Make certain to join us on Monday Night at 8:00 PM for our National Championship Game LiveBlog!
The one you’ve all been waiting for…well, outside of the Sugar Bowl, of course…
The history of the BCS National Championship game is rife with conflict. The game’s true origins start with the Bowl Coalition – a grouping of the SEC, Big 8, SWC, ACC and Big East, along with Notre Dame. Six bowl games were included in the agreement: the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Gator and John Hancock. The premise was to attempt to get the top teams in each conference to face off with one another, generating a “true” champion. Unfortunately for the Coalition, without the inclusion of the Big Ten or Pac-10 who remained tied to the Rose Bowl, the system was unable to crown a champion unless the top two teams resulted from its member conferences.
Weaknesses in the South Western Conference, along with poor play from Notre Dame, helped lead to the end of the Coalition and the creation of the Bowl Alliance. Functionally, it was the same group of conferences, except the SWC and Big 8 were replaced with the newly formed Big 12 conference. The Big Ten still remained outside of the Alliance due to their ties with the Rose Bowl, but at-large Big Ten teams were allowed to participate in the Alliance Bowl games. Both Penn State (Won 1997 Fiesta against Texas) and Ohio State (Lost 1998 Sugar to Florida State) participated.
From the 1995 season through the 1998 season, the Bowl Alliance governed some of the biggest bowl games of the decade. However, not everyone was happy with the arrangement. In 1996, despite a #5 ranking the AP poll, and 23 years of domination in the mid-majors, BYU was excluded from playing in a top tier bowl and was instead placed in the lower tier Cotton Bowl. The Cougars beat Kansas State to finish 14-1 on the season. LaVell Edwards, head coach for BYU, testified before a congressional hearing on anti-trust violations of the Bowl Alliance. Facing incredible pressure, the Alliance was forced to reform and allow mid-majors in.
The result was what we now know as the Bowl Championship Series. The Rose Bowl was included as a top tier game, along with the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta. Also, the Big Ten and Pac-10 made agreements with the system, creating the BCS conferences as we know them today. The original system had the top two teams in the BCS rankings play in one of the four bowl games, rotated on a 4 year cycle. This seemed to solve a multitude of issues regarding the selection of a national champion, and ran smoothly for the first few years of its existence.
However, the system quickly began to run into trouble. In 2003, undefeated USC was excluded from the title game. In 2004, three undefeated teams – Auburn, Boise State and Utah – all argued that they deserved to be in the title game. That argument grew stronger after USC demolished Oklahoma 55-19 in that year’s Orange Bowl.
Many ideas were raised on how to fix the suddenly struggling system. To this day, the popular favorite remains variations on a playoff system. Another suggestion was the creation of an “And-1″, where the top two teams after the 4 BCS bowl games would play the National Championship. What resulted was the red-headed step child of the “And-1″.
A fifth BCS bowl was created to help alleviate the number of mid-majors who were being left out of the BCS. The 5th game, the BCS National Championship, is played in one of the same 4 stadiums as before, but is a game apart from the true bowl game hosted by that stadium. Therefore, this year’s National Championship Game, while being played in Glendale, Arizona, is not officially the Fiesta Bowl. While this change did allow for the inclusion of an additional 2 teams into the BCS, the change did nothing to solve the conundrum of how to choose two teams amongst 4 or 5 possibly legitimate candidates.
The Oregon Ducks, one of the few undefeated teams in the country, had very little trouble for the vast majority of the season. The most challenging games for Oregon were their battle with Stanford early in the season that resulted in a lopsided 52-31 win, and a late season scuffle with California that ended in the closest margin of victory all season – 2 points – and the lowest scoring output for Oregon all year long with only 15 points scored. Compared to their 49.3 points per game (first in Division 1A) that’s a very low scoring output.
Coming off a year in which the Ducks won the Pac-10 and went to the Rose Bowl, these kinds of numbers might not be particularly remarkable. What makes them so is the fact that they did it with a completely new and unheralded quarterback, sophomore Darron Thomas (6-3, 212). Thomas did not play a single down last season while Jeremiah Masoli was terrorizing defenses. This year, he steps in and earns a 151.06 QB rating in his first full season of play (Thomas threw 33 passes in 2008 and redshirted in 2009). His 60.7% completions on 321 attempts for 2518 yards, 28 touchdowns and 7 interceptions have to be the best I’ve seen from a quarterback that no-one has heard about. If anyone was going to keep up with Cam Newton this year, Thomas could be it.
And he has help too. While Thomas isn’t putting up the running yards Masoli did last year (85 for 492 compared to Masoli’s 121 for 668), sophomore runningback LaMichael James is more than making up for the difference. James has accrued 1682 yards and 21 touchdowns on 281 attempts – and no fumbles to speak of. That’s good for 4th in the nation in rushing yards gained, and 2nd in touchdowns scored behind only Chad Spann of Northern Illinois. It is little wonder why Oregon is scoring as many points as they do, with players like these in the backfield.
Thomas has a clear favorite receiver, senior Jeff Maehl (6-1, 184). Maehl has lead the Ducks in receptions and yards for two straight seasons, but he dominated the yards gained by nearly 500 yards overall. His 68 receptions for 943 yards and 12 touchdowns are not world beating, but do rank pretty highly. Maehl is tied for 11th in touchdowns, compared to Dane Sanzenbacher who is tied for 16th with 11 grabs. He’s a solid receiver that will certainly find a place in the NFL as a 2nd or 3rd option receiver.
Oregon’s defense is also worth noting, having allowed only 18 points per game this season, good for 12th overall. Comparitively, the Buckeyes ranked 5th with 14.3 points per game this season. Oregon gave up 23.8 points per game last season, which would rank them in the 40′s to 50′s of Division 1 teams overall. A substantial improvement over what we saw in the Rose Bowl last year.
Unlike the Ducks, the Auburn Tigers have faced numerous difficult games all season long. Games against Mississippi State (17-14), Clemson (27-24 OT), South Carolina (35-27), Kentucky (37-34), Arkansas (65-43) which was blown open late, LSU (24-17), and Alabama (28-27) on a big comeback. Some would argue that this is nothing more than a sign of the SEC’s overall conference strength. Others would say that it’s a sign of defensive weakness – though the offense is clearly good enough to get them the victories in all of them. It would be argued by more than a few that clearly Auburn is better prepared for a tough fight by their potentially stronger schedule, while still further would claim that Oregon is a stronger team for blowing out very solid opponents.
It’s tough to tell one way or another – which is precisely the reason the games are played.
Of course, Auburn is lead by a quarterback that everyone has heard about. Junior Cameron Newton (6-6, 250) is both the passing and rushing leader for this Auburn team. His 188.2 QB rating is good enough to rank first all time in college football history. 28 touchdowns and 2589 yards with a 67.1 percent completion with only 6 interceptions will tend to do that. But Newton’s value to Auburn goes beyond that as he’s picked up 1409 yards on 242 carries for 20 touchdowns running the ball, and 42 yards and a touchdown on 2 catches as a receiver.
Yes, you read that right. Newton has contributed to 49 total touchdowns and 4040 yards on 490 possessions all season. In case you’re keeping track at home, these numbers imply that Newton scores a touchdown on 1 out of every 10 plays where he is a primary ball handler (passer/runner/receiver). You want to know why he’s the Heisman Trophy winner this year? That’s the reason. Those stats are verging on unbelievable. This is also the reason why stopping Newton is so critical.
Of course, assuming Oregon does manage to contain Newton, then it means that they’ve probably let someone else go. Two someones in particular: freshman runningback Michael Dyer (5-9, 217) and sophomore runningback Onterio McCalebb (5-10, 171). Dyer is a tough runner, picking up 950 yards on 160 carries with 5 touchdowns. His size makes him particularly hard to bring down, and gives another element in combination with Newton. McCalebb is a smaller, shiftier, back but has earned himself the highest yard per carry average in the nation this season at 8.6. He’s coupled that with 9 touchdowns, though he’s only had 89 carries this year. He’s a fantastic change of pace guy that defenses clearly have a tough time stopping.
One thing that stands out in these stats is in the backup quarterbacks. While Auburn has played three different backups so far this year, the three have combined for 9 completions on 15 attempts. Clearly these guys haven’t played very much last year, which could be seriously detrimental to Auburn should Newton get hurt. That’s certainly not a likely scenario, but don’t forget Texas last season. Colt McCoy’s backup, Garrett Gilbert, was forced into the National Championship game after seeing limited action all season. That did not end out well for the Longhorns – though Gilbert did eventually put up a good fight once he settled down.
I can’t help but notice that the Auburn Tigers schedule, with a significant number of close wins and hard fought victories, looks a lot like what the 2002 Buckeyes ended with. Whether that turns into anything substantial on the field or not will be seen on Monday Night. Given that we’re evenly split speaks to how tricky this game is to call. Both of these teams have a legitimate shot at this title, and it’ll be fun to watch them work it out on the field.