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January 8, 2011 BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP - Oregon vs. Auburn

When the season began, everyone focused on three teams as the major threats to go undefeated: Alabama, Ohio State, and Boise State. However, the collective focus was close but so far away, as Alabama's rival, Ohio State's opponent in the 2010 Rose Bowl, and Boise's opponent in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl were actually the three teams to watch for an undefeated season. Auburn's road here seemed clear at the beginning of the season, as an 11-0 start before the Alabama game seemed very possible. But that final regular season game was in Tuscaloosa, and it simply figured to be too much for Cam Newton and company to handle. However, Auburn survived overtime against Clemson and second-half deficits against South Carolina and Arkansas early in the season to remain undefeated. When LSU came to Jordan-Hare Stadium in late October, even the magic of Les Miles fell short as Cam Newton was held in check but managed to win 24-17 thanks to LSU's offensive ineptitude. Despite two previous losses by the Crimson Tide, Auburn still went into Tuscaloosa as an underdog and it all went to script as Alabama raced to a 24-0 lead. However, Auburn did not back down and forced a couple of critical turnovers. Then injuries stacked up on Alabama and before you knew it, Cam Newton was headed to the SEC Championship. A shroud of uncertainty about a "pay for play" scheme did not slow Newton in the rematch against South Carolina, where Auburn blew it open and locked up their championship game berth early. Auburn is battle tested and survived the gut-wrenching moment in Tuscaloosa everyone thought would bring them down, earning their ticket to Phoenix.

Meanwhile, 2010 started with a disappointing Rose Bowl loss for Oregon, but there were plenty of opportunities to win that game against the Buckeyes. Second-year coach Chip Kelly knew that even without quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, his team had enough talent on offense to compete for another Rose Bowl berth in the 2010 season. On the last weekend of September, Oregon survived a poor performance in the desert thanks to seven turnovers from Arizona State and then came back from a 21-3 deficit the following week against fellow BCS competitor Stanford to win by 21. The season then rolled downhill to the middle of November when a roadtrip to California, who was a dominant 5-0 at home, came on the schedule. California lost a game-winning field goal attempt on an illegal motion penalty that saved the Ducks perfect season in a shocking 15-13 win. In every other game this season, Oregon scored 37 or more points. Two easy wins later, Oregon also took all doubt out of the minds of college football fans with a 12-0 finish on the same day Auburn punched their ticket to the Championship game. Like all other championship teams, each of these teams has been dominant at times but had to survive a couple of huge gut-check moments to get here.

The Oregon offense has taken the spread attack to another level from the high heights of a season ago, despite losing LaGarrette Blount and Masoli. Darron Thomas threw for over 2500 yards and 28 touchdowns while adding 500 rushing yards and 5 more touchdowns on the ground. As good as Thomas has been the real star was Heisman contender RB LaMichael James, who racked up nearly 1700 yards. The only teams to hold James under 100 yards were Arizona State (94 yards) and California (91 yards), which were the only two games Oregon really struggled in. Clearly the key to stopping this offense is stopping James, or at least containing him. Senior WR Jeff Maehl should be able to break 1000 yards receiving in the final game of his senior season, and he should reach it. Expect Oregon's talent to have a lot of time to operate behind an offensive line that brought back all five starters from the Rose Bowl team from a year ago. Senior tackles Ce Kaiser and Bo Thran anchor that line and should be able to keep Auburn's mediocre defensive line out of the backfield on most drives. In other words, Oregon should have an easier go than a season ago when they were held to 17 in the bowl game.

Trying to stop that offensive explosion from continuing is the Auburn defense, which gave up 24 points per game this season. However, it did not matter because Cam Newton was always there to outscore and bring the Tigers back. Gene Chizik started the season with 8 returning starters and the experience showed in the survival-fest that is SEC play. Auburn's defense is led by their linebackers Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes, each of whom will be hoping to leave Auburn with only the school's second national championship. Although the defensive secondary was burned a few times this time, SS Mike McNeil does threaten to intercept many balls and will be the critical last line of defense against the home-run Oregon plays. As long as Auburn can get a handful of defensive stops in this game, that will be enough to bring home the crystal football. The key will be how much push the defensive line can get on the experienced Ducks offensive line. Auburn does have good defensive team speed, which is a critical component of slowing the Ducks. Oregon will win this battle, but the key is by how much do the Ducks win this battle.

Auburn will be comforted in knowing that Cam Newton has at least one more start before he leaves for the pro leagues, and this will be the most important start of his career to date. What a difference two years makes for Newton, who was kicked out at Florida for off the field troubles and now ends up as the biggest star on the biggest stage in his first year back. Newton's numbers nearly match Thomas of Oregon (2500 yards, 28 touchdowns) in passing, but Newton also pulled off the rare 20-20 feat by running for 20 touchdowns and 1400 yards as well. Freshman RB Michael Dyer was not even on the depth chart to start the season but ended up with nearly a 1000 yard rushing season thanks to the extra attention defenses must pay to Newton. When Newton does throw the ball, he has an experienced suite of receivers to throw to including Terrell Zachary, Emory Blake, and Darvin Adams. Watch for Adams to really stretch the Oregon defense in a similar way as the Stanford team did in the first half of their game against the Ducks. Auburn may not have the gaudy statistics of the Ducks on offense, but they are a close second.

Just like Auburn's defense, the Ducks defense will be looking to step up like they did agaisnt California when the stakes are higher than ever. The Oregon defensive line is relatively undersized, which was a huge issue in the Rose Bowl last year when Oregon played outside their own Pac-10 backyard. Auburn brings a similar offensive front and strategy as Ohio State did a year ago, so it remains to be seen if Chip Kelly's staff will have these smaller defensive linemen up to the task this year of stopping the bigger offensive players in the SEC. The best part of the Oregon defense is the linebackers, three proud seniors who have taken Oregon to the next level on this side of the ball. Expect Spencer Paysinger, Casey Matthews, and Bryson Littlejohn to each make the reads necessary to keep Cam Newton contained in the running game. If these linebackers cannot get that base job done, this will be a long day for the Oregon defense. The defensive backfield is stocked with young sophomores who got better as the season went along but still could be a point of attack for the Auburn offense. Again, Auburn will win the battle on this side of the ball, but it is all a matter of degree.

No matter who wins this game, they will have scored a lot of points and will have made yet another second year head coach a national champion. While neither of these teams were really on the radar coming into the season, both have earned their right to be here and both will be ready to tackle the biggest task of the season. Both these teams have come back from three scores down against BCS-level teams, so this game will never be out of reach no matter how it starts. However, a game like this generally comes down to whichever defense steps up and makes bigger plays and more stops. If this game goes as everyone expects, a mere 3 defensive stops may be enough to win the game! Oregon's defense is statistically better and more experienced, but Auburn's defense faced better overall competition this season in the SEC. The SEC will not go down after four years of winning national titles without a fight, but Oregon seems to have the right mix on defense to make one big play in the fourth quarter against Cam Newton. The Ducks have learned from their experiences last season and will bring home the first national championship in school history with a 7 point win.

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