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State averaged 29.3 points and scored 30 or more seven times. Pryor completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,828 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and rushed for a team-high 707 yards and seven more scores.
The Buckeyes' offense won't include wide receiver Duron Carter for this game. Ohio State officials announced Dec. 17 that the freshman, tied for fifth on the team in receptions with 13 for 176 yards and one touchdown, would sit out.
Ohio State has won all seven meetings with the Ducks, including a victory in the 1958 Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes have limited Oregon to two touchdowns or fewer in each of the matchups -- the most recent a 24-14 win in Columbus during the 1987 season.
If this season's common opponents are an indicator, though, Oregon may have an edge. Ohio State's losses -- to USC and Purdue -- both came against teams the Ducks defeated.