Monday, January 10: BCS Championship Game in Glendale, AZ at 8:30 pm eastern
#1 Auburn Tigers (13-0) vs. #2 Oregon Ducks (12-0)
This is it—the one we've waded (and waited) through countless sub-part bowl games to get to.
Vegas line/spread: Auburn by 1 1/2 (over/under 73 1/2).
Auburn has been favored by about a field goal since the odds first came out; now it's down to an average of 1 1/2, ranging for pick'em to 3 points. The game is projected to be very high scoring (35+ points each).
|Game-comparisons||win %||vs. spread|
This system takes each team's performances—on offense and defense—and re-combines them, making NxN hypothetical game performances, where N = the number of games the team has played. So there are 144 "games" for Oregon, and 169 for Auburn. It then compares one team's numbers against the other team's, resulting in 144 x 169 comparisons.
Oregon is #1 in the Strength Power Rating from which the game ratings are derived, while Auburn is #6. The vast majority of Oregon's game ratings rank above Auburn's by this method, which is completely score-margin-based. Because Oregon wins by wide margins—and Auburn does not always—the Ducks are the clear winner by this method, even 3 of 4 against a 2-point spread.
Strength Power Rating: Oregon 47, Auburn 34
As noted above, the Strenth Power Rating likes Oregon a lot. But that doesn't mean Auburn ranks low; their scoring offense is #3 in the nation and their defense is #33. Oregon, however, has the #1 offense and the #8 defense. It's the Ducks' offense that makes them such a huge favorite with the computer.
Lest you think that the power rating is unrealistically biased toward Oregon, they'd be favored by just 3 over Stanford—a team they already beat by 21 on the road. If anything, what is remarkable is how high Pac-10 teams rank in the Strength Power Rating while the SEC dominated the Success rankings. This game should cause the two rankings to re-evaluate closer to one another, regardless of outcome.
The yardage analysis comes out a lot more even—with more scoring, believe it or not. The teams are pretty even in total yardage differential (yards gained minus yards yielded, corrected for their opponents). Oregon is #3 and Auburn #5. Oregon has the #1 offense, Auburn the #2. The Ducks' defense is #25 while the Tiger D is #29. With Oregon having a slight edge in both facets, the projection calls for Oregon to gain around 500 yards to Auburn's 480, which normally means a field goal difference in scoring. Yards, however, don't always translate equally into points. But it definitely means the game ought to be exciting!
The per-attempt numbers make an interesting comparison, too: Auburn is #1 in yards per play (adjusted for opposition) while Oregon is #1 on defense on a per-play basis. In fact, the teams' rankings on a per-attempt basis are truly dominant: Auburn is #1 in both rushing and passing, while Oregon is #2 in rushing and #25 in passing, while being #1 in pass defense, and top 25 in rush defense. Auburn is top 25 in both defensive per-play categories. The upshot when the teams are compared is a 10-point Auburn win, however, as their offense is far ahead—just like Oregon's is in the score-margin comparison.
Yardage + turnovers + kick returns projection: Oregon 47, Auburn 39
Oregon is #3 in turnover margin and is #1 in taking the ball away from opponents. Auburn is 33rd in turnover margin; they're better at holding onto the ball than taking it away. Oregon should win the turnover battle 3-2, which gives them nearly 4 points on average. Nearly 4 of the 5 projected turnovers are fumbles, however, which are even more more difficult to foresee with reasonable certainty than interceptions, so it could go either way. Still, going with the odds in an average game Oregon has the edge.
On kick returns Oregon also has a clear edge. The Ducks' Cliff Harris has returned four punts for touchdowns and averages almost 20 yards per return, and Kenjon Barner has one TD return. Auburn's coverage is pretty good but the threat is there. Kickoffs are more or less even, though. We'll give Oregon just over a point for punts returns, though, since it's not clear how often either offense will be punting.
When Auburn has the ball
|Auburn rushing offense: #2
||Oregon rushing defense: #25
Auburn is one of the best rushing teams in the nation, if not the actual best, since Cam Newton gives them a dual threat on most running plays. Newton has put up running back-like numbers from the quarterback position, with 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns. And he's far from their only big threat; Michael Dyer had 950 yards and Onterio McCalebb has 763, and they combine for 14 TDs. Most teams would be more than happy with the latter two!. Add Mario Fannin's 395 yards and Auburn has a lot of options. Oregon's rushing defense is very good but only Alabama (#6) and Mississippi State (#2) have been able to hold Auburn below 200 rushing yards. I'd expect around 280 from Auburn.
It's also important to look at per-carry stats for this game, since both offenses are well-rounded and can go to whatever they need. The Tigers have the #1 rushing offense on a per-play basis, so it really might be the best in the nation. Oregon's defense is #17 in this respect, so not a lot changes in this particular example.
|Auburn passing offense: #65||Oregon passing defense: #37 per att: #1|
|Auburn interceptions thrown ranking: #5||Oregon interceptions picked ranking: #6|
|Auburn quarterback protection rank: #29||Oregon pass rush rank: #16|
Cam Newton is no one-trick pony. His passing isn't just adequate, it's examplary. He's completed 67% of his attempts for 2,589 yards and 28 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions. Three receivers—Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachary, and Emory Blake—have 500 receiving yards or more. Oregon gives up a reasonable amount of passing yards, so Newton should throw for about 200 yards.
Pretty simple? Well, it gets way more interesting if we look at per-attempt stats. Basically Auburn doesn't pass very often because they don't have to, given their ground production. So their stats look middle-of-the-road when in reality, they are among the most efficient passing teams. They rank #1 in yards per attempt adjusted for their opposition. Which means Oregon is in trouble right? Maybe not—the Ducks rank #1 in pass defense on a per-attempt basis! Think about it; teams are usually far behind Oregon and trying to play catch-up, therefore they pass the ball a lot—an average of 38 times per game. This makes their per-game stats pedestrian, but per-play they are among the best. So in terms of passing, this should be an epic battle of offense vs. defense. It means that Oregon has the defense to match Auburn's passing game, but certainly doesn't have the luxury of being able to focus their attention just on the run.
Another interesting comparison is interceptions. Newton, as noted, has thrown very few, while Oregon is among the top teams in takeaways: Cliff Harris and John Boyett both have 5 picks for the Ducks, and they should get one—with a slim chance for two—during the game. The Duck defense should also get decent pressure on Newton, who has been sacked 21 times, probably achieving the typical two sacks. So while big plays on defense don't look like a huge plus for Oregon, it appears that Newton won't have all day on passing plays. Of course, when he chooses to run out of the pocket he's only more dangerous...
When Oregon has the ball
|Oregon rushing offense: #3
||Auburn rushing defense: #7
Oregon also has one of the top rushing offenses in the country, and like Auburn it's not just based on one person. Certainly, LaMichael James is the leader with 1,682 yards and 21 touchdowns, but Kenjon Barner has 537 yards and quarterback Darron Thomas has 492. They each average around 6 yards per carry. Auburn's rushing defense is in the top ten and should hold the Ducks well below their 300 yard average, perhaps to around 235 yards. The SEC rushing defenses are in general better than the Pac-10, so Oregon sees a bigger decline from their raw average numbers than Auburn, who will be the best rushing defense the team has faced so far.
Arizona State at #9 (per-game, adjusted) is the best rush defense Oregon has seen so far, and they held the Ducks to 125 ground yards. On the other hand, Stanford and Arizona are #11 and #12 and the Ducks achieved 388 and 389 against them. In per-carry stats, Oregon's rushing offense ranks #2—right behind Auburn—while the Tiger defense is #12, far behind Arizona State at #2. So maybe the Ducks have a little more luck? We'll find out.
|Oregon passing offense: #37||Auburn passing defense: #77 per att: #18|
|Oregon interceptions thrown ranking: #9||Auburn interceptions picked ranking: #75|
|Oregon quarterback protection rank: #2||Auburn pass rush rank: #13|
At first blush—looking at raw statistics, uncorrected for opposition—it appears that this is where Oregon can take over the game. They have the #49 passing offense, and Auburn's pass defense is only #106! But once we correct for their opponents, things change. Oregon's pass attack looks better, at #37, but so does Auburn's pass defense, rising to #77. Still, this suggests Oregon should put up around 265 yards.
That seems reasonable given Thomas' output this year. He has an even 2,500 passing yards, with 28 touchdowns against 7 interceptions—numbers very similar to Newton's, actually. The Ducks' go-to receiver is Jeff Maehl who has 943 yards and 12 TDs, and four others have over 300 yards.
But 265 yards is actually above their average; can they do this against Auburn? If we look at per-attempt stats it gets murkier. Oregon's passing game looks better still, rising to #25 in yards per attempt (adjusted for competition), but Auburn's pass defense rises to #18. From #106 to #77 to #18? What should we expect from the Tigers? I think what's happening here is clear: teams can't run on Auburn so they pass a lot. That's why Auburn's per-game numbers look bad, but per-attempt they're solid. However, if Oregon passes a lot like those other teams did, they'll probably rack up a lot of yards—especially because they don't have too much to fear from big defensive plays.
Thomas has thrown just 7 picks, and Auburn isn't a big threat in this area. In fact, the numbers suggest that it's less than 50% likely the Tigers get a pick at all in the game. And although Auburn's pass rush is strong, Oregon's O-line and Thomas' elusiveness have limited teams to 7 sacks all season. The Tigers—led by Nick Fairley with 10.5 sacks—are almost certain to get him once during the game, but any more than that would be unusual.
In conclusion, it appears that Auburn's defense is a match for Oregon's passing game, and progress will come a lot slower than the Ducks are used to. But since there's nothing holding them back, they can keep trying and keep racking up the yardage. Whoever wins the 3rd down and red zone battles will determine Oregon's success or failure in passing the ball.
Wins vs. bowl-eligible teams (9)
Wins vs. top 25 teams (6)
- Arkansas State 52-26
- @ #21 Mississippi State 17-14
- Clemson 27-24 OT
- #20 South Carolina 35-27
- Louisiana-Monroe 52-3
- @ Kentucky 37-34
- #8 Arkansas 65-43
- #11 LSU 24-17
- @ Mississippi 51-31
- Chattanooga 62-24
- Georgia 49-31
- @ #15 Alabama 28-27
- = #20 South Carolina 56-17
Nobody has beaten more good teams this year than Auburn. They've defeated 8 bowl teams so far, one of them twice. Five of those teams were top 25 teams at the end of the regular season.
At the same time, few top teams have had as many close calls as Auburn has. From the narrow win at Mississippi State, the overtime win against Clemson, beating South Carolina by 8 and Kentucky by a field goal, to holding off LSU and the miracle comeback against Alabama, the Tigers could conceivably be 6-6 instead of 13-0, worst case.
But they weren't 6-6. And they clearly got better as the season progressed. Edging Clemson at home in overtime and beating Alabama by a point in Tuscaloosa are worlds apart. The reason they went 13-0 instead of 6-6, and the reason they're getting better, are due to the same thing: Cam Newton. All season, Newton has done what it takes for his team to win. And he keeps getting better and better. That's how a team that is a top ten team, not top five, has had the success of a #1 team, and could be the national champs.
Wins vs. winning teams (6)
Wins vs. bowl-eligible teams (4)
Wins vs. top 25 teams (1)
- New Mexico 72-0
- @ Tennessee 48-13
- Portland State 69-0
- @ Arizona State* 42-31
- #4 Stanford 52-31
- @ Washington State 43-23
- UCLA 60-13
- @ USC* 53-32
- Washington 53-16
- @ California 15-13
- Arizona 48-29
- @ Oregon State 37-20
Strictly speaking, Oregon has only beaten four bowl teams. But add in 6-6 Arizona State and 8-5 USC, who would be bowl-eligible if they were...eligible...and half the team's schedule is strong.
And that doesn't account for the road win at Cal, one of the toughest places to play this season. And Oregon State, who had the misfortune of playing Oregon, Stanford, TCU, and Boise State—all arguably top five teams—in the same year.
The truth is, the Pac-10 is one of the best conferences this year. The fact that the teams play a round-robin guarantees more in-conference losses (45) than any other conference, and only 3 non-conference games to use to pad the schedule. If those 45 losses are poorly-distributed, it can lead to few teams being bowl eligible. Eight conference teams were guaranteed two losses by playing Oregon and Stanford. Ineligible USC beat five teams. And parity took care of most of the rest, leaving only four teams with winning conference records.
Oregon's dominant wins over Tennessee, USC, Washington, and particularly Stanford, show how good the team is. The offense was off the charts much of the time and ranks as one of the all-time best scoring offenses. The defense ranged from average to very good with no terrible lapses despite the demans put on it by a high-powered, fast-scoring offense.
Neither team has any new major injuries. Auburn's starting safety Aairon Savage has been out since the Arkansas game and won't be back for the Oregon game. And Oregon backup QB Nate Costa was lost for the year during the Washington game.
Psychology: Auburn +6 Oregon +2
- Auburn's season: +6 wins; Oregon's season: +2 wins
- Auburn's momentum: +0; Oregon's momentum: +0
- Auburn glad to be there? +1; Oregon glad to be there: +1
- Auburn lost final game: -0; Oregon lost final game: -0
- Auburn coaching situation: +0; Oregon coaching situation: +0
For the championship game, the numbers above mean nothing. Both teams are perfectly happy with their season, their bowl game, and their improvement from last year. The only question in a championship game is motivation and overconfidence. For example in 2005, USC's motivation, having won the title the previous year, was naturally lower than Texas'. They weren't as hungry. The same goes for Miami in 2002 against Ohio State. But neither of these teams is trying to repeat.
There also shouldn't be any overconfidence factor. Ohio State in 2006 was bit by this against Florida, as they were an undefeated, dominant team facing a 1-loss team, and heavily favored. That isn't the case here for either team.
How will the game look? Could it be like the classic 2005 Texas-USC game? There are a lot of similarities. A high-powered Pac-10 offense faces a 13-0 team with an amazing dual-threat quarterback, with Cam Newton in the Vince Young role. That comparison favors Auburn, but that Longhorn squad was a better team than Auburn outside of the quarterback slot. What should be similar is the scoring; that game ended 41-38 and that sounds about right for this game whoever ends up on top.
Cam Newton, like Vince Young in that game, is the wild card. Auburn without him isn't quite a top ten team even. But he makes sure they get the win, pushing them to play as well as the teams they face. And since this is his first year at this level, he's gotten better and better as the season has progressed. His ability and will to win is the "intangible" that makes Auburn overachieve when necessary. There's a sense of "destiny" with Newton like there was with the Ohio State team in 2002, but of course that's the kind of illogical thinking that seeing a team win close games engenders.
So how does Oregon deal with Auburn's offense? Their philosophy seems to be, the best defense is a good offense. In the focus on Newton, people have forgotten how good Darron Thomas is. The Ducks have focused on scoring and overwhelming teams, even if they have to give up points due to a more tired defense. Not that their defense is a slouch; by any measure, it's top-notch, and they won't cede yards to Newton and Auburn without a fight.
After last year's championship game, we have to look at the possibility of injuries. If Newton is knocked out of the game, Auburn will look like Texas last year. Not quite as bad, since they have other great running options, but he's the heart and soul of the team. Oregon isn't off the hook either if Thomas is knocked out, since backup Nate Costa isn't available. Let's hope that neither happens because last year's title game sucked without Colt McCoy.
One thing's for sure: it will be an interesting 2nd half. Auburn has come back from double-digit deficits four times, while Oregon has averaged 32 points in the 2nd half when they were behind or tied at halftime. Oregon was down 21-0 against Stanford and Auburn was down 24-0 against Alabama. So a halftime lead for either team means little, even if it's 20 or more points.
So what's our pick? Looking at the Strength Power Rating suggests Oregon should win easily—13 points—but that doesn't pass the sniff test. Seeing how Auburn has played in the last 6 or 7 games, they're about a touchdown better than they were early in the year. Cutting the score margin to Oregon by 6 is more realistic.
Then we consider the yardage estimate, modified by turnovers and return game. This projects Oregon by 8 points, but in this case the per-attempt numbers are significant, and they show Auburn by 10 or 11! Averaging that estimate in we have Auburn by about a point, which sounds realistic, too.
The game should be pretty even in most ways, and could come down to key downs and red zone play. Auburn is great (top 10) on 3rd and 4th down on offense, but so is Oregon on defense. The Ducks also are also top ten in red zone defense, so Auburn doesn't have any edge there. Meanwhile Oregon is consistently slightly better than Auburn's defense in key downs and red zone offense. Auburn is just 97th in red zone defense, something that could hurt them in a close game. The Tigers have kicker Wes Byrum, but Oregon's Rob Beard has made a similar 75% of his attempts.
Can Oregon's offense overwhelm the Tigers? Or will Cam Newton deliver another miracle win? It should be a great one, but we think Oregon has a very small edge.
Prediction: Oregon 42, Auburn 40
More previews, odds, and predictions: View the complete 2010-2011 bowl game schedule.