After all the games and all the polls and all the hype and the hoopla, the 2010-11 college football season ends tonight with what looks to be a great match-up between the two best college football teams in America (that aren't the TCU Horned Frogs). Between Ted and I, we managed to finish with an above-.500 record in our bowl picks this year, even though we managed to miss picking a couple at the end. Tonight's game is, by far, the hardest one to pick, in my opinion, because these teams are so evenly matched.
Both the Oregon Ducks and the Auburn Tigers are capable of scoring points in bunches. . .very, very large bunches. Oregon is the highest-scoring team in the FBS this year, averaging a whopping 49.3 points per game on the season, and had very few scares along the way. Auburn isn't too shabby either, averaging 42.7 points a game of their own, good for fourth in the FBS. Oregon, statistically, has a slightly better defense in terms of points allowed (18.4 ppg allowed for the Ducks compared to 24.5 ppg allowed for Auburn), but it could be argued that the Ducks didn't play quite the caliber of competition this season that the Tigers did, which could account for the slight differences on both of those fronts.
The Oregon offense plays at an absolutely frenetic pace, constantly sprinting to the line and not allowing the defense to substitute and get set. They also average 11 more plays per game than the next best team in the FBS in that category. That sort of pace will wear down an opposing defense, and is a part of the reason that the highest-scoring offense in the FBS is fueled not by the passing game, primarily, but by their rushing attack. Only three teams in the FBS this year averaged more rushing yards than Oregon's 303.5 yards per game, and the attack is led by Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James. James rushed for 1,682 yards this year (averaging six yards per carry) and found the end zone 21 times this year. When they have to go to the air, quarterback Darron Thomas has proven to be quite capable, and has actually put up numbers comparable to the much more famous quarterback on the other sideline, posting a TD-to-INT ratio of 28:7 and completing nearly 61% of his passes.
It's going to be up to the Auburn defense to play with discipline against Oregon's option attack. While the focus of the Oregon offense will be containing star defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the keys will be the play of defensive ends Antoine Carter and Nosa Eguae, as well as middle linebacker Josh Bynes. They have to walk the delicate line between being disciplined and aggressive on this one, or else James and Thomas are going to be running free in the secondary all night for the Ducks, which would spell big trouble for Auburn. If Auburn can force Oregon into obvious passing situations, it will allow them to get into man-to-man coverage against the Ducks' receivers (who, while a very good group, don't have the speed of Auburn's defensive backs) and really get after Darron Thomas.
Auburn is led, obviously, by quarterback Cameron Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner. Newton was truly worthy of winning the Heisman this year in the landslide fashion that he did, accounting for nearly 4,000 total yards (leading the Tigers in both passing and rushing), as well as authoring 49 combined touchdowns. . .28 through the air, 20 on the ground, and he even got one via a reception. The Auburn rushing attack is very physical in its own right, having finished sixth in the BCS in rushing yards per game, and they can hit you in a variety of ways. Obviously, Newton is the featured attraction, but the Tigers have three capable running backs as well. Michael Dyer is a tough inside runner, Onterio McCalebb is a true burner in the backfield, and Mario Fannin has made some big plays for the Tigers this season, too.
This is where the game hinges, in my opinion, because the front side of the Oregon defense is very undersized, averaging only about 270 pounds at defensive tackle and about 240 at defensive end. The Ducks haven't seen a physical rushing attack all year that can even begin to approach what the Tigers are capable of, and it could really cause the Ducks to wear down over the course of a game. When Auburn is forced to pass, don't be surprised if the Ducks don't bring a whole lot of extra pressure and attempt. . .attempt. . .to keep Newton confined to the pocket. Newton is actually a fairly average passer when he has to sit back in the pocket, but has been absolutely deadly when he's been allowed to get out and be on the move. The Oregon front four. . .tackles Brandon Bair and Zac Clark and ends Kenny Rowe and Terrell Turner. . .will have to play with the utmost discipline in those situations and have faith in the coverage behind them. If Cam Newton is running around in the backfield and making Oregon defenders miss, it's going to be a long night for the Ducks.
On paper, this game shapes up to be a classic, and could easily be the highest-scoring BCS Championship game since the BCS system was instituted. When you have teams that are as evenly matched as these two are, there are two ways of viewing it, in my opinion. One has to look at which team is more battle-tested, and which team has the best player. Both of those keys lean towards Auburn. The Tigers have the best player on the offensive side of the ball in this game in Newton, and the best player in this game on the defensive side of the ball in Fairley. Auburn also has six victories this season over Top 25 teams, as opposed to one for Oregon. The Ducks spent a lot of time this season blowing people out. . .they won't be blowing out Auburn, you can be relatively sure of that.
When the dust settles, the smoke clears, and all those other worn out cliches are put away for a few months. . .it looks like the SEC is going to be bringing home their fifth consecutive BCS Championship, in my opinion.
SB Nation Minnesota Prediction: Auburn 48, Oregon 41