Auburn, Oregon mirror images
With the announcement Sunday night that No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon will play for the crystal football, the BCS made official what has been projected for the past several weeks. The most exciting quarterback in the game and the most exciting offense in the game will try to match each other point for point, highlight for highlight, history for history.
The Tigers and the Ducks will play in their first Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., a fitting end to a season that no one will confuse with a remake of "Casablanca." The final BCS standings released Sunday night did not round up the usual suspects.
Auburn won a share of the 1957 championship. Oregon finished No. 2 in 2001, a season noteworthy for how the Ducks got left out of the national championship game in favor of Nebraska, which didn't even play in the Big 12 championship game.
If ever there has been a season in which history has been shoved aside, it's this one. In that and many other ways, Auburn and Oregon mirror one another. Auburn and Oregon made it through their conference seasons and their in-state rivalry games without a blemish.
On one sideline will be Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who is expected to win the Heisman Trophy. The most controversial player in the nation has emerged eligible from an NCAA investigation to lead his team to No. 1. Where the fame of his play stops and the infamy of his recruitment begins is unclear. But Newton became the best and the best-known player in the sport this fall.
The Auburn and Oregon coaches wouldn't have been so presumptuous to begin watching video of one another. But Newton doesn't have to be introduced to anyone.
"I know they got Cam Newton," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said Saturday evening. "You can't help but know about Cam Newton. You'd have to be almost brain-dead not to know about Cam Newton."
On the other sideline will be an Oregon offense that leads the nation in scoring (49.33 points per game) and is second in total offense (537.5 yards per game) and fourth in rushing (303.8 yards per game).
As the coaching staffs download the game videos of one another, they will see teams that look familiar. The schemes aren't the same. But both teams have inventive offenses with coaches who make great adjustments. They can create a big play from any yard line at any moment. And usually in a hurry.
The Ducks' offense, led by head coach Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, has married a spread offense with a fast tempo in a manner that has worn defenses out by the fourth quarter.
"It's not something that we're totally foreign to," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Sunday night.
The Auburn offense, conducted by coordinator Gus Malzahn and operated by Newton, has beaten teams through the air, up the middle and on the edges. Defenses have stopped the Tigers, but not for 60 minutes.
Each team came from behind to win multiple times this season (Oregon has rallied eight times, Auburn seven), which means the fourth quarter of the championship game should be a series of knockout blows. Their defenses, of course, beg to differ. The defenses of Auburn and Oregon mirror one another, as well.
The Oregon defense is not the traditional suffocator of offenses found on most championship teams. The Ducks give up yards, perhaps because they are on the field for so long. But they are tough where it counts. They are plus-13 in turnovers, thanks to a ball-hawking secondary, and they have kept opponents under 50 percent in red zone touchdowns.
The Auburn defense showed remarkable lapses in the secondary all season. But the defensive front, led by tackle Nick Fairley, has been so dominant that it hasn't mattered.
Both the Auburn and the Oregon defenses have gotten used to life in the 24-hour shadow of their prolific offenses. They will spend the next five weeks there, as well. But they will be the units that will decide the next national champion.
The one thing that can't be predicted about Auburn or Oregon is how they will emerge from the next five weeks in order to play the biggest game of their lives. Auburn finished its season with a flourish, a for-the-ages comeback against archrival Alabama followed by a 56-17 rout of South Carolina, the biggest margin of victory in SEC championship game history.
Oregon played its two closest games in the final three weeks of the season. However, the Ducks played poorly in the Rose Bowl after a four-week layoff a year ago. That 26-17 loss to Ohio State motivated this team to practice so hard and so well in the spring that Kelly knew then he had the makings of a champion.
With consistent play, rising stars and a little luck, Oregon and Auburn find themselves on the precipice of a dream.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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