Defense wins championships? Auburn and Oregon say otherwise
If we get an Auburn-Oregon title game, the hurry-up will explode next season
Boise State could get locked out of the championship game and the Rose Bowl
Baylor and Syracuse continue to be two of the biggest surprises of the season
The Arizona Cardinals scored 35 points Sunday in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It marked their season high, was more than double their previous average and was a rare treat for the hometown fans at University of Phoenix Stadium.
If the current BCS standings hold true, those fans could see that many points by the end of the first quarter on Jan. 10.
With Nebraska toppling previously undefeated Missouri and Iowa clubbing previously undefeated Michigan State, the clutter surrounding BCS No. 1 Oregon (8-0) and No. 2 Auburn (9-0) is dissipating. What the two lacked in drama Saturday, they made up for in scoreboard wattage (Oregon 53, USC 32; Auburn 51, Ole Miss 31) as they set their sights on Glendale.
The title picture has actually become pretty clear. The Ducks (who jumped Auburn in the BCS standings this week) and Tigers control their own destinies. Alabama (7-1), which is already back up to No. 6 in the BCS, would likely take Auburn's place with an Iron Bowl win and an SEC title. That means it will take an Oregon loss to open the door for 7-0 Boise State, 9-0 TCU or 8-0 Utah. After watching the quick-strike Ducks yet again hang half-a-hundred on USC, it's becoming increasingly difficult to envision that happening.
Despite their defensive deficiencies, the Trojans actually did a decent job of keeping pace with Oregon. After going up 32-29 early in the third quarter, they made the Ducks earn their points on the two long (by Oregon standards) touchdown drives that ensued. This is an Oregon team that's yet to score less than 42 points in a game despite ranking 115th in the country in time of possession.
But yet again, Oregon found itself in total command in the fourth quarter, stifling any hope of a comeback with an underrated defense that's allowed just seven points in the final period all season. Chip Kelly won't say how his team does it ("It's like the secret to Coke," he joked), but there's a pretty logical explanation: The defense practices at the same tempo as the offense. While the other team naturally tires over the course of a game, Oregon's defenders may well feel rejuvenated.
"I've really seen a difference in two weeks," USC coach Lane Kiffin said of his own defense's improved endurance after simulating Oregon's tempo in practice. "I can only imagine the effect [the practice tempo] has had on Oregon in two years."
The other thing that's been striking about the Ducks is the balance they've displayed the past two weeks. Unlike Kelly's past teams, which leaned more heavily on the run, Oregon killed UCLA through the air two weeks ago. On Saturday, LaMichael James ran for 239 yards and three touchdowns while Darron Thomas threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to go-to guy Jeff Maehl.
Auburn, for its part, made some strides to improve its own balance on Saturday. In recent weeks, Cam Newton and the Tigers have run, run and run some more against their opponents, and with good reason: Nobody could stop them. (They ran for 440 yards on LSU, for crying out loud!) Saturday night in Oxford, however, Newton only ran for -- brace for this -- 45 yards. No matter. He went 18-of-24 for 209 yards and two touchdowns and -- as if he hasn't shown off enough -- made a leaping 20-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone on a pass from Wildcat quarterback Kodi Burns.
Auburn put up its usual 572 yards in the rout.
"They were making [Newton] throw the football,'' said the Tigers' offensive guru, Gus Malzahn. "We've been saying all along we have other guys who can do a solid job, and they did that."
We're a long way from Oregon-Auburn actually happening. The Ducks finish the season against Arizona, the Pac-10's top defensive team, and rival Oregon State. The Tigers have to face ... you know, the defending national champs.
If they do both make it to Glendale, it will be an interesting statement on college football in 2010. Kelly and Malzahn happen to be the nation's two most respected authorities when it comes to the no-huddle. Oregon has run more plays in less time than any team in the country. This Auburn squad has actually moved a little slower than Malzahn's past teams, but largely because it's run the ball so often and had to milk the clock in several close fourth-quarter games.
The axiom is that defense wins championships, but Oregon hasn't had to win a game that way. By nearly any statistical measure, Auburn's defense is well below that of past title teams (57th nationally). It's a testament to Newton and the offense that the Tigers have still won so may close games.
If we end up with an Auburn-Oregon title game, expect half the coaches in the country to install the no-huddle offense next spring. Or, to go searching for 6-foot-6 quarterbacks who can run, catch and throw for touchdowns.
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