Though the national title game is void of any traditional powerhouse programs, it’s impossible to argue either team doesn’t belong.
Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton refused to let Auburn lose and Oregon was rarely at risk, assuring the BCS of a most intriguing showdown between power conference teams in its showcase event Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.
A matchup no one expected would decide the BCS champion when the season began has the potential to be the highest-scoring in this game’s history, with the Ducks going for their first national title and the Tigers seeking their first in more than half a century.
“We’re not happy with just going to it, we wanna go and win it now,” Ducks wideout Jeff Maehl said. “We put too much hard work and time into it to not go there and play well.”
These teams have owned the top two spots in the BCS standings since late October and wouldn’t give them up. While the Ducks’ only real close call was a 15-13 win at California on Nov. 13, the Tigers came much closer to blowing it because they needed eight come-from-behind wins - four by double digits.
“Our football team has been probably one of the most resilient groups of young men I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this,” coach Gene Chizik said.
Newton overcame all the headlines over possible recruiting violations to lead Auburn to a 13-0 record and the No. 1 spot in both the BCS and AP polls following a 56-17 rout of South Carolina in the SEC championship game. Oregon ended up No. 2 with a 12-0 record behind tailback LaMichael James, who finished third in the Heisman voting.
That combination caused BCS-busting hopeful TCU and its 12-0 record to miss out on a chance at playing for the championship, again keeping mid-major schools - and potentially a lot of controversy - out of the bowl season’s finale.
Excluding the inaugural BCS title game in 1999, this is the second time both teams are making their first appearances. The other came in 2001 when Nebraska faced Miami, but those are perennial powers who have won plenty of national titles.
Auburn’s only one came in 1957 and Oregon has never won one. All the other winners of this game over the past 10 years have multiple national titles to their credit.
Plus, this is the first time two teams which began the season not ranked among the AP’s top 10 are playing for the BCS crown. Oregon started at No. 11 while Auburn was No. 22.
“We’re not letting any magnitude of the game, being the national championship, get to us,” Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh dang. The national championship. Oh, wow.’ We’re more like, it’s the next game, it’s the next team on the map that we know we’re going to have to defeat. We’re 60 minutes away from being crowned national champions.”
The Ducks averaged a nation-leading 49.3 points while Auburn was sixth at 42.7 and both ranked among the top 10 in total offense, combining for more than 1,000 yards per game. Their respective ground games are a big reason why.
“We’re different but I think we have some similar philosophies,” said Oregon’s Chip Kelly, the AP Coach of the Year. “They obviously run their quarterback a whole heck of lot more than we do.”
Newton has rushed for 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns but was just as good with his arm, finishing as the nation’s top-rated passer with 28 TDs and six interceptions. His average of 10.52 yards per attempt led the country.
“If you look over a 13-game span, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chizik said. “We have one game left, so he can’t get too big of a head, but I can say he’s probably the best football player I’ve ever seen.”
This is the last time Chizik may seem him in an Auburn uniform. It’s very possible Newton heads to the NFL following a junior season in which he dealt with such major off-the-field distractions, including the finding that his father violated NCAA rules.
“I think Cam Newton can play for anybody, including the NFL,” Kelly said. “He can throw it and he can run it. He’s the top football player in the country.”
Kelly has a future NFLer of his own in James, the nation’s top rusher with 152.9 yards per game and 21 touchdowns, though the sophomore has announced he will return to Oregon next season. In three games against ranked teams, he’s rushed for 622 yards and eight TDs.
James said he never cared much about winning the Heisman, even conceding he expected Newton to win it.
“Winning the national championship, that’s the main goal,” he said. “I’ve always thought about that. I always wanted to be the guy holding up the little ball and giving it a kiss and all that good stuff.”
Oregon has a good dual threat at quarterback of its own in Darron Thomas, who threw for 2,518 yards and 28 TDs while rushing for 492 and five scores.
Thomas and James present major concerns for an Auburn defense which surrendered an average of 28.0 points in its final eight games, finishing in the bottom half of the SEC in points and yards allowed.
That unit put the Tigers in a lot of holes from which Newton had to dig out, something that could be tough to do versus an Oregon team which puts points on the board quickly. All six of the Ducks’ scoring drives in their regular season-ending 37-20 win over Oregon State took less than 3 minutes.
“You think about speed, you think about fast-tempo offense like the one we run,” Tigers offensive lineman Lee Ziemba said of Oregon.
The Ducks’ defense has shown flaws, allowing more than 500 yards in three games, but did rank among the top 20 nationally in points allowed (18.4).
However, some feel Oregon didn’t play the same caliber of offenses - or competition - that Auburn did. The Tigers played five games against teams that were ranked 18th or higher, compared to one for Oregon.
“When you play a tough schedule like we have with a lot of quality opponents, there’s gonna be close games and we’ve had a lot of them,” Ziemba said. “It’s just a joy to see how our guys have fought through adversity even being down and just really believing they’re gonna win to the very end.”
While the Tigers try to give the SEC a fifth straight national championship, the Ducks look to become the first Pac-10 team other than USC to finish No. 1 in the polls.
“We’re exactly where we expected to be,” Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair said, “not necessarily going for a national championship, but winning every game.”