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COCKNFIRE: If it weren't for the names of the contestants, this would probably be an even more hyped game than it is, if you can believe it. Two of the top 10 offenses in the country are going to clash in Glendale tonight. One of those teams features a Heisman winner whose recruitment is still under an investigation that spans at least three states. Both teams are in one of the best two conferences in college football this year -- even if you factor in the SEC East. One of them will lose a game for the first time this season.
But Auburn and Oregon are not traditional college football powers. Sure, both have been around for more than century, the Tigers playing their first game in 1892 and the Ducks following a year later. Oregon has never been selected by anyone of any significance as the national champion. Auburn has been selected by someone five times, but for consistency's sake they can only claim the 1957 AP championship or they have to stop giving Alabama grief about some of its claims. And even the 1957 national title was earned through a loophole that even Cecil Newton wouldn't use.
As for the game itself, there's a part of me that wants to invoke Year2's barnburner rule here: If everyone agrees that a game is going to be a track meet, then we're probably in for a low-scoring game. But that would ignore the history of the BCS's title event: Only four of the twelve games have featured fewer than 50 combined points. There have been plenty of blowouts, but very few low-scoring games, despite the well-worn cliche in almost every sport that defense wins championships.
Not that either defense in this game is quite as bad as you've been led to believe. Oregon's is actually pretty decent, and very good against the run. Auburn's is mediocre, and good against the run. (More on the run part of that in a moment.) Part of that is because both teams have forced other teams to pass for their points by taking big leads, and part of it is because at least parts of the defenses work quite well. But there's also this interesting fact: Despite the SEC's reputation as being a league with less offense than the Pac-10, Auburn faced eight offenses among the top half of those in the FBS. Oregon faced three.
NEITHER OF THESE TEAMS IS a stranger to controversy. Oregon's offseason involved Jeremiah Masoli leaving the team and making his way to Oxford, all while LaMichael James was arrested for a domestic violence incident. This came after the 2009 season started with LeGarrette Blount sucker-punching a Boise State player and rampaging across the blue turf in that season's opener. It was not the best beginning you could imagine for Chip Kelly.
But Kelly's team finished that season 10-3, the last loss against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and the momentum continued through this year. The Ducks outscored their first three opponents 189-13. Sure, those opponents were New Mexico, Tennessee and Portland State, but scoring a point a minute is impressive no matter who's lining up on the other side. And the point totals quickly prompted everyone to forget about the turmoil that was supposed to engulf the Oregon program and instead focus on the fact that the Ducks were pretty good. With all but two opponents losing to Oregon by at least three scores, it was a pretty easy thing to forget.
Auburn also surprised a lot of people. Not Kirk Herbstreit, but Herbstreit was dismissed as wildly optimistic about Auburn when he declared that the Iron Bowl could be a meeting of two 11-0 teams. It ended up that he was optimistic, but only about reigning national champion Alabama. Auburn started as a good team, picked up a little steam with Cam Newton's Heisman-worthy showing against South Carolina, then emerged as the favorite when the Gamecocks defeated Alabama and the Tigers annihilated Arkansas and beat LSU. All of this surrounded by the story of Cam Newton, who had bolted Florida for the JUCO ranks before returning to the SEC humbled, in the kind of personal growth story that seemed to good to be true.
And it was. No matter what you think of Cam Newton's involvement or lack thereof in his father's pay-for-play scheme, the very fact that Cecil Newton was trying to get tens of thousands of dollars from any team for his son will always muddy the water surrounding a singular talent in college football. It might not be fair, but it's always going to be mentioned in connection with Newton's career at Auburn.
Of course, that story will likely be led with Newton's 3,998 yards of total offense and 48 TDs -- along with whatever he adds onto to the total tonight. But Cecil Newton's attempt to profit from his son's ability will always be a part of the story, even more so if the NCAA later finds that some of those accomplishments were tarnished by events that we don't yet know about.
THEN AGAIN, the reason that Newton attracts so much of our attention is that he's that good. He's one of the few players who can arguably turn a pretty good football team into a national champion. Would Auburn have defeated South Carolina without Newton? Maybe not. LSU or Alabama? I'm skeptical. You're not supposed to be able to turn a team around with one player in football, but Newton has done just that at Auburn.
So what do we make of this game, between a team whose offense moves almost as quickly as its players and one driven by a quarterback that can single-handedly change a game with his arm or his ability to run? Who has the advantage? Auburn's schedule was probably a little bit tougher, but Oregon's was no slouch. Auburn comes in representing the conference that has won four of these games in a row -- but that kind of stat doesn't really confer any advantage on the Tigers. It's about as even a match-up as you can muster.
Part of me says to go with the Ducks, because the defense is better and the offense is designed to wear down the opponent and my record in bowl games says choosing them makes it more likely that our conference holds on to the crystal football. But the other part of me says that this is Cam Newton we're talking about here, and a quality team around him that will once again incinerate our notions about what can be done on a football field. We'll go with that for the moment.
Auburn 45, Oregon 42
YEAR2: For my part, my main interest in this national championship game is each team's running game. While both teams are pretty good at throwing the ball (Auburn a bit more so than Oregon), each is defined by its rushing attack. Every offense needs an identity, and both teams' identity is that of a run-first attack.
A lot of time and energy has been devoted to the schemes of Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn, along with the impact of Oregon's uptempo nature. Given that the two offenses have similar bread and butter plays and that Malzahn actually wrote a book on playing offense quickly, I think those might be overblown a bit. I'll circle back to that later, but I'm going to be focused more on the way each of them rushed and defended the rush.
Auburn had a higher ranked rushing defense and they had nearly identical YPC figures, but that can be misleading. College football stats categorize sacks and sack yardage as carries and rushing yards. Auburn and Oregon both had good pass rushes (to say nothing of the fact that they have no common opponents), so I wanted to remove that from the equation. I also wanted to get rid of cupcakes. So, from here on out, all stats I quote have both non-AQ opponents and sack data removed. This is purely rushing against major conference opponents.
Auburn's rushing offense (6.12 YPC) was consistently able to gain more yards per carry than opposing defenses allowed. Only Alabama held the Tigers to a figure (3.62) below their season average (4.03). The Tigers' best rushing day was against LSU, where its 8.46 YPC was 3.81 above LSU's season average of 4.65 YPC allowed. In all, Auburn averaged a gain of 1.37 YPC above its opponents' averages.
Oregon was also great at rushing the ball (5.99 YPC), but not quite at the same extent that Auburn was. Two teams were able to hold Oregon below their defenses' season averages: Arizona State (3.57 for the Ducks, below Sun Devils' 4.11 average) and Cal (3.28 for the Ducks, below the Golden Bears' 4.37 average). Their best day was also not quite as great as Auburn's best as it was when Oregon ran up 6.82 YPC on Arizona, 2.37 above the Wildcats' season average of 4.45 YPC allowed. In all, Oregon averaged a gain of 0.88 YPC above its opponents' averages.
Auburn's defense actually yielded 4.86 YPC against BCS conference competition with sacks factored out. That seems kind of high on the surface, but it's not really. Auburn's best rushing defense happened up the middle where Nick Fairley haunts. They weren't quite as stout on the edges. Overall, Auburn's rushing defense actually allowed opponents to rush for 0.22 YPC more than their season averages. I wasn't expecting to find that, and I bet you weren't either.
Oregon's rushing defense was a different story. It allowed 4.42 YPC against BCS competition with sacks factored out. Not only is that less than Auburn's raw figure, but the Ducks allowed 0.43 YPC less than their opponents gained on average. When it comes to relative performance against major conference competition, Oregon's defense was a bit more than half a yard better against the run than Auburn was.
Ultimately, I expect both teams to be able to run the ball fairly well. Neither defense was outlandishly great against the run, and both offenses tended to run the ball better than what their opponents typically gave up. All three teams that held these two under what their defenses gave up on average had better YPC defense figures than either of these two. As a result, I have a feeling that this will be one of those games where the first team to blink (i.e. punt) with be at a real disadvantage.
Now, a word on Oregon's uptempo offense. Joe Schad reported yesterday that Gene Chizik says he will have a "very big discussion" with the refs before the game about allowing time for defensive substitutions. If this is Auburn's primary idea of combating Oregon's pace, the Tigers are toast.
Nothing Oregon does is against the rules of the game. That's why they keep doing it. I don't believe that Chizik's entire plan is encouraging refs to spot the ball slowly, because the refs won't do that. It'd be obviously one-sided, and even Ron Cherry wouldn't be that overt in trying to influence a game (and a Big Ten crew is doing the game anyway).
When Florida played Oklahoma for the national title after the 2008 season, the Gators were facing an infamously uptempo offense. Urban Meyer's plan to combat it was to practice faster than Oklahoma's offense actually went. It's not a perfect analogy, as Oregon likes to go faster than that Oklahoma team did and that Florida defense was much better than this year's Auburn D. Even so, that's the way you combat something like this, not by asking the refs to do something in your favor.
All things being equal, I think Oregon probably wins the game. However, there's nothing equal about Cameron Newton. If he didn't fall victim to the Heisman curse (more a swirl of fattening banquets and head-swelling hype than an actual curse), then I just don't see the Ducks solving that puzzle. You should be able to know by the end of the third quarter who will win this game. If Newton can't get going by then, it's Oregon's win. If he can, I don't see the Ducks pulling this one out.