PASADENA, Calif. -- As the 2018 season wound down and it was clear Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was going to have the opportunity to leave early for the NFL, coach Mario Cristobal and his staff gathered all the requisite information to help him make as informed a decision as possible.
"The data was great either way," Cristobal said. "[You] could go and be an NFL player right now or you could come back, establish your legacy and get even better, improve your draft status."
It's a standard process, not just at Oregon, and Cristobal figured Herbert would take a look at the feedback, mull it over with his family and settle on a decision ... but that's not how it played out.
"In the middle of presenting it to him and his family, he was like, 'Coach, I'm coming back,'" Cristobal said. "He had a lot of unfinished business and part of that was also self-improvement, gaining ground towards the player that he wants to be. But a lot of it was driven by the University of Oregon, how much he loves his teammates, the program, and to leave a legacy."
Herbert, a four-year starter and a native of Eugene, Oregon, has assured himself a special place in school history by guiding the Ducks to the Pac-12 title and an appearance in the Rose Bowl, but a win against No. 8 Wisconsin in "The Granddaddy of Them All" would take his legacy to the next level.
That's part of the reason the idea of sitting out the bowl game -- which has become en vogue for top NFL prospects over the past few years -- didn't receive a second of consideration from Herbert.
"This is the Rose Bowl. This is everything we've ever been working for," Herbert said. "It never crossed my mind [not to play], and I don't think it ever crossed anyone else's mind on our team."
Wisconsin junior running back Jonathan Taylor can relate. He's widely considered to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and after rushing for over 1,900 yards in each of the past three seasons, there's not much value he can add with another game. He already has over 900 carries under his belt, what's another 25?
It's possible that if Wisconsin had merely qualified for a middle-tier bowl, Taylor could have opted out to protect against injury, but in an era in which bowl games matter less and less, the mystique of the Rose Bowl still resonates.
"It is different. Especially with our program, with the history it's had with the Rose Bowl," Taylor said. "And before college football playoffs became the thing, this was the bowl to go to.
"If we can come away with a win, that will definitely etch our place in history."
Wisconsin has three Rose Bowl championships (1994, 1999, 2000), but has lost in each of its past three appearances (2011, 2012, 2013).
Taylor, who has yet to officially declare for the draft, acknowledged there is sound reasoning behind the option of sitting out, but his decision to play was pretty straightforward.
"We earned the right to be here, so I wanted to finish it out right," he said.
Taylor is the No. 2-ranked draft-eligible running back, according to NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., and the No. 29 overall prospect, according to Scouts Inc. He needs 3 rushing yards to pass Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett (6,082) for No. 4 on the all-time FBS rushing list, and with 91 yards would become the first player since Iowa State's Troy Davis (1995 and '96) to have back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons.
"You think about it, J.T., he came on the scene and introduced himself quickly," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "And from that point they've all been big moments and a lot has fallen on him. Everyone's looking for him to be what he has been, and that's, my opinion, the best back in college football."
Prior to the season, Oregon purchased permanent and total disability insurance as well as loss of value insurance for Herbert, according to a school spokesman, and while it's unclear how NFL scouts' opinions on him have evolved over the year, Cristobal is adamant his development has been significant.
"Just complete command of the offense in every phase," Cristobal said, "Not only throwing accurate passes and being able to flop and flip protections when he knows that he's short-sided on one side or the other, and get us in advantage runs when he knows we could get ourselves an opportunity to have a big play on the ground as well.
"He's like having a coordinator on the field is what he is. And he's just unfazed."
Herbert will be up against a Wisconsin defense that ranks No. 8 in FBS in defensive efficiency -- the fourth top-10 defense he'll have faced this season. In the three previous games (against Auburn, Washington and Utah), Herbert completed 65% of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions. His 10,403 career passing yards and 95 passing touchdowns trail only former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in program history.
Mariota led the Ducks to their previous Rose Bowl victory -- in the 2014 season, when it doubled as a College Football Playoff semifinal -- and Herbert called him a "great mentor, great friend," earlier this week. Herbert has a chance to join Mariota and Darron Thomas (2011 season) and become the third Oregon quarterback in the past 100 years to win a Rose Bowl.
"This is everything that I ever hoped for," Herbert said. "This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back, and this is the potential that I knew our team had. It's just been so much fun, and it's been such a great year, and it's exactly the reason why I came back."