The SEC is widely regarded as the best conference in college football. The BCS national champion each of the last four years has come from an SEC school—Florida twice, LSU once, and Alabama last year.
It could happen again this year, with Auburn set to take on Oregon in this year's BCS national championship game. But despite all the aura that the conference possesses, there is reason to suspect that this year might be different.
Oregon has steamrolled opponents all season long, and is eager to bring the BCS national championship back to the Pac-10 for the first time since the glory days of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush at USC in 2004.
Here's a list of 10 reasons why Oregon will be able to capture the Coaches' Trophy, and emphatically claim the title of "best conference" in the name of the Pac-10.
Oregon employs a novel system of image cards when calling many of its plays. Now yes, astute reader, Auburn has used a similar system, but not as effectively or in as novel a way as Oregon.
This system can seem baffling to any onlooker who is not privy to the secrets locked within the images. But it's as clear as Crater Lake to anyone with the knowledge, that it allows Oregon to simplify its playcalling procedure, while at the same time, speeding up the pace of their play.
Each image — there are four on any given card — coveys a message: the playcall, the formation, the motion, and finally the snap count. Oregon's offense has functioned like clockwork this season, and it's at least partially thanks to this system.
Oregon's pace of play is, in a word, ridiculous. Once again, yes, Auburn plays an up-tempo, attacking style as well, but Oregon's is in another world.
They've scored nearly 50 points per game this year, while amassing 537.5 yards per game of total offense. Those numbers are good enough to rank them first and second in the nation, respectively, in those categories.
They play at such a breakneck pace that it's become somewhat of a recurring joke for players on opposing teams to fake injuries, just to get a bit of a breather and slow down the game. Oregon is turning college football players into European soccer stars.
It's enough to wear out even the most physically fit defenders.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly is affectionately known around Eugene as "The Man in the Visor," and has quickly become beloved by Ducks faithful in only his second season on the job.
It makes sense. This season, he has won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award, the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award, and most recently, the AP Coach of the Year award, beating out Auburn's Gene Chizik in the process.
His uptempo offensive schemes have made him the new favorite coach to imitate, whether it's by local area high school coaches, or college coaches halfway around the country.
Almost just as important, the team believes in his system wholeheartedly, and why shouldn't they — it hasn't let them down yet.
Oregon gets talked about mostly for its aforementioned prolific offense, but it's actually got a pretty stingy defense as a compliment.
The guys on the other side of the ball gave up just 18.4 points per game this season, ranking 14th in the nation in scoring defense. They also rank second in the nation with 35 takeaways, and a not-too-shabby 24th in total defense, allowing 331.6 yards per game.
Those numbers are all the more impressive when you consider that, as the furthest thing from a methodical, ball-control offense as the Ducks attack is, opponents generally get more possessions per game than normal.
They get the ball, but they don't usually move it very far.
Oregon has something that sets them apart from the old, stoic days of the greats of college football's past—a short memory.
They're not afraid to buck tradition and do something outside the norm. For instance, during their "Civil War" game against intrastate rival Oregon State, the Ducks held a 16-7 lead in the 3rd quarter. Facing fourth down from their own 28, Oregon called an audacious fake punt that took Oregon State completely by surprise. Michael Clay, normally a linebacker, was able to split the defense for a 64 yard gain.
That led to a 19-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Davis that made it a 16-point game, and though State would creep back into it, that play sent the pendulum in the right direction. It was actually the defense that held off some late drives and really "won the day" for the Ducks in the end ... see previous page.
Oregon has something else that all the great teams possess—a killer instinct.
They don't just play to win, they play to bury their opponents, and they know how to put games away. What lets them do this? It's a combination of the willingness to take chances (like the aforementioned fake punt), their signature frenetic pace, and their relentless attack on both sides of the ball.
For example, in one of their biggest tests of the season, against Stanford, they actually fell behind big early, trailing 21-3 after the first quarter. They got back into it with a 21-point second quarter, but still trailed 31-24 at the half.
The second half was an entirely different story. They quickly tied the game, and then the defense took over, forcing a fumble that led to a LaMichael James touchdown run to give the Ducks their first lead, and then intercepting Andrew Luck on the very next series.
Oregon kept their foot on the gas and shut out the potent Cardinal attack in the second half to win going away, 52-31. They'll need a similar degree of sticktoitivness to topple mighty Auburn, but I believe they have it.
We've already talked about the pace of their play that leaves opposing defenses breathless, but their attack is about more than pace—it's about genuine speed.
LaMichael James is one of the fleetest backs in the land, and he flew to the tune of over 150 yards per game and 21 touchdowns this season.
And QB Darron Thomas has looked like this offense was designed specifically with him in mind, and has thrown for 28 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions.
As a team, they've recorded over 300 yards on the ground per game this year, fourth in the nation, and interesting for such a rapid fire system—but it just proves that when they're firing on all cylinders, you don't have many options. But they do.
Yes, all this is good you say, but surely the vaunted Southeastern Conference champs can handle anything that comes their way?
Well, it's the very strength of that conference that may come back to bite them in the end. Auburn had to run a regular season gamut including five games against teams ranked in the top 20. And they've already had their fair share of close calls—needing overtime to get past Clemson, sneaking by lowly Kentucky by just three points, and escaping against Alabama by just one.
All of this is bound to take a toll and catch up with them at some point—and the whirlwind Ducks are just the team to do the catching.
The fact that the Pac-10 doesn't quite have the history of the SEC, and that Oregon doesn't have the same tradition as Auburn, and that the Ducks play in the mellow, picturesque Northwest instead of the football-crazed Southeast, and that they're called the Ducks and have a Daffy-clone as their mascot, all tell me one thing: Oregon will be coming into this game looser and more relaxed than Auburn.
Auburn has the pressure of being the favorite, living up to being No. 1, keeping the SEC's title streak alive. Cam Newton personally has the pressure of being the best player in the game, and having to show it on the biggest stage.
Oregon has its own share of pressure and expectations, sure, but not like Auburn does. Pressure leads to distractions, leads to lapses in concentration. The Ducks will play light and fast and smart ... and ultimately, they'll play better.
Yes, I'll admit it again — Cam Newton, eligibility questions aside — is the best player in college football. But football is ultimately a team sport.
Oregon has it's own lightning-strike quarterback, in Darron Thomas, who's no slouch himself, as well as the best running back in the country, LaMichael James, and the best coach right now in college football, Chip Kelly.
They have a style that wears anyone out, a total commitment to their system, and just the right amount of swagger without it spilling over into conceit.
Count on these factors to make the Oregon Ducks the BCS National Champions on January 10th.