It’s official: The Oregon Ducks will take on the Auburn Tigers in Glendale, AZ for the BCS National Championship on January 10, 2011. As a lifelong Duck fan and recent University of Oregon grad, I couldn’t be prouder to see the Ducks in the title game. Just being there is HUGE for Oregon Football and the University’s athletics, which has been on the cusp of national greatness and recognition over the past decade. However, in order to claim supremacy as the nation’s best team, they must overcome a tough team from the SEC; a conference that has claimed the past four national titles, and never lost a national championship games in six appearances. History is against the Ducks, as well as one of the greatest single season performers in NCAA Football history.
#1 Auburn Tigers Team Preview
By now, it seems everyone knows Cameron Newton’s story. A University of Florida recruit who gets in trouble, transfers, wins a 2009 NJCAA National Title at Blinn College, and then finds success at Auburn University. Out of high school, Newton was under the radar, as he was ranked the 14th best quarter back prospect (according to Scout.com) coming out of high school. He was behind the likes of USC transfer Aaron Corp, Kodi Burns (QB turned WR for Auburn), Steven Threet, and current Florida QB John Brantley. This year at Auburn, Cam Newton has been the most dominant player in College Football. He has been extremely consistent and game changing as a passer and rusher
becoming only the 3rd player in NCAA History with both 20+ passing and rushing touchdowns in a season.
Through the air, Newton has accumulated 2,589 yards with 28 TD passes and only 6 interceptions. He leads the nation in yards per attempt with 10.5, and does so with extreme efficiency, completing 67.2% of his passes with a 188.2 QB rating. Despite being surrounded by controversy regarding his father’s inquiring for money in a ‘pay for play’ scheme for his sons commitment, the NCAA has set the precedent that without Cam’s knowledge, he should be in the clear. That said, Cam Newton looks like a sure shot to win the Heisman Trophy in 2010. However, with the exception of Mark Ingram last year, recent history hasn’t been kind to Heisman winners. The past few have struggled in their bowl games, especially the National Championship. Sam Bradford, Troy Smith, and Reggie Bush are perhaps the best examples of touted performers coming into the big game and failing to meet expectations, ultimately going home with a loss. However, Cam Newton has been a special player who has been unstoppable in the nation’s best conference.
The Tigers also have some legitimate offensive playmakers outside their superstar. Freshman RB Michael Dyer broke Bo Jackson’s freshman rushing record this year with 950 yards. Sophomore playmaker Onterio McCalebb has been a game breaker all season with 763 rush yards and 9 touchdowns. Their top wide receivers have been solid; Darvin Adams is the main target, along with Terrell Zachery and Emory Blake as supporting pass catchers. As a team, Auburn is putting up 497.7 total yards per game with 43.2 points, both in the top ten nationally in those respective categories. The Tigers also converted an impressive 48.9% on 3rd down in their 13 games.
On the defensive side of the ball, Nick Fairley is a top 10 NFL Draft prospect at defensive tackle. The junior college transfer has been a one-year wonder at Auburn with 11 of the team’s 32 sacks this season. The Tigers D allowed 362.2 yards per game this season, with the aggressive run stopping line holding predominantly SEC teams to 111.7 yards on the ground. For how good the Auburn defensive line has been, the Tiger’s secondary has been contrastingly bad. The weakness of the team is their corners and safetys which are allowing 250.5 yards per contest, among the worst in the nation. They are also in the bottom half of the NCAA in passes defended and interceptions. On special teams, Demond Washington has a kick return touchdown and is fourth nationally in return yardage. The Tigers also only punted 37 times this season, but were 106th nationally in net punting.
#2 Oregon Ducks Team Preview
This year, red shirt sophomore LaMichael James has been spectacular. LMJ is the frontrunner to win the Doak Walker for the nation’s top running back after leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns, despite being suspended for a game earlier this season. While some argue he is a product of the system, the speedy James has compiled 1682 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in only 11 games. The one game James was suspended for, backup running back Kenjon Barner put up roughly 150 yards rushing and five touchdowns in one half. Behind a veteran offensive line, Oregon was fourth in the nation with 303.8 rushing yards per game, and 3rd in rushing touchdowns with 42.
The Oregon offense has been the talk of the nation for most of the year. They are running nearly 80 offensive plays per game in a blur with less than 20 seconds between plays. Putting up 3.67 miles of total offense so far this season, the Ducks are averaging 537.5 yards per game, and they led the nation in scoring with a gaudy 49.1 points per game. The ‘run first’ spread has opened up the passing game for Darron Thomas, who threw for 2,518 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Thomas also added 492 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and has only been sacked 7 times this season(fourth lowest in the nation). His favorite target, 6’1” wide receiver Jeff Maehl, caught 61 passes for 943 yards and 12 touchdowns. Converted freshman wide receiver Josh Huff is an emerging playmaker in the return and passing games. David Paulson and DJ Davis are supporting possession receivers that will anchor Thomas in the passing game. The Ducks haven’t been shy on fourth downs this season, going for it 31 times, and converting 64.5% of the time.
The Duck defense has been underrated all year, giving up only 18.4 points per game. Their run defense has been solid too, with defensive tackles Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe assisting on 31 team sacks on a defensive line that allowed only 117.6 rushing yards. Casey Matthews has also been a rock solid playmaker at linebacker. The Oregon secondary led the nation with 76 passes defended this season, and was fourth in interceptions with 20 picks. On special teams, Cliff Harris leads the nation in punt return yardage and touchdowns with five. The Ducks have only punted 38 times this season.
Auburn’s Keys To The Game
It’s simple: Cam Newton. If the playmaker can get in the open field, he can make defenders miss and burn them down the turf. Oregon has a quick defense, but they may not be able to bring down the big man in space. Not only can he run, but Newton has a strong arm and throwing accuracy to beat the Ducks secondary. Oregon frequently only brings three and will blitz on occasion, but Newton will frequently have a lot of time in the pocket to make plays with his arm.
Big plays could be a big part of Auburn’s ability to win the game. McCalebb has been known to make plays in critical moments of the game, including a 99-yard kickoff return in a critical point earlier this season. Dyer should be rock solid on the ground, but he doesn’t have the speed to beat Oregon. The Newton to Dyer handoff needs to take pressure off their star, so that when they do need Newton to run it straight ahead on a big down, they can use him. Picking up yards on the quarterback draw is a bread and butter play for their offense, and expect it often.
The battle-tested experience of the Tigers should be able to help them stay composed if they get down in the score. Having been dead in the water against Alabama at 24-0, the Tigers had nothing to lose and played like it, coming back to win 28-27. This season, they have beaten six top 25 teams when they were ranked. If they do get down, they have the resilience to get back in it because of Newton. Not only that, they have played in a much tougher SEC conference that has pushed their team to the limit. If Oregon jumps out early, it will be a wake up call for this team. Keeping the game within a couple scores will be critical though so it doesn’t get to out of hand against an explosive Oregon offense.
Oregon’s Keys To The Game
Traditionally, the Ducks have a tendency to start off games slow, but never let things get out of hand. However, they are one of the best second half teams in the nation and make superb adjustments. Oregon is used to playing ahead, but have showed resiliency in close games. When the other team strikes, the Ducks almost instantly answer back with a score of their own. Oregon has also owned a 30.9 point scoring differential average over their opponents this season. In terms of style, theirs greatly contrasts Auburn, who has trailed in 8 of their 12 regular season games. The Tigers have won six games by seven points or less, and four games by less than three points. If the Ducks can jump out early and hold on to a lead, there has been no better team at playing ahead this season.
This is going to be an extremely up-tempo, fast paced game that goes back and forth. Nether team employs a huddle between plays, and they both hurry to the line to get off the next play. The difference between the teams is that Oregon runs a system, and Auburn plays behind their superstar. Barring injury, the Ducks won’t be able to stop Cam Newton, but if they can contain him and prevent big plays, then they have a chance. This is a veteran defense that faced a similar challenge against Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor last year in the Rose Bowl. This year, Auburn gave up 21 sacks, which means that Oregon should be able to get at least two or three. If they can back up Auburn early on downs and contain their run game, then their secondary should be able to make plays to prevent the Auburn offense from rolling.
For the Ducks offense, it will be crucial to use their run game to set up play action and expose the Auburn secondary. If Thomas is locked in on making his reads, the Ducks should be able to move the ball fairly easily against the Tigers. Thomas is a better all around passer than Masoli was last year, but DT has been uneven throughout the season in terms of passing the ball, so expect some early jitters. If Oregon can get significant yardage on the ground, they should be able to put themselves in position to set up big play opportunities. The Ducks have also faced an elite defensive tackle in Oregon State’s Stephen Paea, who some rank ahead of Fairley, so don’t expect him to be too big an issue to their system. ‘Trickertation’ and gambling might help as well. Chip Kelly has been known to roll the dice with fake punts and go for two after touchdowns, which could force Auburn to chase points. The Ducks were the 20th most penalized team in the nation, so keeping down the rule infractions will be key.
There is a whole month between now and when the National Championship is to be played. Hopefully, nothing develops in that time span in the Cam Newton saga that would find him ineligible. Its safe to say Duck fans want to see him in the National Championship, and prove their team can credibly take down the Tigers with their star. In theory, it would be a shame if Newton won the Heisman and National Title, only to later have them vacated. Regardless, it will be an entertaining game that could start out slow and be defensively battled, but open up with a second half scoring explosion. For Auburn, this is redemption for 2004 season when the Tigers went undefeated behind Jason Campbell, Cadillac Williams, and Ronnie Brown, but weren’t selected by the BCS to play in the Title game. For coach Gene Chizik, it is proving he is more than worthy to lead the team when many at the school questioned his hiring a couple years ago. War Eagle is itching for a title, and they have the best player in college football leading the way.
The Oregon Ducks are looking to cement the program among the nation’s best. In the past decade, the Ducks have been so close, but lost out to bad fortune or injury. In 2002, the BCS selected Nebraska to play for the title, leaving Joey Harrington’s one loss squad out of the picture. That year, the Ducks went on to dominate a Colorado team in the Fiesta Bowl that topped Nebraska for the Big 12 Conference Championship earlier in the season. In 2007, behind Heisman frontrunner Dennis Dixon, the No. 2 Oregon Ducks were on the road to the BCS before injury struck the team and Dixon late in the season. This year, injuries haven’t been much of a factor. In the BCS, Oregon can prove their offense isn’t just a gimmick, but a bonafide system. This is the season to put the Ducks over the top that gives them their shot.
There is no doubt that this is a significant game to both programs and fans. In a nutshell, it’s a big time player versus a big time system. The 2011 National Championship match up could break the NCAA single game scoring record; and in the words of Brent Musburger, will be a dandy!