2011 BCS Championship
Oregon (12-0) vs.
Monday, January 10th, 8:00 ABC
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By Pete Fiutak
Considering it seems like two years since Auburn put the finishing touches on South Carolina in the SEC Championship and Oregon got done waxing Oregon State, the battle for the 2011 BCS Championship still sort of snuck up on everyone.
It’s not like Auburn and Oregon were that highly thought off coming into the season, and still, after a full college football season of watching the brilliance of these two teams unfold, it’s still a bit of a shocker that the Ducks, ranked 11th in the preseason Coaches’ and AP polls and 15th by CFN, and Tigers, ranked 23rd by the Coaches’ and CFN and 22nd by the AP, were able to fight through the trash to actually get to Glendale unscathed.
It’s not like Alabama and Texas playing in the 2010 BCS Championship, when both programs started the season in the top three and were locks to play for it all by winning out, and it’s not like Florida vs. Oklahoma in the 2009 game, a matchup of two superpowers with name-brand talent across the board. In fact, this national championship is unlike no other in the history of college football because of the sheer out-of-left-field nature of the key parts involved.
Oregon is hardly a total and complete shocker, considering it played in the 2010 Rose Bowl against Ohio State and was listed by almost everyone as the Pac 10 favorite in the preseason, but it was still an interesting journey. The season appeared to be derailed before it could even gets started when starting quarterback, and heart-and-soul leader, Jeremiah Masoli, was kicked off the team for a slew of problems, most notably the theft of a laptop, and he ended up at Ole Miss. Star running back LaMichael James appeared to be headed for a similar demise after being arrested for domestic battery, but the situation was cleared up and he managed to be back on the team after serving a one-game suspension.
Oregon’s quarterback situation was up in the air until the last minute, with Darron Thomas finally winning out late. Chip Kelly was only in his second year as a head coach at any level, the run defense was supposed to be a problem, and the secondary had to replace three starters. Going into the opener against New Mexico, Oregon hardly had the look of an unstoppable offensive juggernaut deserving of being on anyone’s national title radar.
But again, Oregon was coming off a BCS appearance and, despite all the concerns, was still a favorite to get back to the Rose Bowl. Auburn was coming off a wild overtime Outback Bowl win over Northwestern – not exactly Ohio State – and while some nice pieces were starting to be put in place, no one on the planet thought this team was going to be much of a contender or second place in the SEC West, much less be a steamroller to the national championship.
There was a buzz about a good-looking quarterback named Cam Newton, but all anyone knew about him was that he was a talented prospect who got kicked out of Florida after being nailed for possession of a stolen laptop, among other issues. There was still a skeptical eye on head coach Gene Chizik, who was a disaster at Iowa State and a curious hire by Auburn, the defense didn’t have a star up front, but was hopeful that former JUCO transfer Nick Fairley could grow into a solid SEC starter, and the secondary was full of players more noted for their spectacular and frightening injuries than for being able to break up a pass.
And now, in the span of just four months, Newton has gone from an unknown to a legend, after coming up with the greatest regular season of any quarterback in college football history; Fairley is now a sure-thing, top five NFL draft pick after winning the Lombardi; James led the nation in rushing, despite missing the opening game, and was the only choice for the Doak Walker Award; Thomas is one of the rising star quarterbacks with the upside to be an All-American in the near future; and either Kelly or Chizik will walk among the giants as a national championship head coach late Monday night.
TCU pumped up the idea that it was trying to win for the little guy when it faced big, bad Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but at a higher level, let the 2011 BCS Championship be the moment that gives hope to all BCS teams. Let this be the game that shows that preseason ranking doesn’t have to necessarily matter, unless you’re TCU. Let this give hope to all fans of above-average programs that the team you’re excited about on August 31st could come from out of nowhere to play for the national title in early January.
And let this be the moment for fan bases who have lived their college football lives waiting for the bottom to drop out.
Oregon doesn’t get through seasons unbeaten … but it did. The Ducks answered every challenge and came through every time it seemed like the dream was supposed to end. The ghosts of Dennis Dixon, and the Joey Harrington 2001 team that played Colorado in the Fiesta instead of Miami in the Rose, are now exorcised, as Oregon was able to take advantage of the end of the USC dynasty (for now), a relatively weak conference, and no road games against elite teams, to get its shot at the program’s first national title.
Starting with a statement-making 72-0 stomping of New Mexico in the opener, Oregon played fast, scored faster, and became the hot offense to watch from Day One. Just when it seemed like Tennessee was going to show a little Pac 10 team how things got done SEC style – vooooom – a 35-point Duck second half changed the perception. Just when it seemed like Arizona State was going to come up with a nice win in the Pac 10 home opener, the Duck defense started taking the ball away. Just when it seemed like Andrew Luck was going to take Stanford to a higher level and be in the national title chase, Oregon adjusted and outscored the Cardinal 28-0 in the second half.
From getting by a sluggish game at Cal, to outlasting USC in a firefight, to outsluggling Arizona, to overcoming a jacked up Oregon State, the team kept finding ways to win. When times were tough, the offense kept on sticking to the plan, and while the results weren’t always pretty, like the 15-13 win in Berkeley, and the best road win was against a mediocre Volunteer team that was nowhere near as good as it was by the end of the year, Oregon never flinched.
Auburn never gets the breaks … except this time. From the 2004 team that got left out of the show when Oklahoma and USC got to play for the national title, to the 1983 team that probably should’ve been more in the championship debate, to the 1993 team that went 11-0 while on probation, Tiger fans were waiting for the bottom to drop out this year because the bottom always drops out for Auburn. Instead, just when it seemed like Lucy was going to pull the football away yet again, Auburn got the all-timer of all-timer calls when the NCAA chose not to drop the hammer on Newton, after his father solicited $180,000 from Mississippi State. That, along with the team showing the heart and mettle all season long to get through the toughest division in college football, has made this a dream season that could wipe away all the past controversies with one more win.
Unlike Oregon, it’s not like Auburn became a must-see team early on, and it didn’t start to become anything worth putting on the SEC title contender radar until late October. The Tigers struggled to win the SEC opener against Mississippi State, getting shut out in the second half in a 17-14 win, and they managed to survive an overtime war against Clemson in the hardest hitting, most physical game of the 2010 season. South Carolina managed to screw itself up in a loss in Jordan-Hare Stadium and Kentucky battled hard in a 37-34 loss. Going into the SEC West battles with Arkansas and LSU, Auburn was a solid but unspectacular 6-0, and then the light went on.
In just two games, Auburn went from being an interesting curiosity to BCS Championship contender, and Newton went from being a fun new star to appointment television. After hanging 65 on Arkansas in a record-setting shootout, and after Newton ran for 188 yards and three scores, the stage was set for the showdown against LSU. Yeah, Auburn was able roll up the numbers against some good teams, but LSU came into the game ranked first in the SEC and sixth in the nation against the run allowing just 84 yards per game. 440 Auburn rushing yards later, Newton had all but sealed the Heisman with 217 rushing yards and two scores, and the stage was set for a trip to Glendale except for one, big Matzo ball that was still hanging out there.
December 4th at Alabama.
Auburn had wrapped up the SEC West and appeared certain to blast whomever came out of the East in the SEC title game, so the argument became whether or not a one-loss SEC champion should play for the national title over an unbeaten Boise State or TCU. After a clunker of a first half, the answer appeared to be an obvious no, and then it’s possible the Tigers won the national title.
If Auburn beats Oregon and is holding up the crystal trophy late Monday night, and showing it off at a local Wal-Mart a few days later, it’ll point to the 21-3 second half against a Tide team that’s not supposed to lose big games after taking a 24-0 lead. If Florida won the 2008 national title by beating Alabama in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship, and if Alabama won the 2009 national title on the first few drives against the Gators in the SEC title game, then Auburn might have won the 2010 championship on a key fourth down throw from Newton and a seven-yard scoring pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen.
College football hasn’t really had a lot of time to digest everything that has just happened in a whirlwind of a season. After all the great moments from these two teams and the star players on them, everyone is asking for just one more magical game. They’re asking for a shootout of epic proportions and drama befitting the two teams that managed to fight through their issues by putting up a bazillion points on the board. This is it, SEC; it’s time to go for five in a row. This is it, Pac 10; it’s time to go into a new era of conference play by getting out of USC’s shadow. This is what we’ve all been waiting for from these two teams, even if we never knew it was coming.
Champ. Preview, Part 2 - Players to Watch, How To Win, & Pick