There are plenty of things we know that the Oregon Ducks and Auburn Tigers have in common; they both have explosive offenses that make a habit of hanging 50 on their opponents. They both have dynamic second-year head coaches (Chip Kelly for the Ducks and Gene Chizik for the Tigers), and they both have underrated defenses aching to steal the show in Glendale.
They both also are on a mission to prove that they will be the power-that-is in their respective conferences for the foreseeable future.
However, there are other, less visible similarities between these two schools. While Auburn and Oregon have never met on the football field (to my knowledge, and if I'm wrong, please correct me), they share quite a few things in common. Five, in particular, stand out to me.
Cam Newton doing what Cam Newton does best--whatever he wants to do.
Of course, when you have an offense the caliber that these two, you're never out of a game. Each team has had tough games, especially late in the season when every team they faced would give them the game of their lives.
Frequently, Auburn and Oregon would fall behind to start games (it happened more often to the Ducks), only to hit their stride and put away the opposition with a few big plays.
But, as with all national championship-caliber teams, there is one game that each team has had this year in which they took a few sucker punches, and had to grind out a close win on the road to save their chance at the big prize.
For Auburn, that game was the Iron Bowl against the hated Crimson Tide of Alabama on the 26th of November. I remember doing some early Christmas shopping with my father that day (one of the things we looked at that day is the computer I'm using right now), and in the car we had our local sports radio program going, hoping to catch a few scores while we had to be away from the TV.
When we heard that Alabama was up 24-nothing at home late in the first half, we both were thinking "Boise State, anyone?"
Cam Newton and the Tigers would have none of that, however. The eventual Heisman winner and his band of merry men stormed back from that three touchdown-plus hole the Tide put them in to eke out a 28-27 victory in Tuscaloosa.
As for Oregon, I'm reminded of an interview Chip Kelly did before the Stanford game. He was asked, "Let's say the unthinkable happens: you score 21 points. Could your defense win you the game?"
Kelly, without hesitation: "Absolutely."
At California on the 13th of November, the Duck defense proved him right. While his vaunted offense managed only a measly 15 points against the Golden Bear defense, the Ducks held Cal to only 13, running out the final nine and a half minutes of the game after a false start on the kicker (who ever heard of THAT!?) cost the Bears a chance to take the lead.
LaMichael James and the guys that pave his yellow brick road into the endzone.
I know I'll catch some flack from Auburn fans about this next point, but the fact is that both the Tigers and the Ducks have been overshadowed in their own conferences by teams with much grander football histories.
While Auburn has captured at least a share of seven SEC titles in its history, the number claimed by their rival, Alabama, is 22. Alabama has received the lion's share of attention, recruits, and success, both recently and historically.
As if being second-best in your own state isn't bad enough, several other schools in the SEC have had more football success than Auburn's Tigers. The LSU Tigers and Florida are recent examples.
(To appease the Auburn fans, I'll point out that the Tigers have a 21-11 record against the Tide when Alabama is ranked...and I got that from Alabama's own website.)
In Oregon's case, you can just say USC and that would suffice, if you're lazy.
The Ducks actually have more conference championships to their credit (eight) than Auburn, but Oregon also has been very awful, much more awful than Auburn ever was at its low.
The terrible stretch of Duck football reached its low in the Toilet Bowl, a version of the Civil War game against Oregon State that had total combined turnovers in the teens, several blocked kicks, a muddy field that made it difficult to stand (much less play), and a result that, to this day, is the last scoreless tie in a college football game.
This year, however, both of these programs have grabbed the spotlight away from their more celebrated brethren to the tune of a combined 25-0 record and their respective conference championships.
Jason Campbell waving the white flag--of victory--at the 2004 SEC Championship Game.
The Bowl Championship Series was created to end all controversy. It was meant to be the absolute solution in determining the national champion...at least, the solution the corporations that sponsor and profit off the bowls let the NCAA come up with.
If you were an Oregon or Auburn fan in the first part of the 2000's, however, the majority of descriptions you could come up with to describe the BCS then wouldn't be fit to put in a family-friendly article.
In 2001, Joey Harrington led the Ducks to a 10-1 record, claiming a share of the Pac-10 championship, and the conference's automatic BCS berth, by virtue of its head-to-head victory over Washington State.
Despite the Ducks' stellar season, the BCS, which favored strength of schedule more heavily back then, decided to pit the University of Miami against Nebraska.
In the case of Miami, people didn't have a problem with them; they were clearly the country's best team. However, Nebraska was a team that not only failed to win its conference title—thought to be a requirement for a national title hopeful—but that didn't even win its division.
You can imagine the outrage in Eugene when a team that should have been playing in the Holiday Bowl instead was chosen to play for all the marbles. It was even worse when the Cornhuskers were blown out of the water by the Hurricanes, 37-14.
To top the whole episode off, Oregon then crushed the team that Nebraska finished second to in its own division, Colorado, in the Fiesta Bowl.
Auburn experienced its own "We got shafted by the BCS" moment when the Tigers finished undefeated in the SEC in 2004. Behind future NFL starter Jason Campbell at quarterback, Auburn sliced through the rugged SEC like a sharp knife through thin paper, capping their regular season off with a victory over Tennessee in the title game.
Now, I'm no fan of the SEC, but I agree that any team that goes 8-0 and wins the title game in that conference should definitely play for a national title. Too bad the BCS thought USC and Oklahoma were both better.
Auburn didn't let the terrible break ruin their season, however, defeating Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, 16-13.
And that year's national title game? The Trojans rolled the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, 55-19.
These two cases were, and still are, Exhibits A and B in the case against the BCS. The system was eventually revamped, and while it's still far from perfect, this year it's given the two programs arguably hurt the most by it a shot at its greatest prize.
LaMichael James taking in the scene as a 2010 Heisman finalist--and BCS title game participant.
That may not sound like a big thing, until you read this: in the last six years, seven teams played for the national championship.
USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, Florida and Alabama were not only the best from the power conferences in their respective years, they also are all multi-time national champions, and have accounted for nine of the last 10 BCS championships.
In a sport where tradition has been slowly shoved to the wayside by the majority of modern athletes (see: Michigan and Notre Dame), these programs have been able to stay at the elite level through their proximity to the best talent, the skill of their coaching staffs, and the massive resources and fan bases they command.
This is what I mean by Oregon and Auburn being fresh faces:
The 2004 participants, USC and Oklahoma, combine for an astounding 17 official national championships (an "official" national title is described in this link).
The 2005 game featuring the same Trojans against Texas had 15 national crowns between the two.
In 2006 and 2007, Florida and LSU both defeated Ohio State. In both games, the teams featured now combine for eight titles.
2008's game between the Gators and Sooners had nine total championships between the programs.
Last year's contest featured two teams (Alabama and Texas) that account for 14 national championships between them.
This year? Auburn has one (split with the Buckeyes in 1957), Oregon none.
Whether it will be Tigers two, Ducks nothing, or an even split, remains to be seen. For now, I'll bask in the newness of this year's game, and the knowledge that whomever wins will have their first ever solo national championship—and in college football, that's been a very rare thing lately.
Enjoy your Heisman Cam. Just hope you don't have to give it back someday.
To me, this is a testament to just how good both Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly are at their jobs. I doubt you could find even a handful of coaches who could not only endure what their teams went through this year, but reach this highest of plateaus despite all the distractions.
For Auburn, this is obvious. The Cam Newton pay-for-play scandal rocked the college football world, set the media into a pitchfork-and-torches frenzy, and put the NCAA in a position where no matter what decision it made, it would lose something they can't do without—their credibility, or the best player in the biggest college sport.
Considering all this, it's remarkable how Newton was able to keep his focus this season and lead his team through the brutal SEC schedule without a blemish. Even when his team was down 24-0 at Alabama, and even when Auburn itself, perhaps waving the white flag prematurely, declared him ineligible a few days later, Newton never lost his cool.
This is a debate for another time, but the way he's handled himself tells me that he was truly innocent; or at least, that he believes he's innocent.
Chizik deserves all the credit in the world for keeping his team's heads screwed on straight while all this was going on. People don't realize that there are very good reasons why he and Chip Kelly were the two guys picking up all the Coach of the Year awards.
Oregon's rocky year started much earlier, and it involved the police. After he and a teammate were caught stealing laptops from a fraternity house, then-starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was placed on probation by both the state and the Oregon football program. Masoli also was suspended for the 2010 season by Kelly.
Apparently, the message didn't sink in, because Masoli was pulled over some time later, and he was booked for driving under the influence. Kelly decided that was the final straw, and dismissed the guy that had led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.
Another prominent player, LaMichael James, had a nasty fight with his girlfriend, resulting in him being detained by the police and being suspended for the season opener. He also was placed on probation.
The offseason issues never got to Kelly, however. He started the process of finding a new starting quarterback, and also ran his young running backs through the gauntlet in case James went the same way that Masoli did.
Kelly's constant phrases and mantras, like "Win The Day" and "Fast, Hard, Finish", eventually caught on, and his Ducks became ferociously focused and businesslike. He molded them all into mirror images of himself—a driven individual that never settles for anything but the best, and doesn't let his team do so either.