ARLINGTON, Texas -- Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a native of Hawaii, stood in front of his locker in AT&T Stadium on Monday night with a fresh lei around his neck, his face engulfed in a vibrant array of red and yellow roses his family had given to him.
In spite of the Ducks' convincing 42-20 loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Mariota looked like a winner.
Ask anyone in the program, and they'll tell you he still is.
"On the outside, there's that thing that you have to win a national championship to solidify everything, and I don't know if that's necessarily true," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "I think Dan Marino was a pretty good player and some of these other guys that have legacies and not have a national championship. ... I think you could certainly argue that this was the best, if not certainly one of the top two or three greatest seasons in college football history."
With the Heisman Trophy winner considering leaving school early for the NFL, there was a now-or-never feel about the Ducks' chance at the program's first national title. Oregon entered Monday night's historical game with a 60-7 record over the past decade, the best overall record in college football during that span, and a nation-leading 17-4 record against Top 25 opponents. The program, which played for a national title in 2010, has been knocking on the door but hasn't been able to kick it down.
This was supposed to be the day that changed, the day the Ducks finally punched the door in.
Instead, they were outplayed, outmuscled and outexecuted by a more physical Ohio State team that sneaked into the playoff's final ranking with its third-string quarterback. It was a surprisingly flat performance, considering the high stakes, but Oregon did not have to beat Ohio State to prove it's one of the nation's top teams -- the Ducks are already there. A better performance, though, would have helped validate what the program has already accomplished.
"It's unfortunate and a little bit insulting in a lot of ways that whoever loses this game, the word 'failure' comes up as a descriptive for the season," Helfrich said. "And as I told these guys in the locker room, that will never exist in these guys' vocabulary."
That's not to say Oregon won't have any regrets.
Oregon's defense was a sieve, allowing Ohio State 538 yards, including 246 on the ground to Ezekiel Elliott. The offense came up shockingly short. There were drops. They were just 2-of-12 on third-down conversions. The Ducks, whose offense is typically as sleek as their unis, couldn't cash in on four Ohio State turnovers.
Oregon entered the game averaging 47.2 points per game. The Ducks were shut out in the fourth quarter. And yet the overwhelming consensus from players and coaches after the game was that this season was still a success.
How could it not be?
Oregon won the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual. It was the No. 2 team in the country. It had the Heisman Trophy winner.
"I think the media has a bad habit of overstating everything," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "There's all but one team in the country that wouldn't trade places with us. I think this team battled. They battled through injuries, they battled through people doubting them early in the year. Honestly, they probably overachieved. We had some special players, we were missing a bunch of them. Listen, I think a few things go another way, this game could've been closer or different. But you have to give a ton of credit to them, they're a good team."
Helfrich said he thinks all of the pieces are in place for Oregon to be that good, too. He pointed to the support, the facilities, the infrastructure, the talent, the coaching staff and the leadership.
"That's kind of all the ingredients," he said.
The question is whether or not he'll have the quarterback.
Mariota said he hasn't yet made a decision about the NFL, and that he'll take the next few days with his family to figure it out. The unfinished business in the postseason will be part of the equation, but not all of it.
"I'm sure it will weigh in a little bit, but there's a lot of other things that have to play into that decision," Mariota said. "There's starting grad school, coming back for another year to improve, there's a lot of other things that could bring me back. It's just not specifically this loss."
When asked about Mariota's legacy at Oregon, Helfrich said, "There has never been one greater. None."
And he doesn't need a national title to prove it.