Scottsdale, Ariz.–We’ve been analyzing this game for 37 days and it all comes down to this: Tonight, No. 1 Auburn (13-0) can win its first BCS national championship since 1957 and the fifth straight for the SEC by beating No. 2 Oregon here in the desert. There are a lot of Auburn people out here without tickets because, if it happens, they want to say for the rest of their lives that they were here.
Can Auburn do it? Or does Oregon win the first national championship in its football history?
Five reasons why I’m picking Auburn:
1. Cameron Newton: A lot the best defensive minds in college football (Nick Saban, John Chavis, Ellis Johnson) have tried to come up with a plan to contain the Auburn quarterback and nobody has been able to do it. Newton led the SEC in rushing and when defenses have stacked the box and forced Newton to throw he has done a remarkable job in the second half of the season. In Newton’s last five games he has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,225 yards, 15 touchdowns and just one interception. Newton now has a chance to become only the 14th player in history to win a Heisman Trophy and then go on to win the national championship.
There is no question that Oregon will gear its fast, physical defense to slow down the running game and hope that Newton throws interceptions.
2. Nick Fairley: When California nearly beat Oregon back in November, the Bears kept it close by using strong pressure up the middle to disrupt the well-timed and agressive offense of the Ducks. Nobody puts pressure up the middle like Auburn’s Nick Fairley. Auburn has been very good about making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable, especially in the second half of games. So look for them to use Fairley to really turn the heat up on Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. I will throw in this caveat: After the close call against Cal, Oregon started counter punching the pressure up the middle with quick hitting plays on the perimeter. But if Auburn doesn’t effectively pressure Thomas, that could spell trouble for the Tigers.
3. Toughness: Don’t get me wrong, Oregon is a physical team, albeit smaller than Auburn. They play fast and they play hard. But Auburn has been a mentally tough, resilient team all season. The Tigers have trailed in eight of their 13 victories and four times they rallied from double-digit deficits (including a 24-0 deficit at Alabama) to win. But Auburn has played on the big stage all season and is not in awe of its surroundings. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, you have to like Auburn.
4. The Auburn offensive line: Nobody is talking about these guys but they are probably the key to the game. With the Oregon defense focused on Newton, there are going to be opportunities to run the football with freshman RB Michael Dyer (73.1 ypg) and speedster Onterrio McCalebb. Auburn led the SEC in rushing with 287.2 yards per game. That’s because of an offensive line that starts four seniors and a junior. The four seniors have combined for 161 career starts. If Auburn can run the ball and control the clock, that limits the number of possessions and places for Oregon’s high-power offense. The key to all of that is the offensive line.
5. Wes Byrum: As a true freshman in 2007, Byrum went to Florida a kicked a field goal on the last play of the game to beat No. 4 Florida 20-17 in The Swamp. Since then Byrum has been one of the best clutch kickers in football. He had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2008, hitting just 11 of 19 field goals. But since then Byrum has connected on 30 of 36 attempts. If the game comes down to a late field goal, this kid has the right stuff to make it.
Final Analysis: The SEC has won four straight national championships but the league has never played a Pac-10 team in a title game. Because of its speed and tempo Oregon presents challenges unlike any team that Auburn, or anybody else in college football, has ever seen. Defensive stops in this game will be like gold. After a 37-day layoff, both teams will come out with a lot of energy–too much energy, in fact. The team that settles down earliest and starts playing their normal game will have a distinct advantage. I think that team will be Auburn. This could be a repeat of the Texas-USC game where somebody gets a defensive stop and scores on the last possession to win. In a close game I give the edge to Auburn.
Final score: Auburn 35, Oregon 31.
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Barnhart and Durham: Wes will be in the studio in Atlanta and I will be out in Arizona as we break down the big game. Please join us starting at 10 a.m. www.790thezone.com