The BCS National Championship takes place on Jan. 10. Between now and then, during the course of 33 days, an endless barrage of number-crunching, predictions, comparisons, analysis and speculation will fill the media in an attempt to tell us who will win and why.
Please allow me to pile on with more monotony. Here are five reasons why the Auburn Tigers will beat the Oregon Ducks and walk out of Glendale, Ariz., with the program’s second National Championship.
The SEC Factor
It’s a tired argument, but until another conference puts a stop to it on the field, it’s a valid one. The SEC has claimed each of the last four national titles, and with the exception of Florida’s seven-point win over Oklahoma, the games haven’t been close.
At the risk of sounding too lovey-dovey, the SEC has the country’s best collection of coaches and most maniacal and rabid fans, the college game’s most fattening television contracts and intimidating stadiums, and is sandwiched conveniently between arguably the two most talent-rich states: Texas and Florida.
The SEC possesses the highest concentration of good players. The superior team speed, size and athleticism of the SEC’s top teams, particularly on defense, have been evident.
In what may be considered a “down” year for the Southeastern Conference, six of its teams reside in the latest BCS rankings, including three in the top 12; no other conference has more than five (Big 12). Two of the highest-ranked two-loss teams (No. 8 Arkansas and No. 11 LSU) are SEC members, which speaks to the respect both human voters and the computers have for the difficulty of the in-conference schedule.
Now along comes Auburn, which will try to become the latest SEC program to give us another laugher in the BCS title game. Auburn will be the best team Oregon faces this season. I don’t know if the converse is necessarily true. In theory, the Ducks may be no better than Alabama, Arkansas or LSU if they were taken out of the weak Pac-10 and placed in the SEC.
We'll never know the answer to that, but we will find out if Oregon is able to halt the momentum. If not, the runaway train that is the SEC will continue on its course of dominance.
The Man in the Middle
Perhaps the easiest way to disrupt the rhythm of any offense is to create penetration. And no defensive tackle in the country has specialized in doing so more than Auburn’s Nick Fairley. Fairley recorded just 28 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 12 games as a sophomore in 2009, but he has exploded as a junior, serving as the catalyst for Auburn’s jump from the nation’s No. 76 defense last season to No. 54.
In addition to 10.5 sacks, which rank ninth nationally, he leads all defensive tackles with 21 tackles-for-loss. This sort of activity at the point of attack will be crucial to Auburn’s defensive efforts against Oregon.
Though Auburn this season has faced spread offenses and variants of such, it will encounter something new in Oregon’s attack, simply because of the speed and efficiency with which the Ducks execute. Fairley will need to find cracks in the interior of the Oregon front so quarterback Darron Thomas is forced to make hurried decisions both in the zone read and the passing game.
If Oregon allocates too many resources to slow him, the 6’5”, 300-pound Fairley has the ability to adequately take on double-teams, which will allow the rest of the Auburn defensive front seven the opportunity to make plays.
If Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich opt to force Fairley to move in space, the All-SEC performer has the quickness and agility to shed blocks and move down the line of scrimmage in pursuit.
Wounded Ducks on the Road
Oregon has the nation’s No. 1 offense, and it’s the best for a reason: No team’s personnel run a scheme better than Kelly’s Ducks run his spread assault. Speed and playmakers abound, and when Oregon is on, both the play and game clocks are useless.
But underneath this offensive circus lies a disturbing statistic that may end costing the Ducks against Auburn. Statistics show that the Oregon offense sputters when it takes the show on the road. For the season, the Ducks have scored 15 fewer touchdowns and 116 fewer points in six games away from Autzen Stadium. In fact, when the Ducks step out of Eugene, their average output plummets from 59 points to 39.7.
Granted, nearly 40 points should be enough to beat a lot of teams, even on the road and with an average defense. But will it be enough to surpass Auburn’s offense?
So, why the discrepancy? Well, for starters, Oregon seriously padded some stats in September home games against New Mexico and Portland State—two teams the Ducks pulverized by a combined score of 141-0 thanks largely to an astonishing 141 carries.
Despite this, the numbers still indicate that Oregon runs the ball less often and less effectively away from home, attempting 274 rushes on the road compared to 324 at home. Naturally, the production follows, dipping from 2,223 yards, a surreal average of 370.5, to 1,419 yards, 236.5 per game.
The passing numbers between home and road games are negligible, but the Ducks offense begins and ends with Thomas and LaMichael James running the zone read. If the running game stalls against Auburn’s 11th-ranked run defense, the Tigers will be able to key in on Thomas, which will expose him for the average-throwing quarterback he is. And if that happens, Oregon will be in trouble.
Whether or not Oregon is primed for a big day on offense, we’ll never get a great idea if the defense can’t get off the field. Which a distinct possibility, even though the Ducks defense is the 10th best in the country on third down.
Auburn is ranked No. 3 nationally in third-down conversions, having converted 77 of its 145 chances. The only offenses more efficient on third down are Stanford (57 percent) and Nevada (56 percent). It will be imperative for the Ducks to keep Auburn in predictable 3rd-and-long situations. Otherwise, when short distances separate the ball and the first-down marker, the Tigers will utilize Cam Newton’s inside running ability to move the chains.
Like Auburn, Oregon’s offense has a high rate of success on third down, although they are not quite as proficient. The Ducks convert 46 percent (78-of-170) of the time. Auburn counters with a defense that ranked fifth in the SEC in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage. The ranking seems modest, but the Tigers surrendered two fewer first downs on 25 fewer chances, and did so against stiffer competition.
This one’s self-explanatory. Newton will be the most talented player on the field, bar none, come Jan. 10. By then, he may have even added the words “Heisman Trophy winner” in front of his name.
Newton is not the most spectacular player in college football because he has put up the gaudiest numbers—though some would argue 3,998 total yards and 48 touchdowns are enough to merit the label. No, he is the most spectacular player because he elevates the play of everyone around him, enabling Auburn to navigate the regular season unscathed, including thrilling come-from-behind wins over Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.
He is a rare talent, the kind whose skills instantly impact the team lucky enough to obtain them.
When Newton runs, defenses are helpless despite knowing what's coming. When he drops back, he makes good decisions and limits mistakes. Physically, Oregon has no player who can rival Newton. He is too fast for defensive linemen, too powerful for defensive backs and too much of both for linebackers.
Simply put, Newton is, by definition, the X factor. And Auburn will beat Oregon because he wears navy blue and burnt orange, not green and yellow.