January 10, 2011/8:30 pm Eastern
Glendale, AZ - University of Phoenix Stadium
For the BCS bowls, we have culled the responses of our three Tailgater gurus — Matt Strobl, John Mitchell, and Zach Bigalke. Read on for their key players, key matchups, X-factors and final predictions…
- Mitchell: If Oregon is going to win the National Championship, RB LaMichael James needs to have a big game. That’s easier said than done against an Auburn run defense that ranks 11th in the nation giving up only a little over 111 yards per game. We all know Cam Newton is going to have his usual great game, but the play of DL Nick Fairley could go a long way in determining the outcome. Fairley is one of the best defensive linemen in college football and he will disrupt Oregon’s offensive flow if they aren’t able to contain him.
- Strobl: Huh? A down lineman? Consider this sports fans: Oregon’s offense gets the press, but the Ducks are a Top 10 team in terms of tackles for loss. The Oregon front seven is as aggressive as any defense in football, and they love to play in the opponent’s backfield. DT Brandon Bair ranks 21st in the nation in tackles behind the line, and nothing will shut down Cam Newton like negative plays. For Auburn all eyes will be on Newton, but RB Onterio McCalebb has been a major weapon for the Tigers down the stretch. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn can use Oregon’s focus against it — if the Ducks over-pursue Newton, McCalebb could catch them unaware. Big gains by a player not named Cam just make Oregon’s job on defense that much harder.
- Bigalke: For the Ducks it all comes down to how their smaller, faster defense neutralizes the threat presented by Cam Newton and the Auburn offense. And there’s been no bigger game-changer this season for Oregon than CB/PR Cliff Harris. Harris snagged five interceptions throughout the season, returning one for a touchdown. He also helped the already-potent Duck offense start with great field position time and time again, and returned four punts for touchdowns as well. The sophomore will be crucial in helping to neutralize Tigers WRs Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery. For Auburn, freshman RB Michael Dyer is going to play a one-two role with McCalebb in the backfield that, if running on all cylinders, could give the Ducks defense fits all night long in the desert.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
- Strobl: These are two very, very good teams. But if there is a weakness to be found, it’s in the Auburn secondary. Amid all the flashy numbers and high rankings sits an ugly 105: That’s the Tigers’ rank in terms of passing yards allowed. Darron Thomas in a top 25 quarterback in terms of efficiency rating, and he has the skill set to make the Auburn defensive back miserable. We know Oregon can score fast against anyone, and unless the Tigers can tighten up that pass defense, the points could really pile up.
- Bigalke: The hidden battle comes in the special teams. Specifically, when (and it will surely happen at least once) Auburn is forced to punt, their coverage team is going to have to get downfield fast and everyone is going to have to be absolutely certain of their assignments. The Tigers rank just 91st in net punting, and with Harris fielding the returns for Oregon they will have their greatest field-position test of the season. If Auburn cannot find a way to improve on their net punting average of less than 35 yards a kick, it will only place more pressure on a defense susceptible to getting caught in shootouts.
- Mitchell: Oregon ranks 4th in the nation in rushing offense while Auburn ranks 11th in the nation in rushing defense. Something has to give when these two teams take the field in Glendale. Oregon has to win the battle up front offensively if they want to win this game. If Auburn’s defensive line imposes its will on the Oregon offensive line, then it could be a long game for the Ducks.
TALE OF THE TAPE
- Bigalke: Pressure on the lines. Will Oregon, with DLs Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe getting a push on the line and LBs Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews coming through the gaps, be able to exert pressure in the Auburn backfield and neutralize the prodigious threat of the Heisman winner? Can Nick Fairley continue to wreak havoc like he has all season and throw off the timing of Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and that fearsome Blur offense? Whichever team gets more defensive pressure on the opposition backfield is going to gain the upper hand quickly in this contest.
- Mitchell: Turnovers. With two teams so evenly matched, it will likely come down to which team wins the turnover battle. Whichever team can force a key turnover when it is desperately needed has a good chance at hoisting the crystal pigskin.
- Strobl: Luck. What else could it be? Auburn has had a great year, but it’s also been a historically lucky one. The Tigers could have lost any or all of five different games had one or two plays gone differently. So how will things shake out in the title game? Will a big call (or non-call) play a pivotal role? Will there be some kind of fluke mistake? Or will Lady Luck finally take her seat and let the teams sort it out?
- Mitchell: Putting my bias aside, I think Auburn wins this game. Cameron Newton is just too good and Oregon won’t have an answer for him. I also believe Auburn’s defense will be able to stop the Oregon offense more times than the Ducks defense will stop the Tigers offense. I really hope I’m wrong, but… Auburn 48, Oregon 41
- Strobl: Yes, the SEC is tops when it comes to conferences. And Cam Newton is tops when it comes to QBs. But Oregon was the better team this year, and had a more dominant season. A lot of people are writing off their chances, but don’t be surprised when the Ducks have the last quack. Oregon 37, Auburn 31
- Bigalke: After predicting the Badgers to win the Rose Bowl, I loathe picking a team with personal loyalties attached. Yet, despite the intangible fact that the SEC has won four straight national titles, this is a new season and all credible numbers point to better production by Oregon both on offense and defense. This is going to be a hard-fought, high scoring national championship… and the title will come back to the west coast for the first time since USC captured the 2005 crown, a disputed crown. This time Auburn won’t be able to argue that they got shafted; this time the Tigers will miss out fair and square. Oregon 52, Auburn 38