BCS Championship Breakdown: How Oregon And Auburn Really Match Up
Now you may have seen some very worthy efforts at comparing Oregon to Auburn. However, the vast majority of them are "basketball" type comparisons. For instance, in basketball, it would have been very relevant to compare Larry Bird or Kevin McHale to, say, Karl Malone or Dominique Wilkins and give the Celtics an advantage based on it, because those players, being forwards, would "guard" and otherwise play against each other in an actual game, so one's ability to dominate or neutralize the other is an actual significant advantage that would play a large part in determining the outcome of the game.
Not so in football. Instead, it isn't relevant whether Tom Brady is better than, say, Eli Manning, because he obviously is. Instead, as a recent Super Bowl outcome proved, it is rather whether Brady's offensive line can block the Giants' front 4, and whether his team's secondary can cover Plaxico Burress. So, here is an attempt at doing matchups for the BCS title game. Obviously, many who read this are able to do better jobs ... I encourage you to do so!
Matchup 1: Oregon OL Versus Auburn DL
Oregon's offensive line is very experienced, quick, mobile, well-coached and smart. However, they will face an Auburn defensive line that is much bigger, very athletic and 2 deep. If Nick Fairley - pictured above - is able to get into the backfield and disrupt Oregon's option attack, or if Oregon has to double Fairley, which would free other DLs like DE Antoine Carter, then they are in trouble.
Matchup 2: Oregon DL Versus Auburn DL
Oregon's DL is very fast, excels at things like leverage, finding gaps, and chasing the football. They have several good athletes, led by Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe, and includes a bunch of seniors and juniors. They are undersized, with DTs in the 255-260 lb. range, but have successfully dealt with that challenge all season, including against large, tough OLs from Stanford and USC. The problem: Auburn's OL isn't just big (all 300 lbs. or more) but quality: anywhere from 3 to 5 NFL players who can both run-block and pass-protect. If Auburn's OL can just go right at Oregon's DL and open up running lanes for Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCaleb, the Tigers will be able to move the ball and score while not risking turnovers and taking time off the clock, keeping Oregon's fast break show off the field.
Matchup 3: Oregon LBs Versus Auburn RBs
Oregon runs a 4-2-5 defense, so they only play 2 LBs. However, Paysinger and Matthews are big (235 lbs) and possess good speed, and there is good depth. They help out the undersized DL at the point of attack, and they get help from the rover/safety Eddie Pleasant (who is as big as an LB) in chasing plays that go outside. Meanwhile, Auburn's somewhat smallish RBs Michael Dyer, Onterrio McCaleb and Mario Fannin aren't up to the standard that Auburn usually has at the position. While the case could be made that they'd have better stats if Cameron Newton didn't have 1400 yards and 20 TDs rushing, the fact is that Newton has had to take over for a largely ineffective running game for long stretches of the season. In fairness, Dyer is a major talent who will be really good down the line, but as for this game, he is a complementary player along with the rest.
Why the asterisk? Because Cameron Newton is bigger than Auburn's LBs and faster than their rover, and will almost certainly lead Auburn in rushing for this game.
Matchup 4: Oregon RBs Versus Auburn LBs
This seems easy on the surface, but has an angle to it. Heisman candidate LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are speedy, quality tailbacks that are perfect for Oregon's scheme, and have NFL futures. It says something that they A) were good enough to keep 5 star recruit Lache Seastrunk from Texas on the bench and B) that they didn't miss LeGarrette Blount, starting tailback for the Tampa Bay Bucs, last season. However, at 175-185 lbs, they aren't a threat to run inside on an Auburn defense that will have Nick Fairley (and 300 lb. senior Zach Clayton) in the middle. So, their having to rely almost exclusively on outside runs on the option makes things a lot easier on Auburn's LBs, who are experienced and fast but smallish and not standouts. Oregon gets the edge here based on quality, but if Stevens, Bates and Bynes (plus their backups) are able to focus on stopping outside runs and preventing James and Barner from breaking long runs, the matchup may remove some of Oregon's advantage here. Nonetheless, Oregon has better athletes at RB than Auburn does at LB, so
Matchup 5: Oregon Passing Game Versus Auburn Secondary
Oregon fans are probably licking their chops at Auburn's #104 pass defense. That's right: Auburn made it to the BCS title game with a #104 pass defense! And yes, Oregon is very good through the air, with Darron Thomas having 2500 yards and 28 TDs against only 7 INTs through the air at a 61% clip, and Jeff Maehl (950 yards and 12 TDs) is his primary target, and a good one. But as with the RB matchup, there is more than meets the eye: Auburn gave up most of their passing yards to pro-style passing offenses like UGA, South Carolina (twice), Alabama, Clemson and Arkansas. Oregon's passing game plays second fiddle to their running attack, and Auburn is #10 against the run. And as converted safety Maehl isn't going to get the separation off the line of scrimmage or down the field that Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffrey, A.J. Greene, or the Arkansas trio of speedsters did, it is highly questionable whether Thomas will surpass 250 yards against this secondary the way that he did against Arizona State, UCLA and USC in those 60-13 and 53-32 offensive romps. Also, as Auburn's secondary, led by Zac Etheridge, does snag the occasional INT, it would not be in Oregon's interests if Thomas puts up big numbers because of their inability to run the ball. Still, even though it is not what UO does best and is not the focus of their offense, we are talking about a very capable passing offense against an atrocious passing defense, so
Matchup 6: Auburn Passing Game Against The Oregon Secondary
Cameron Newton has picked up the passing game as of late, with 7 TD passes in his last 2 games to give him 28 for the season, and nearly 2600 passing yards on the year. However, the passing game is still not the strength of this Auburn offense, as with Oregon. So, if Oregon is able to stop Auburn's running attack and force them to be one-dimensional, that is when Oregon's speedy 4-2-5 scheme could confuse Newton and give him a lot of trouble, including forcing INTs from a QB that similar to his Oregon counterpart Darron Thomas has thrown only 6 all year. Still, Oregon's pass defense, while obviously better than Auburn's, is not exactly a strength. However, they did more than provide a margin of victory for the Ducks in a pass-happy Pac-10 that includes several very good QBs. A couple of wildcards exist, however: Oregon's secondary has yet to face a true dual threat QB this season (Andrew Luck of Stanford is a dropback passer who can scramble), and Oregon may be making the mistake of underestimating a very fast and talented Auburn receiving corps led by Darvin Adams, who has the ability to become an NFL starter, and in general is more talented than any group the Ducks have seen this year apart from the NFL talent factory at USC. (Although after putting up 216 yards in the SEC title game, Adams is certainly no longer flying under the Ducks' radar). Still, similar to Oregon, Auburn is a running team, and if they have to throw more than 25 times it will be a sign that they are in trouble on one side of the ball or the other. So:
Advantage: even, or "a push."
Matchup 7: Special Teams
One area where Oregon is vastly underrated is their outstanding special teams, particularly their kickoff and punt return and coverage units. It was those areas that kept Oregon in the game against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl a year ago when Ohio State was for the most part dominating Oregon on offense and defense. (We also know from the most recent Super Bowl, New Orleans versus Indianapolis, the importance of special teams, as dejected Saints fans can attest.) And SEC fans should note that it was special teams that helped Oregon break open a tight game against Tennessee and turn it into a rout in the second half.
Meanwhile, Auburn's special teams are not great, but they aren't bad ... as a matter of fact they are above average. While Oregon's are clearly better, Auburn's is probably just good enough to keep Oregon from dominating in this area; to keep it from being a game-changer or game-breaker.
Matchup 8: Coaching
Many Oregon fans are absolutely convinced that Chip Kelly is the best head coach in the country because of how he transitioned them from a more conventional spread offense of (current LSU offensive coordinator) Gary Crowton to their current wide open, fast paced attack that wears team out in the second half and piles up bunches of points. They also point to how Kelly held things together following a disastrous offseason (starting with the disappointing Rose Bowl loss) and put together an undefeated regular season and 2nd Pac-10 title in a row (after winning the Pac-10 by 2 games in his rookie season).
But the truth is that Auburn's Gene Chizik is just as accomplished. He was the defensive coordinator for the Auburn team that went 13-0 in 2004, and then the Texas team that went 13-0 in 2005. Both defenses dropped off - and Texas drastically so - after he left. And Chizik's job in taking Auburn from a divided, talent poor 5-7 mess in 2008 to 13-0 in 2010 has been amazing, especially as Chizik did what his predecessor failed, which was to open up a long-conservative Auburn offense. Where Tommy Tuberville refused to allow Al Borges and Bobby Petrino actually run their offenses, Chizik allowed Gus Malzahn, the hottest offensive coordinator in the country, to go wide open with both a passing-based spread last year for dropback passer Chris Todd and their version of the zone-read option this year with Cameron Newton. His work with Newton is amazing, as the Heisman Trophy winner didn't even join the Auburn team for the first time until AUGUST, and so Malzahn had to simply ride Newton's running ability (as starting RB Michael Dyer is a true freshman from Arkansas) until Newton and Dyer learned the offense.
While Nick Aliotti is better than his Auburn counterpart, defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the combination of current head coach Chizik and future head coach Gus Malzahn means a slight:
Add it all up, and it is more than just numbers (and I do admit, the numbers favor Oregon) but matchups and other intangibles. And as these matchups indicate, while Oregon is certainly the favorite, and rightfully so, Auburn most definitely has a shot to pull the upset and extend the SEC's streak of BCS national titles to 5.