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January 10, 2011
The season started Sept. 2. Here we are, 130 days later, with the national title on the line.
Auburn and Oregon are in the BCS title game for the first time. While the Ducks are aiming for the first national title in school history, the Tigers are trying for their second; they won it all in 1957.
Neither was in the preseason top 10 in the major media polls, but both have been near the top since this season's BCS standings were unveiled Oct. 17.
Oregon was No. 2 and Auburn No. 4 in the first week. Auburn ascended to the top spot the next week, and the teams remained first and second -- in some order -- since then.
These are among the most productive offenses in the nation, with Oregon ranking first in total offense and Auburn ranking seventh. But neither is a defensive juggernaut, with Oregon No. 26 in total defense and Auburn No. 53. Only one of the past 10 national champions -- Ohio State was No. 23 in 2002 -- didn't rank in the top 10 in total defense.
Auburn is trying to become the fifth consecutive SEC team to win the national title, following Florida in 2006 and '08, LSU in '07 and archrival Alabama last season. Oregon is trying to become the first Pac-10 team to wear the crown since USC in 2004.
For the vast majority of fans whose favorite team isn't in the national title game, next season's championship matchup is just 364 days away, on Jan. 9, 2012, in New Orleans.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Auburn rush offense vs. Oregon rush defense: The Tigers have been lethal on the ground, ranking sixth nationally in rushing (that's one spot below Oregon) at 287.2 yards per game, with 41 TDs. Heisman-winning QB Cameron Newton makes the Tigers' version of the spread-option go. He averages 108.4 yards per game (15th nationally) and has 20 rushing touchdowns. He has had six games of at least 150 yards, and has rushed for at least two touchdowns in seven games. True freshman TB Michael Dyer has been overshadowed, but he had a big first season in his own right, rushing for 950 yards and five touchdowns. He scored just twice in the final six games of the regular season. Sophomore Onterio McCalebb is a speedy, shifty back who can get to the outside and turn upfield quickly. He has rushed for 763 yards and nine scores, and averages 8.6 yards per carry. Those guys run behind an experienced line, one with four senior starters. Each of the four seniors -- LT Lee Ziemba, LG Mike Berry, C Ryan Pugh and RG Byron Isom -- received some sort of all-conference acclaim. Oregon gives up just 117.6 rushing yards per game and hasn't allowed more than 136 since surrendering 177 to Stanford (the Cardinal average 211.0), a game the Ducks won by 21 on Oct. 2. The Ducks have allowed seven rushing TDs in their past seven games. Oregon is extremely light up front, relying on quickness rather than bulk to slow down opposing runners. The starting linebackers are in the 235-pound range and are active. MLB Casey Matthews can make plays sideline to sideline, and WLB Spencer Paysinger -- a high school wide receiver -- has good speed and instincts. Oregon's defensive backs are active in run support. The Ducks love to blitz, but that often is counter-productive against Newton.
Auburn pass offense vs. Oregon pass defense: Auburn doesn't throw the ball all that much; the Tigers had the fewest passing attempts in the SEC and only four teams nationally -- the four that run the triple-option -- have thrown it less often. But when Newton does throw it, he has been incredibly successful. He leads the nation in passing efficiency and is completing 67.1 percent of his attempts; he has thrown for 2,589 yards and 28 TDs, with just six picks. He has thrown just one interception in the past seven games and has 16 TD passes in the same span. He has thrown at least three TD passes in five games, including three of the past four. In addition, he has thrown at least two TD passes in 10 games. The Tigers don't have a sophisticated scheme, but Newton has a strong arm and has no issues with throwing on the run. In addition, because opposing defenses have to worry so much about the Tigers' rushing attack, Auburn receivers see a heck of a lot of single coverage. The Tigers lead the nation by averaging 10.5 yards per attempt -- which means this is an offense that throws the ball downfield and doesn't dink-and-dunk -- and they're fifth in yards per completion at 15.7. Darvin Adams is Newton's favorite receiver. He has 48 receptions for 909 yards and seven TDs. Emory Blake -- whose dad, Jeff, was a longtime NFL quarterback -- also has seven TD catches; he has 28 catches overall, for 472 yards. Terrell Zachery rounds out the group of Newton's go-to receivers; he has 38 receptions for 585 yards and four TDs. H-back Philip Lutzenkirchen has just 13 catches, but five have gone for touchdowns. Despite Newton's mobility, Auburn has surrendered 21 sacks this season. That is an area in which Oregon must have some success. The Ducks have 31 sacks, led by E Kenny Rowe's six. In all, 11 Ducks have at least two sacks. Oregon's pass defense numbers don't wow you at first glance. The Ducks give up 214.0 yards per game, which ranks 51st nationally. But the Ducks are sixth in pass efficiency defense. They have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.5 percent of their passes. And while they have surrendered 13 TD passes, they also have 20 interceptions. FS John Boyett and CB Cliff Harris are tied for the team lead with five interceptions. Harris also has 15 pass breakups, while Boyett has nine. Matthews has three interceptions. DT Brandon Bair, who is 6 feet 7, has eight pass breakups and three sacks. Boyett and Harris each have interception returns for touchdowns. Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is aggressive and likes to blitz. But that can backfire against Newton. When Oregon does blitz, it's vital that the Ducks keep Newton in the pocket and not let him break away for first-down runs. The Ducks have good depth in their secondary and have solid nickel and dime packages.
The edge: A slight one to Oregon. If the Ducks can somehow force Newton to the air -- obviously a difficult assignment; only Alabama truly was able to stifle Newton on the ground -- their chances for a win increase greatly. While Newton can make plays in the passing game, as he showed against the Tide, he causes more trouble for opposing defenses with his legs. Oregon would much rather deal with Newton the passer rather than Newton the runner.
Oregon rush offense vs. Auburn rush defense: Sophomore TB LaMichael James leads the nation in rushing at 152.9 yards per game; he also has 21 rushing TDs. He reached 100 yards in nine of the 11 games he played this season and had at least 91 in the two others. He also had multiple touchdowns in eight games. James has excellent speed and is lethal in space, but he also has the toughness to run between the tackles. Because Oregon spreads out opposing defenses, James often finds himself with just one man to beat after breaking through the line. QB Darron Thomas has 492 yards and five TDs. He ran for a season-high 117 yards against Stanford. But he had just three games with more than eight attempts. Backup TB Kenjon Barner has rushed for 519 yards and six TDs despite missing all or parts of three games with a concussion. He has gotten more work since returning from his concussion, averaging 12 carries a game in the final four regular-season contests. WR Josh Huff is a speedy freshman who has been used occasionally on sweep plays. The sweep can be especially useful against aggressive, attacking defenses. The Ducks' line is physical and experienced but not overly huge. C Jordan Holmes is considered the Ducks' best lineman. The Ducks were held to fewer than 234 yards just twice, by Arizona State and California. Those happened to be the only games the Ducks didn't win by at least 17 points. Both the Sun Devils and Golden Bears rely heavily on their linebackers to make plays. For all the talk about its shaky defense, Auburn ranks second in the SEC and 11th nationally against the run, allowing just 111.7 yards per game. But the Tigers also allowed 16 rushing TDs, which is just sixth in the league. T Nick Fairley is the Tigers' top defender. He is a disruptive force in the middle of the line, with 55 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries. He was the nation's best interior lineman this season, and his ability to command double-teams often frees up other players to remain unblocked. How Oregon handles him will be interesting to watch. How Auburn's linebackers handle James -- and Barner -- in space is going to be a big key to the game. Auburn's secondary is good in run support; the defensive backs aren't afraid to come up and hit you.
Oregon pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense: The big question going into the season for Oregon's offense was whether Thomas, a sophomore who is a first-year starter, could be effective as a passer. The answer has been an emphatic "yes." Now, Thomas is not the prototypical NFL gunslinger; rather, Oregon's passing attack is predicated off Oregon running the ball effectively. But the Ducks have run effectively, and Thomas has been productive beyond most expectations as a passer. He has 28 TD passes and seven picks. He has thrown at least one TD in every game and has thrown at least three in five games. He has thrown just two interceptions in the past seven games, and has countered with 15 TD passes in the same span. But his yardage total dropped off in the final three regular-season games; he threw for between 145 and 155 yards in each of those outings. WR Jeff Maehl is, by far, the Ducks' most productive receiver. He runs crisp routes and has good hands and OK speed. He has 68 receptions for 943 yards and 12 TDs. He had at least one TD catch in nine games, with a season-high of three against USC. He has three 100-yard games this season and had at least five catches in nine games. Senior WR D.J. Davis never quite lived up to his high school hype, but he is the Ducks' second-leading receiver this season, with 36 receptions for 410 yards and three TDs. WR Lavasier Tuinei is another possession receiver, with 33 receptions for 321 yards and two TDs. TE David Paulson is a downfield threat. He has only 21 catches, but they've gone for 370 yards -- 17.6 yards per catch -- and four TDs. The Ducks have allowed just eight sacks, the third-fewest in the nation. Thomas' mobility obviously has helped keep the sack total low. James and Barner are OK receivers, and using them more than usual in the passing game might be a way to slow Auburn's strong pass rush a bit. Auburn has 33 sacks, with Fairley leading the way with 10.5; he also has 21 quarterback hurries. Fairley is one of six Tigers with at least two sacks. E Antoine Carter has 4.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries. Auburn's pass-defense stats aren't good. The Tigers surrender 250.5 passing yards per game, and only 13 teams nationally have allowed more. In addition, Auburn has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.7 percent of their passes -- one of the 25 worst figures in the nation. The Tigers have given up 23 TD passes and have just 10 picks. On the other hand, the typical completion by an Auburn foe averages just 10.9 yards, which is one of the 25 best totals nationally. LB Josh Bynes leads the Tigers with three picks, and defensive backs have just five of the team's 10 picks. CB Neiko Thorpe leads with nine pass breakups, but he doesn't have any interceptions. Secondary depth is a big issue. Outside of No. 3 cornerback T'Sharvan Bell, the reserves aren't experienced and can be exploited.
Auburn special teams vs. Oregon special teams: Auburn senior K Wes Byrum has made five game-winning field goals in his career, including two this season. Byrum doesn't have an overly strong leg, but he does have range to about 50 yards. P Ryan Shoemaker, also a senior, has struggled this season, averaging just 39.0 yards per punt. His longest has been 51 yards. While he is a senior, he had punted just seven times in the past two seasons after serving as the main punter as a redshirt freshman in 2007. KR Demond Washington has been dangerous. Washington, who doubles as a starting cornerback, averages 25.0 yards per return, and he took one back for a touchdown against Ole Miss. McCalebb has shown big-play ability on his few chances as a kickoff returner. Backup WR Quindarius Carr has been mediocre as a punt returner, averaging 5.7 yards on 19 returns; he has had just six returns in the past eight games. Auburn's punt coverage has good; the Tigers have allowed just eight punts to be returned, and the longest return was 19 yards. The average return is just 5.5 yards. The Tigers' kickoff coverage has been just as good, as foes are averaging just 19.8 yards per return. But Auburn has allowed one kickoff to be returned for a score, in a blowout win over FCS member Chattanooga. The Tigers have blocked two kicks this season, a punt and a PAT. Oregon's Harris, who doubles as the Ducks' best cover corner, has made a huge impact as a punt returner this season. He leads the nation with a 19.5-yard average on 28 returns, and he has taken four back for scores -- two against New Mexico, one against Washington State and one against California. Barner also has a punt return for a score, against Tennessee. Barner is averaging 15.9 yards on eight returns, though he hasn't been used in that role since the fifth game of the season. Huff has blazing speed and has put it to good use on kickoff returns, averaging 27.3 yards on 18 attempts. Barner has 11 returns but is averaging just 18.7 yards. K Rob Beard is 9-of-12, including 2-of-3 from 40 yards and beyond. While his longest is just 42 yards, he does have a strong leg, as evidenced by 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. P Jackson Rice averages 43.1 yards. Almost half his punts -- 17 of 35 -- have landed inside the 20-yard line. Oregon has been excellent in terms of kickoff coverage, mediocre on punt coverage. The Ducks haven't allowed any return scores.
Auburn coaches vs. Oregon coaches: Both coaches are in their second seasons. Auburn's Gene Chizik has a defensive background, but his team is all about offense this season. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has done an excellent job tweaking his version of the spread option to best fit Newton. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has a solid background, but his secondary has been a trouble spot this season. Oregon's Chip Kelly serves as his own play-caller, and he wants an extremely fast pace. Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is aggressive and loves to blitz.
X-factor: Neither team has played since Dec. 4. How long will it take for the offenses to get sharp? In addition, the officiating bears watching. It's a Big Ten crew, and a crew from that league was at the center of the biggest officiating controversy of the offseason -- the illegal celebration penalty called on a Kansas State wide receiver after a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl. And Auburn's Fairley has been criticized by some SEC coaches for being a dirty player. Will the refs keep an especially close eye on Fairley?
Auburn will win if: Both teams want to make the other rely on its passing attack. That puts pressure on Fairley to do what he does best -- create pressure in the middle of the line. He needs to dominate at the line of scrimmage to give Auburn its best chance of winning.
Oregon will win if: Oregon seems likely to have a tougher time than Auburn in imposing its defensive will. Thus, in that scenario, the Ducks need Thomas to be sharp as a passer. It will be interesting to see how Kelly calls the game early; will he trust Thomas to air it out on the first few possessions? Oregon has lost 15 fumbles this season; that's tied for the fifth-most in the nation. Auburn has lost nine. Obviously, neither team wants to give the opposing offense extra possessions.
Gerry Ahern: Oregon 38, Auburn 35
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.