BCS pairings short on controversy, but loaded with new storylines
Auburn-Oregon will either shatter or reinforce SEC and Pac-10 stereotypes
As usual, Cam Newton vs. the opposing D will be the top matchup to watch
TCU-Wisconsin marks the Rose Bowl's best matchup since USC- Texas
Technically, the name of the event is the BCS National Championship Game, but for the fifth straight year it might as well be known as: The SEC vs. The Rest of Country Invitational.
The Big Ten got two shots and couldn't do it. Ditto for the Big 12. Now come the Pac-10's 12-0 Oregon Ducks to challenge the SEC's latest offering, 13-0 Auburn, in a national championship matchup that will either reinforce or shatter a decade-plus of stereotypes about "Big Boy" Southern football and West Coast "finesse," superior SEC defenses and glitzy Pac-10 offenses.
Remarkably, in this the 13th year of the BCS system -- a period spanning 57 bowl games -- Auburn-Oregon marks the first SEC vs. Pac-10 meeting. You know what else is remarkable? The Tigers are the fifth different SEC team to reach the Big Game. Oregon, meanwhile, is the Pac-10's first not named USC.
Someone's going to make history on Jan. 10 -- and they're probably going to do it by scoring a lot of points.
"I really think the two best offensive spread coaches in the country are going at it," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Oregon's Chip Kelly and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "So it will be a heck of a game. Might be 60-55, something like that."
In the end, this year's championship matchup was largely devoid of the usual BCS-related controversy. For the first time in five years, two (and only two) major-conference teams went undefeated, and while TCU is left scratching its head after a second straight perfect regular season, the fact that its consolation is the Rose Bowl, or perhaps the fact that it just accepted an invite to the Big East, seems to have lessened the outcry. Perhaps it would have been different had Boise State made it through unblemished, too.
The title game has an unmistakably different feel. Neither participant falls under the category of traditional brand-name program. This is not USC-Texas or Ohio State-Florida. It is Auburn-Oregon, two historically second-tier programs in their respective conferences -- but certainly not in 2010. The Ducks steamrolled their competition, scoring 49.3 points per game and winning all but one of their contests by at least 17 points. The Tigers kept it closer much of the way but made an emphatic final statement with their 56-17 SEC title game romp over South Carolina.
For much of the season, Oregon was viewed as the clear-cut team to beat. The Ducks moved to No. 1 in the AP poll on Oct. 17. They stayed there all the way until ... Sunday, when Auburn supplanted them. Now it's unclear who should be considered the favorite. The opening line at the Las Vegas Hilton on Saturday was Oregon by three. Within a half-hour, the spread had dropped to one -- essentially a toss-up.
But don't bother telling that to anyone in the Southeast, where it's a foregone conclusion that Cam Newton and the Tigers will roll. As you well know if you've watched a game on CBS this season, no other conference plays football like they do in the SEC. Seeing as the league is 6-0 in BCS title games, they do have a point. But this is the first time a Pac-10 team will provide the opposition, and there's one record you're not likely to hear much about in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa: Since 1992 -- the year the SEC expanded to 12 teams -- the Pac-10 holds a 13-12 advantage against the SEC.
"Everybody thinks that the SEC is tougher, that the Pac-10 can't compete with the SEC," said Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, whose team routed SEC member Tennessee 48-13 in Knoxville on Sept. 11. "So we'll just try to get ready for it."
Everything about Kelly's program -- from the kooky uniforms to the gimmicky (not my word for it) offense -- flies in the face of the SEC establishment. If you haven't heard much Oregon condescension from the South to this point, it's only because SEC fans were too busy mocking Boise State for much of the season. Don't worry. It's coming.
But just because the Ducks run a spread offense doesn't mean they're not physical. Their 37-20 win over Oregon State on Saturday was pretty much a clinic in downhill running, with tailbacks LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner methodically pounding the middle of the Beavers' defense. "They're both physical guys who can run fast," quarterback Darron Thomas said of his backfield mates. The matchup of Oregon's prolific run game against Nick Fairley and the Tigers' defensive front (which ranks 11th nationally in rush defense) will be fun to watch.
But really, one matchup will trump all others in Glendale: Cam Newton vs. the guys on the other team.
Newton's performance against South Carolina (335 yards and four touchdowns passing, 73 yards and two touchdowns rushing) was his finest to date, and his overall body of work through 13 games (a national-best 188.2 pass efficiency rating, which would set an NCAA record, 1,409 rushing yards and 49 total touchdowns) arguably eclipses both Vince Young's and Tim Tebow's most celebrated seasons.
"He's probably the best football player I've ever seen," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after Saturday's game -- and he coached on the 2005 Texas team led by Mr. Young.
It's been speculated that Auburn-Oregon will draw a lower TV rating than recent championship games simply because neither is the type of bluebood brand that draws in the general sports fan. I find that hard to believe. If anything, it might draw more interest from the many NFL-centric fans who watch the college game only occasionally.
The fascination with Kelly's breakneck offense has spread (no pun intended) throughout the sport all season, with NFL coaches studying it and publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times dissecting it. And then there's Newton, who's garnered more recent attention, both good and bad, than any athlete this side of LeBron James and Tiger Woods. With the success another noted dual-threat quarterback, Michael Vick, is having this season, and with sports fans' perennial curiosity to see the Next Big Thing, all sorts of people who don't normally watch SEC football on Saturdays will be tuning in.
And for those of us who already know not just Newton but Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who've witnessed the transformation of Oregon's offense under the strong-armed Thomas ... well, we're pretty darn curious, too. What happens when the best of the Southeast finally meets the best from the Northwest? A lot of points, and a lot of bragging by someone.