AUBURN AL - OCTOBER 16: Quarterback Cam Newton #2 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates with the crowd after the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 16 2010 in Auburn Alabama. The Tigers beat the Razorbacks 65-43. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Sometimes the BCS works, sometimes it doesn't. Aside from angry TCU fans who believe their undefeated season should have afforded the Horned Frogs a shot at the crystal football, it's difficult to argue against Oregon and Auburn being the two best teams in the country this season. Besides the matching unblemished records after blazing through two big-time conferences, the two teams flat-out pass the eyeball test.
The narrative revolves heavily around the two offenses and the two men who lead them -- Chip Kelly at Oregon and Gus Malzahn at Auburn. It's also a narrative the revolves around the status of the Heisman Trophy winner, Auburn's Cam Newton, and questions about his eligibility. Since the NCAA and Auburn have decided that Newton will be eligible for the game, as it regards to what will happen on the field in Glendale, it's nothing more than a storyline that the telecast will probably (annoyingly) overemphasize. Newton will play and questions concerning whether Auburn will be able to keep a possible trophy aren't worth having at this point. Moving on.
One complaint about the BCS is that it's difficult for teams ranked lower at the start of the season than those teams entrenched in the top 5. In this case, the system worked out, as for the first time two teams that began outside the top 10 will meet for the national championship.
Once again, though, when the teams take the field in Glendale, it's going to be all about the O. Oregon ranks first in the country in scoring offense at 49.3 points per game and three times scored 60 or more points on opponents who, to use a basketball term, simply got run out of the gym. Even in the notoriously defense-centric SEC, Gus Malzahn's offense managed 43.7 points per game, good for fourth in the country. And that's not a stat padded against the non-con patsies either -- the Tigers dropped 42.7 points a game against the SEC.
Oregon offense versus Auburn defense
For Texas fans, watching the Oregon offense can be a bittersweet experience. For answers why, simply take a look at the origins of the starting backfield -- both quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James are Texas products passed over by the home state Longhorns. Both have achieved a great deal of success in Eugene.
When Jeremiah Masoli departed the program, observers expected a drop-off at the position. Instead, Thomas quickly developed from a guy considered a raw passer into an efficient and effective quarterback. He's a dual threat who was impressive in a mid-season viewing throwing the football:
Against UCLA, Thomas stood tall in the pocket -- helped by excellent protection by his offensive line -- and delivered accurate balls all over the field, completing his first 10 passes spanning the first 20 minutes of the football. His mechanics, footwork, and release all looked solid and when he did get pressured, he showed a willingness to take hits in order to get the ball out. Thomas also got through his reads with ease, often going to his second, third, or fourth option.
As for James, he's a perfect fit in the up-tempo zone scheme run by Oregon as a one-cut runner who knows how to find the seams and cut-back lanes.
Defensively for Auburn, it's all about defensive tackle Nick Fairley. A disruptive three tech who makes his living in opponent backfields, Fairley had 21 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 21 quarterback hurries. He also gained a reputation as a dirty player this season. For Oregon, though, his ability to shoot gaps is a bigger concern and Chip Kelly may make extensive use of the mid-line option -- which reads the three tech defensive tackle -- to take Fairley out of plays.
Strong defensive line play helped Auburn stop the run this season -- tied for 10th in the country -- but it was the pass defense that sometimes resulted in high-scoring shootouts like the games against Arkansas and Kentucky. Ranked 106th in the country, three times the Tiger defense has allowed opponents to average nine or more yards per attempt, including a 300-yard game to Arkansas State and 428 yards by Ryan Mallett against the Razobacks, a game in which the strong-armed Texan had five touchdown passes.
If Darron Thomas can get into a rhythm in the passing game and find targets like Jeff Maehl and tight end David Paulson, it's not hard to imagine the Ducks shredding the suspect Auburn pass defense for some serious yardage.
Auburn offense versus Oregon defense
For as much attention as Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton received this season -- and deservedly so -- the Auburn offense is about more than Newton's singular talent. It's about pace. To say that Gus Malzahn wrote the book on the no-huddle offense would be to credit him with an invention that is not his, but he did literally write a book about it -- The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.
The evolution for Malzahn has come in the running game. Formerly a spread-n-shred passing guru during his high school coaching days, Malzahn's running game philosophy grew under Todd Graham and Herb Hand at Tulsa. Over the last two years, Malzahn hasn't changed much and so Chris Brown's words still ring true describing Malzahn's running game:
As a preview for this upcoming season I will describe three plays Malzahn can be expected to use at Auburn, none of them particularly revolutionary: the counter, the zone-read with bubble screens as a read, and the power. Each has old roots, though Malzahn will do his best to aid their effectiveness through lots of motions, fakes, and shifts. Expect the tight-ends or H-backs to play a big role in the offense in making key blocks, and also expect to see lots of wide receiver motion, with their either getting the ball on reverses or as pitch men on the option, or merely faking so.
Newton is the engine that makes the offense work. Despite the Vince Young comparisons, Newton is 20 pounds heavier than VY in high school and it shows in his running style -- the big Blinn transfer is just as likely to truck an opponent as juke them, both of which he does well. He's like a freakish combination of Vince Young and Tim Tebow, picking up 1,409 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns. Everything is easier on offense when the quarterback averages over 100 yards per game and nearly six yards per attempt.
As a passer, Newton is probably underappreciated. He doesn't have the same mechanical impurities as Young and has more than adeqaute arm strength. Newton lead the country this season in passer rating at 188.15, higher than both Kellen Moore and Andrew Luck, and he did so by avoiding interceptions (only six on the season) and by leading the country in yards per attempt at 10.5.
Malzahn surrounds Newton with some critical playmakers. Running back Onterio McCalebb is a burner Malzahn works hard to get into space, where he's a threat to take it the distance if he gets an angle on defenders. Perhaps the primary benefactor of the attention paid to Cam Newton by opposing defenses, averaging 8.6 yards per carry. Unlike DJ Monroe, Malzahn actually schemed to get him touches -- 94 on the season.
At the receiver position, Austin native Emory Blake has provided the Tigers with some big plays. Against Louisiana-Monroe, Blake set a school record with a 94-yard touchdown catch. Terrell Zachary can make things happen in the passing game as well, recording an 80-yard touchdown grab of his own, but Darvin Adams is statistically the most impressive of all three, hauling in 48 passes for 909 yards -- almost 19 yards per catch.
Popular conceptions of the Ducks as being a team reliant on their sensational offense are exaggerated -- the defense proved this season that it can keep opponents off the scoreboard. In fact, in Oregon's closest game of the season, it was the defense that came through, giving up little after the opening Cal drive and allowing only 193 total yards all game. Overall, the group ranked an extremely respectable 25th in total defense.
Keep an eye on senior linebacker Casey Matthews defensively for the Ducks. Clay Matthews' son is a playmaking presence on defense and while his 73 total tackles aren't overly impressive, his 13.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and three interceptions are impressive.
Here's a hint for Auburn as they prepare their gameplan: it might not be a good idea to punt the football to Cliff Harris. The Oregon cornerback averages nearly 20 yards per punt return and took four punts to the house this season -- both marks were tops in the country. The good news for Auburn is that if they decide to kick to Harris, they cover kicks well, giving up only 5.5 yards per return, 21st nationally. Of course, neither team punts much -- only four teams have fewer punts -- and no one expects a punt fest here.
On kickoffs, Oregon is much less explosive, ranking a mediocre 61st nationally, while Auburn allows less than 20 yards per return. The Ducks are even better and will have to slow down Demond Washington, who has a touchdown to his credit this year and picks up 25 per.
If the game does indeed come down to a last-second field goal, both kickers are 75% on the season, but Auburn's Wes Byrum has more experience this season (20 attempts to 12) and overall -- he's a senior and Oregon's Rob Beard is a sophomore. If it comes down to a long attempt, Beard's best effort of the season was a 43-yarder and was poor in the closest game of the season against Cal, missing a 37-yarder and a 48-yarder, his longest attempt of the season. Of course, Byrum hasn't made any over 50 yards either, but has a perfect mark from 40-49 yards.
If it comes down to a game-deciding kick, Byrum seems more likely to come through in the clutch, as he did in the first overtime against Clemson to help keep the Tigers undefeated way back in the middle of September.
There's just something about Cam Newton. The comparisons to Vince Young are easy to make because of the similarities in size and those similarities hold up in leadership abilities. Newton is truly the heart and soul of his team and it shows after emotional victories. Simply put, Newton has the knowledge possessed by great players that he can take over the game when necessary and that kind of knowledge breeds confidence and belief in his teammates.
While Thomas has been good this season it remains to be seen how he will perform under pressure on the big stage -- where it seems like no stretch to assume that Newton can take over the game whenever he wants, the same isn't true of Thomas. His performance under pressure is a question mark.
As a defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik was known at Texas for often waiting until halftime to make adjustments, but this game is more about the offensive minds and their up-tempo attacks. Kelly may get the slight nod because his offense has scored more points. However, it's hard to find much fault in the performance of either Malzahn or Kelly offensive this season. Call it a wash there.
Prediction: There's no question that this match-up has all the makings of a shootout. Even casual football fans can appreciate the high-powered nature of both offenses and the emphasis of each on running as many plays as possible. However, the Oregon defense deserves credit for keeping points off the board and in a game that could be decided by which defense can force the opposing offense to settle for field goals, the Ducks have the statistical advantage.
In the end, the freakish athleticism and will of Cam Newton will be too much for the Ducks, even though the Tiger defense is extremely questionable.
Auburn 31, Oregon 28