— Monday night’s BCS Championship Game offers an obvious storyline, nearly impossible to resist. We’d describe in a word, but the matchup between the No. 1 Auburn Tigers (13-0) and No. 2 Oregon Ducks (12-0) is all about excess. So we’ll give you three.
The numbers are ridiculous. Auburn averages 42.7 points and 497.7 yards per game (seventh nationally). Oregon averages 49.3 points and 537.5 yards per game (second nationally).
The styles of play are intoxicating. There’s Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who is the SEC’s leading rusher while leading the nation in passing efficiency (think about THAT combination for a moment). There’s Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, who expertly reads and reacts, usually with LaMichael James on his hip.
Shortly after being sliced and diced in the SEC championship game, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was asked about the prospect of an Auburn-Oregon clash.
“Might be 60 to 55, something like that,’’ he said.
Then he added this:
“Maybe somebody will rise up and play a lot of great defense.’’
Has anyone considered that?
Didn’t think so.
It would be a mistake to think the Auburn and Oregon defenses won’t play key roles on Monday night. Remember, both teams have endured a 37-day gap since their last games. How many times have we seen it? Potent offenses are short-circuited, out of rhythm and ineffective due to the layoff.
Yes, the Auburn and Oregon offenses might be completely different, a collection of awe-inspiring talent capable of overcoming such factors and reaching their potential.
But remember this: The Auburn and Oregon defenses are pretty good, too.
That angle hasn't gotten much play in the pregame buildup.
It might end up deciding the national title.
You won’t be able to take your eyes off Newton. You will be mesmerized by the quick rhythm of Thomas and Oregon’s offense.
Don’t forget to glance across the line, though. You might notice some unforgettable players there, too.
Auburn senior defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner and the 6-foot-5, 298-pound earth mover, set a school record with 21 tackles for a loss, while adding 10.5 sacks from his interior position.
Oregon sophomore cornerback Cliff Harris, a future first-round pick, is one of the nation’s top playmakers. He leads the nation in pass breakups (15) and has five touchdowns (four on punt returns).
The game’s stars aren’t limited to offensive positions.
“When you’re playing for a championship, I always felt like it wasn’t about outscoring somebody, but the way you played defense,’’ said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who holds the NCAA record for bowl victories (24).
The defensive statistics are interesting, but only tell a portion of the story. Oregon allows 331.6 yards per game (26th nationally) and 18.4 points (14th), while Auburn surrenders 362.2 yards per game (53rd nationally) and 24.5 points (54th).
Because the Oregon and Auburn offenses are quick-strike units, not conducive to time-of-possession dominance, the opponents get more snaps (and thus, more yardage).
Nine of Auburn’s opponents scored 24 points or more — a potential red flag — but the lasting memory is the Tigers giving up just a second-half field goal against Alabama in the riveting 28-27 come-from-behind victory on Nov. 26.
Oregon gave up 29 points or more to four of its opponents. But in the season’s biggest game — a 52-31 victory against Stanford — the Ducks pitched a second-half shutout against the Cardinal and eventual Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck.
“They are very good at what they do,’’ Newton said.
How then will Oregon’s defense attempt to stop Auburn?
It begins, of course, with Newton. And the first thought is last season’s Rose Bowl defeat against Ohio State, which featured another premier dual-threat quarterback, Terrelle Pryor (338 total yards).
Oregon’s pursuit and tackling ability will be crucial. Even if the Ducks employ an extra defender in the box, if they try to tackle Newton too high, it’s curtains. He’s too strong, too fast. Oregon must swarm and tackle low. The problem, obviously, is Newton’s passing ability, which must be respected.
Auburn also employs more of a traditional, downhill running game, featuring pulling linemen. Auburn’s veteran offensive line (four seniors, including All-American left tackle Lee Ziemba, and one junior) figures to dictate physically. But Oregon’s defensive line, undersized by most standards, has been more than respectable (15th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 117.6 yards per game).
Oregon has an outstanding corps of linebackers, led by seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, which will help in defending the run. In the secondary, Oregon is loaded with athletic players who excel in one-on-one situations and could neutralize Auburn’s perimeter speed.
How will Auburn’s defense attack Oregon?
The nightmarish reality: Oregon averages about 80 plays per game. Its tempo is difficult to slow down, let alone stop. In its most narrow victory, 15-13 against California, the Golden Bears faked some injuries to stop the clock and limit the pace.
And the scary part is the generally poor play of Auburn’s secondary, which ranked 105th nationally against the pass. SEC quarterbacks and receivers are accustomed to career performances against the Tigers.
Auburn must rely on a strong push up front. With Fairley along the line and Josh Bynes leading the way at linebacker, it is imperative to keep James and Thomas from roaming into the second level. Auburn’s pass-defense deficiencies have been largely masked by strong play up front, but Oregon’s skill-position players provide another dimension.
If you are Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti or Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, this could be the kind of game that creates sleepless nights. Then again, the defenses at Oregon and Auburn have undergone the perfect preparation — facing their own offensive teammates.
Quick-strike drives? Dual-threat quarterbacks? Elusive skill-position players? Space-age concepts?
It’s nothing new. The Ducks and Tigers have seen it all year, inside the tarpaulin-covered confines of their practice fields.
Somebody is bound to come up big on defense. There won’t be a shutout — or even much of a shutdown.
Still, it’s possible, maybe even probable, that the game will turn on one team’s ability to stand up a running back, close off the corner or smother a receiver.
We won’t spoil the irresistible buildup, the offenses that have everyone dreaming of a combined point total in triple digits. But this is championship football. That inevitably means that defense will figure heavily in whether the Ducks or Tigers come away with a national title.
Defense, defense, defense?
Monday night, even with that embarrassment of offensive riches, it will be a major factor.