Wrapup: Auburn wins national title

January 11, 2011

Sloppy. That’s about the only word I can use to describe last night’s national championship game between Auburn and Oregon. From the opening kickoff to the final plays, this game was just plain sloppy.

As time goes on, people will remember this game as better than it was – once memories of the game’s first 56 minutes are forgotten anyway. This game was only the fourth time in BCS history that the championship game wasn’t decided until the closing seconds. And it was the very first time that the championship was won on the last play of the game.

This was exactly the close game that we expected. Fittingly, in a game that no one knew exactly what to expect, Auburn’s last-second field goal made the game a push. It should have been an instant classic. But I just keep coming back to that one word: sloppy.

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We should have known after Oregon kick returner Josh Huff slipped twice on the opening kickoff that the game would be sloppy – both literally and figuratively. After the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day chewed up the grass at University of Phoenix Stadium, groundskeepers made the decision to re-sod the field before the National Championship game on January 10.

Now I’m an expert in many things, but groundskeeping is not one of them. Still, this decision struck me as bizarre. Does replacing the grass before a week before a game ever work? Whenever I hear the words “new sod,” it’s usually in conjunction with something terrible, like “Smith has now become the fifth player today to tear his ACL on the new sod.”

Players kept slipping throughout the game, but I’m not sure that staying on their feet the whole game would have mattered all that much. Both offenses were ridiculously out of sync. Quarterbacks Darron Thomas and Cam Newton threw three interceptions over a span of eleven plays in the first quarter. None of the three passes were particularly close to their intended target. For all the talk of the high-powered offenses coming into the game, the first six total possessions ended in three punts and three interceptions. It didn’t get much better from there:

Auburn – 13 possessions, 5 punts, 2 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 fumble lost, 1 interception, 1 out on downs, 1 end at halftime

Oregon – 12 possessions, 5 punts, 2 touchdowns, 1 field goal, 2 interceptions, 1 safety, 1 out on downs

In fairness, both teams got as many possessions as we thought they would. It’s just too bad their offenses were so inefficient.

The last sequence sums up the poor play of the game. With Auburn up eight with five minutes left, two first downs will seal the national title for the Tigers. Instead, Cam Newton is stripped of the ball from behind by Casey Matthews and Oregon recovers. Oregon eventually drives down and scores a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game at 19.

On the second play after the ensuing kickoff, Auburn’s Michael Dyer runs for what appears to be a five-yard gain to the Auburn 45 before he is tackled. A whistle never blows but all 22 players on the field inexplicably stopped. Realizing that he was never down, Dyer takes off running and isn’t brought down until he is inside the Oregon 23-yard line. Replay upholds the call and Auburn appears content to run the clock down and attempt a 35-yard field goal for the game.

That is until Oregon – not content to have only one meltdown on the final drive – completely forgets to play defense on a run up the middle that Dyer breaks all the way inside the 1-yard line. Wes Byrum nails a much easier chip shot 19-yard field goal as time expires and Auburn takes home the national championship.

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Everything that was wrong about that time can be explained fairly simply: too much time. Each team had 37 days off before this game. We all know that time off affects offenses far more than defenses. This is a problem with the championship game every year but it especially hurt the high-powered offenses in this game. This was the first BCS championship game that at least one of the teams did not have a top ten defense. Yet instead of the offensive showdown that fans wanted, the time off was the great equalizer for defenses. Not only did the defenses have more time to prepare, the time off caused the offenses to become out of sync.

We also learned another thing that may happen when people have too much time to prepare: they start to think that an idea like “let’s install brand new grass a week before the game” is a good idea. A friend of mine e-mailed me about ten minutes into the game asking why both teams were slipping on an indoor field. Well put – although I knew the reason why they were slipping, I will never quite understand the reason why players have to continually slip on an indoor field.

In the end, I suppose the game could have been a boring blowout. It was certainly not well-played, but I don’t think anyone can argue that it was boring. There could be worse problems, but fans will always wonder what the game could have been without all that time off.

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National Championship Preview

January 10, 2011

National Championship Game: Auburn (13-0, -3) vs. Oregon (12-0)

What a baffling game. Throughout most of the bowl season, I’ve been able to latch on to a certain theory and use it to pick a winner. In this game, I haven’t been able to do that. Everyone seemingly has a theory as to who will win this game. The problem is they all seem persuasive to me. My preview will be as scattered as my own thoughts on the game:

Theory #1: Just pick the SEC champion. I’m a sucker for these blanket conference rules – just look through my blog on my thoughts on the MAC, Big Ten, and Conference USA. The SEC champion has qualified for the BCS Championship Game six times previously. They are 6-0, including four national titles in a row. None of those four games were even particularly close.

The SEC isn’t quite as good as they have been the last three years. In each of the last three years, you could make a persuasive argument that two of the best three teams in the nation were from the SEC. Not so this year, but it is still pretty clearly the best conference in the nation. This will be the Pac-10’s first crack at the SEC in the title game, so you can argue that the SEC champion theory shouldn’t apply. Still, there’s no need to be a hero – go with the safe bet.

Theory #2: Auburn isn’t as good as they are lucky. The Tigers trailed by at least 13 points in games against Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. They also were tied or trailed in the fourth quarter against Kentucky, Arkansas, and LSU. Oregon has been far more dominant – aside from an early 21-3 deficit to Stanford, they haven’t trailed by more than a touchdown this season. Only Cal (15-13) stayed within single digits. Oregon is far better than the teams that Auburn trailed and they won’t be able to recover if they fall behind.

Theory #3: Auburn knows how to win. Using the same facts above, in the words of Al Davis, the Tigers “just win baby!” Including the Mississippi State game that the Tigers won by a field goal, Auburn has been in eight dogfights in thirteen games. They have won all of them. Oregon played a weaker schedule and, other than the Cal game, hasn’t had to dig deep and pull out hard-fought victories.

Theory #4: The Tigers are prone to defensive lapses and Oregon will take advantage. Oregon is the best offense that Auburn has faced this year. Auburn fell behind 17-0 against Clemson, 20-7 against South Carolina, 21-7 against Georgia, and 24-0 against Alabama. With their high-octane offense, Oregon will not let off the gas like the rest of these teams. In every game this season, the Ducks have gotten better in the second half – if the Tigers fall behind early, that could be game over.

Theory #5: Both teams have speed but only Auburn has size. This argument mainly applies on the defensive side of the ball. Everyone seems to assume that both offenses are just plain fast. However, Auburn is much bigger than the Ducks on defense. Eventually, this will catch up with the Ducks and they won’t be able to keep up if the game turns into a shootout. Meanwhile, the Tigers won’t have the same problem – Cam Newton is bigger than most of Oregon’s defense.

Theory #6: When in doubt, go with the best player. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was by far the best player in college football this year. He passed for 2,589 yards and 28 touchdowns and ran for 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns. He is flat-out unstoppable.

Theory #7: Heisman Trophy winners struggle in big games. Heisman Trophy winners have struggled in BCS Championship games. The results of Heisman winners in the BCS era: Chris Weinke (won in 2000); Eric Crouch (lost in 2001); Jason White (lost in 2003); Matt Leinart (won in 2004); Reggie Bush (lost in 2005); Troy Smith (lost in 2006); Sam Bradford (lost in 2008); Mark Ingram (won in 2009). That’s only 3-5 – not very impressive at all.

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So what’s all this mean? Hell if I know. I went with Oregon for the small at the start of the bowl season. I’ll go with Auburn this time…that way I can’t be wrong. Considering my 1-3 NFL weekend, that’s probably a smart move. The Tigers win 34-31.