Pac-12: Nick Fairley

The Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. The SEC is all about defense.

Oh, and winning national championships.

But as good as the defenses are in the SEC, what role does poor-to-middling offense play in that perception? As in, what would happen if those defenses played against a series of future NFL quarterbacks, as Pac-12 (and Big 12) defenses do?

The question before us is this: How would USC quarterback Matt Barkley do against those rough-tough SEC defenses?

Ted Miller: It’s sort of a chicken and the egg question. Are SEC defenses so good because they rarely play against A-list quarterbacks? Or do Pac-12 quarterbacks pile up eye-popping numbers because they don’t play against SEC defenses?

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Harry How/Getty ImagesWould Matt Barkley be as successful if he played against SEC defenses all season?
Is it more notable that four of the top 11 quarterbacks in the nation in terms of passing efficiency in 2011 were from the Pac-12, compared to none in the top 20 from the SEC? Or is it more important that six SEC defenses ranked in the top 17 in pass efficiency defense compared to zero for the Pac-12?

It’s hard to say. It’s likely a person’s home -- Los Angeles or Baton Rouge -- has a large influence on his or her opinion.

Pac-12 fans would be prone to point out: In 2005, LSU ranked No. 3 in the nation in passing efficiency defense. But in the Tigers' trip to Tempe that season, Arizona State’s Sam Keller completed 35 of 56 passes for 461 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 35-31 defeat.

Or this: LSU’s defense did a nice job against Oregon’s offense in the 2011 season opener. Of course, the Ducks scored more points on LSU than ANY OF THE OTHER 13 TEAMS LSU PLAYED.

Apologies for the caps lock. Reckless typing.

While we can all acknowledge the SEC -- at least the elite teams -- play better defense than the rest of the nation, it is also worth noting that when future first-round NFL draft picks played quarterback in the SEC, they put up good numbers, whether we’re talking about the Manning brothers, Matt Stafford or Cam Newton. And I’m sure, one day in the future --perhaps this decade! -- we’ll be able to add a name to that list.

There are some nice quartebacks in the SEC: Tyler Wilson, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray. All three seem like they’d have a good chance of winning the backup job at USC. Maybe.

Chris Low: No way am I going to argue that Barkley wouldn't have success in the SEC.

He's a future pro and probably the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012.

The question is: How much success would he have, and would he hit the proverbial wall going against SEC defenses on a weekly basis?

My feeling is that all quarterbacks hit that wall. Any coach will tell you (ask your buddy Lane Kiffin) that what separates SEC defenses is the speed in the front seven, particularly in the defensive line. There are fast players all over the country in college football, but the SEC has cornered the market on fast, explosive defensive linemen and pass-rushers who also have the size and strength to overpower people.

That's the difference, and that's where Barkley would notice the greatest difference.

It wasn't a banner year for quarterbacks in the SEC last season. And, yes, I realize that's an understatement. But it was a banner year for premier defensive players. That's why the first round of the NFL draft next month is going to look like an SEC who's who. As many as 10 SEC defensive players could go in the first round.

Don't sleep on the SEC's quarterback class this coming season, either. Wilson may be a future first-rounder. Murray has thrown nearly 60 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and we all saw what McCarron did in the BCS title game against an LSU defense that was outstanding.

Barkley's a big-time talent, no question. But it's a different game when you're trying to throw from your back.

And in this league, ALL QUARTERBACKS (sorry, my caps tend to lock up, too) encounter that problem.

Ted Miller: Truth is, Wilson, Murray and McCarron are good quarterbacks who look like guys with NFL futures. Loved how McCarron handled the pressure of the title game, and Murray has Pac-12-type talent.

[+] EnlargeCrimson Tide defense and Jordan Jefferson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAlabama's defense smothered Jordan Jefferson and the LSU Tigers in the BCS championship game.
We're trash talking here, but if you can't acknowledge what is real, well, then it's just noise.

And the reality of this debate is this: Barkley would be more challenged on a weekly basis by SEC defenses than by Pac-12 defenses -- which I believe are underrated but still a step behind the SEC for the reasons the Inimitable Low mentioned above. If Barkley played at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State or Kentucky, he'd just be the best quarterback in the history of those programs while leading those teams to "historic" seasons. Like a third-place finish in their divisions.

Yet what makes Barkley, Barkley is not just Barkley. It's USC. It's his supporting cast. It's receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who will both have NFL careers. And two tight ends who will also. And a good offensive line, and a 1,000-yard rusher who averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2011 (Curtis McNeal).

By the way, if you wonder where USC's true potential Achilles heel is this year, it's the defensive line. The Trojans have three A-listers -- guys who would be touted in the SEC -- but are thin thereafter. That's a problem for a team that views itself as a national title contender.

That's ultimately the rub here, too. If all goes according to plan, Barkley and USC should be in position to play for the national title. It's hard to imagine that wouldn't be against another SEC team.

Now, Chris, wouldn't it be fun if it were USC and LSU? Recall that in 2003, LSU won 1/16 of the national title when no one in the entire world thought LSU was better than USC, other than computers obviously loaded with all sorts of viruses.

Or USC-Alabama? Great history, and Saban versus Barkley & Co. would certainly attract plenty of eyeballs.

Chris Low: One of the most compelling things that could happen to college football next season would be for USC and Barkley to take their shot at an SEC defense in the money game.

Then, we could quit debating and let it play out on the field. As much as I knew that Alabama and LSU were the two best teams in the country last season, there was a part of me that wanted to see Oklahoma State against either the Alabama or LSU defense in the BCS title game.

It's the matchup we all want to see: A high-powered offense versus a suffocating defense.

Maybe that's what we'll be treated to this fall.

Of course, I go back to the 2010 national title game, and Oregon had been short-circuiting scoreboards all season long. The Ducks go up against an Auburn defense that had been opportunistic, but wasn't one of the best in the SEC that season statistically. But in that game, Auburn put the clamps on Oregon and won 22-19.

The Tigers won because the Ducks couldn't block Nick Fairley.

And that's what the Trojans would run into if they find themselves up against an SEC team next January in Miami.

It won't come down to Barkley. Sure, he'll make a few plays. He's legit. But what it will come down to is the group of guys blocking for Barkley, and that's where it always gets ugly against SEC defenses.

In the meantime, just make sure the Trojans get there. They've been known to stumble along the way, and what we're left with is a bunch of hollow chatter about what they would have done (or could have done) had they made it to the party.

We'll check the guest list in December and chat again then.

Does extra prep time doom Oregon?

December, 28, 2011
Oregon clearly was in trouble. Its opponent had all summer to prepare for the Ducks gimmicky offense, and we all know what that means. The defense could train its eyes. It could memorize the Ducks' feints and misdirection and personnel groupings. The scheme would become second-nature. Heck, stopping the Ducks' fancypants offense would be easy.

Then Oregon beat New Mexico 72-0 to open the 2010 season, gaining 720 yards.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezOregon's high-powered offense has averaged 17.8 points per game in Chip Kelly's four nonconference losses at the school.
A lot has been made of how teams with extra time to prepare for Oregon's offense seem to gain a significant advantage. And we're going to make something of it, too. But let's first understand something: When you talk about giving a team extra time, it's most likely the "team" part of the formula that is more important than the "extra time."

Oregon has lost six games under Chip Kelly. Only one defeat came against a team that didn't finish ranked in the nation's top five (8-5 Stanford in 2009). Only one came against a team with just one week to prepare (10-2 USC in 2011). But it's the four nonconference losses that are most notable, in large part because the Ducks' offense put up respectable numbers in the two conference defeats.

Those four games include three undefeated teams and 11-2 Ohio State. Auburn beat Oregon for the national title last year. LSU is playing Alabama for the national title on Jan. 9. In 2009, Boise State went 14-0.

So Kelly's explanation for his team's losses reduces each to a fundamental essence that puts the foundational justification for this story at risk.

"The games we lost are because the other team was better than us," he said.

Better on that day would be the way some in the Ducks locker room might phrase it.

Excuses are bad. No one likes to hear a loser making excuses. But let's make them anyway.

  • Boise State 19, Oregon 8: Kelly's head coaching debut was a disaster. The game is best known for Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount's postgame punch. This was the one, truly dominant throttling of Kelly's offense: 152 total yards, including just 31 yards rushing. The Ducks were breaking in four new offensive linemen and it showed. Excuse? Oregon just got whipped in every area, including coaching.
  • Ohio State 26, Oregon 17: This one was most notable for Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor posting the best game of his career, passing for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 72 yards. On the Ducks side, QB Jeremiah Masoli had his worst game of the season, completing 9-of-20 passes for 81 yards with an interception. And Ducks fans certainly remember the fumbled exchange between Masoli and Blount in the third quarter on second-and-2 on the Buckeyes 18 with Ohio State up 19-17. While much is made of the Ducks always losing the battle up front in these games, the Ducks outrushed Ohio State 179 to 153, averaging 5.4 yards per carry compared to 3.0 for the Buckeyes.
  • Auburn 22, Oregon 19: The Ducks lost on a last-second field goal in the national title game -- there's shame in that? Sure, they didn't score much but they gained 449 yards. In terms of the physical matchup, sure, Oregon couldn't block DT Nick Fairley. The 2010 Lombardi Award winner was pretty good.
  • LSU 40, Oregon 27: The excuse here is the most obvious: What if Oregon didn't lose the turnover battle 4-1, including a fumbled punt that gave LSU a TD? But if you won't entertain the excuses, just look at the facts of the season. How many teams scored 27 points on LSU? That would be none. Next highest totals were 21 and 17 points. The Ducks gained 335 yards. Only West Virginia gained more. Said Kelly, "When it was all said and done, that LSU defense, they are pretty freaking good."

Still, excuses are for losers. If the Ducks' ultimate goal is to rank among the nation's super-elite -- the top five -- it must win these games. It can't average 17.8 points and 95 yards rushing against highly ranked nonconference teams, as it did in these four games.

And if the Ducks go down against Wisconsin on Jan. 2 in the Rose Bowl, they will hear the same sort of chatter. Further, the Badgers believe the extra prep time gives them an advantage against Oregon.

"If you got done with a game on Saturday and you had to get ready for (them), I think it would be a very difficult challenge," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But the extended prep and the opportunity to kind of slow things down a little bit mentally is going to be great."

Added defensive end Patrick Butrym, "It's such a difficult offense to go against. Honestly, it would be very hard to prepare for them if we only had a week. So I'm glad we have that extra time."

The key for the Ducks is the running game. In all four of the above defeats, the Ducks didn't approach their season average on the ground. That's understandable against good defenses, but the Oregon offense isn't the Oregon offense without an effective rushing attack.

Wisconsin has a good defense -- eighth in the nation in total defense and sixth in scoring -- but it's not as fast as LSU or Auburn and it doesn't have the NFL talent up front Ohio State did. The Badgers rank 46th in the nation against the run, surrendering 138 yards per game.

Kelly also pointed out that the Badgers, despite Big Ten stereotypes, have seen plenty of zone-read running plays and spread passing formations this season. The Ducks' offense won't be completely new.

For Kelly, the formula is simple. He needs to get his speedy playmakers the ball in space. The Ducks need balance. They need to convert on third down. And they need to win battles up front.

Extra prep time spelling doom for Oregon? That's probably part of the equation, but in the end it's just, well, football. Players making plays. Or not.

"It's a quick sound bite," Kelly said of the story that won't die until his team wins a marquee nonconference game.

"The answer is the team that has the best players is going to win the football game."

So are Oregon's players finally better?

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
Ten issues to consider heading into the third week of games.

1. Oregon's biggest issue might not be LSU's D-front: In Phil Steele's unit rankings, he rated LSU's D-line 10th in the nation and its LBs 15th. There's no individual player as disruptive as Auburn's Nick Fairley, but LSU's Tigers are better across the entire front-7 than those Tigers. The Ducks could again struggle to run the ball. But the big problem is the LSU secondary, which Steele rates the nation's No. 4 unit. Auburn's secondary was weak all through 2010, and Ducks QB Darron Thomas picked it apart for 363 yards. But even though LSU lost first-round draft pick CB Patrick Peterson, their defensive backfield is deep and talented. Thomas won't find throwing into it as easy in any event, but particularly without his top-two receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeKelly
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIOregon coach Chip Kelly will need to scheme around a tough LSU run defense and an even tougher pass defense.
2. Will UCLA catch a Case of Keenum? UCLA was dominating Houston last year when it knocked QB Case Keenum out of the game in the second quarter, but Keenum remains a guy who is good enough to win a game on his own. Still, the Bruins should be able to win the battle on both lines of scrimmage, and that should make things easier for QBs Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, who both will play. Prince will be on the field to start the game. But will he be on the field to finish?

3. A Gray day for the USC defense: USC shouldn't have too many problems with Minnesota, but the biggest question is will the Trojans again show flashes of playing good defense. Golden Gophers QB MarQueis Gray is a bit of a mystery. He's being billed as a dual threat -- the sort who has given USC trouble in the past -- but he seems more like a 6-foot-4, 240-pound athlete who can run some option and scramble. His passing is decidedly questionable. The Trojans figure to crowd the line and dare Gray to throw. That means a secondary in man-coverage. Recall that the secondary got beaten a bunch in 2010.

4. Maynard debut: You look at California's depth chart and you think, "If these guys are any good at QB, they might be pretty tough." That's the pressure on Zach Maynard in his debut against a solid Fresno State team. If Maynard puts up good numbers, the Bears no longer will be so easy to write off in the Pac-12 North.

5. Buffs, hit Moniz: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz put up huge numbers in 2010: 5,040 yards passing with 39 touchdowns. The Buffs secondary is suspect. Not a great combination. But a good way to protect a suspect secondary is with a good pass rush. While Moniz is a good athlete who can run, the best way for Colorado to end its 18-game road losing streak is to pound on Moniz and not give him time to throw. The good news on that: The Warriors have just three starters back on offense, one of whom is an offensive lineman.

6. The Price of confidence: Washington QB Keith Price makes his debut as Jake Locker's replacement against Eastern Washington, which is hardly a patsy. Sure, the Eagles are an FCS team. But they also are the defending FCS national champions and they are the preseason No. 1 team in FCS football. Warning! Warning! The key thing here is for the Huskies to show up focused and take care of business. For Price, he wants to play within himself, get comfortable and build his confidence because the competition will ramp up quickly.

7. Cougars grinning: Washington State is going to beat Idaho State. Not a big deal. What's a big deal is being 1-0 for the first time since 2005. What is a big deal is a team getting some early momentum, which it hasn't had in in coach Paul Wulff's first three seasons. The Cougs need to go out and pound on Idaho State. They need to walk away feeling good about themselves.

8. Luck and Shaw: Stanford is going to pound San Jose State. But the key thing for Cardinal interests is getting Luck some numbers and then sitting him, and letting Shaw get comfortable with his new job fronting the program.

9. Utah, Arizona State and Oregon State -- just win: The Utes, Sun Devils and Beavers each face weak, FCS foes. Each is going to win. And each faces a far more formidable foe the next week. The key is taking care of business, staying healthy and getting refocused. Starters eating orange slices in the third quarter is good, too.

10. Defense wins championships: OK, so what if LSU's defense thwarts Oregon's offense? The Tigers offense, particularly with Jarrett Lee at QB, is hardly scary. One of the often forgotten elements of the 2010 national title game against Auburn is the Ducks did about as good a job as anyone of slowing down QB Cam Newton. Lee is no Cam Newton. There is no law saying Oregon can't win a game 17-13. The LSU defense might stop the Ducks offense, but what if the Ducks defense is even more in control against perhaps the worst offense they will face all season?

Pac-10 top 25 from 2010: No. 2

March, 18, 2011
We continue our countdown of the Pac-10's 25 best players from 2010.

Note: Because we are ranking players based on this past season, it's Pac-10, not Pac-12.

Here are the preseason rankings (click each name to read the blurb).

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
AP Photo/Rick BowmerLaMichael James is an early Heisman Trophy candidate for the coming season.
No. 2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon

2010 numbers: James led the nation with 1,731 yards rushing -- 144.25 yards per game -- and ranked second with 21 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.89 yards per carry. He also caught 17 passes for 208 yards and three TDs.

Preseason ranking: No. 3

Making the case for James: For starters, he's Oregon’s first unanimous All-American. And he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. And he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. It's really, really hard to rank him No. 2, but, well, you all know who's next. In a list of the nation's top players, James would have been top-five (Auburn's Cam Newton and Nick Fairley are the only obvious choices ahead of him in addition to that other guy). He's set Ducks freshman and sophomore records for rushing and is on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates as a junior next fall. By the way, he also was first-team All-Pac-10 -- academic, that is.

No. 3. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
No. 4 Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon
No. 5. Mason Foster, LB, Washington
No. 6. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
No. 7. Chris Polk, RB, Washington
No. 8. Cameron Jordan, DE, California
No. 9. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Oregon State
No. 10. Chase Beeler, C, Stanford
No. 11. Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State
No. 12. Jeff Maehl, WR, Oregon
No. 13 Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
No. 14. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 15. Brooks Reed, DE, Arizona
No. 16. Tyron Smith, OT, USC
No. 17. Kenny Rowe, DE, Oregon
No. 18. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
No. 19. Casey Matthews, LB, Oregon
No. 20. Talmadge Jackson, CB, Oregon
No. 21. Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
No. 22. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon
No. 23. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington
No. 24. Jurrell Casey, DT, USC
No. 25. Shane Vereen, RB, California

Links: WSU, Utah start spring practices

March, 7, 2011
Napoleon, don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I'm training to be a cage fighter.

Pac-12 Valentines

February, 14, 2011
It's Valentines Day. I know. Awesome.

Because we are so captivated by the spirit of the holiday, which isn't a holiday, we're handing out Roses to the Pac-12. Just like our hero does.

A Rose for Arizona quarterback Nick Foles: Nick, you lose all five starting offensive linemen, but don't think of this rose as something you'd get at a funeral. Really.

A Rose for Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict: Vontaze, buddy, stop and smell the flowers. Er, rose. Chill. Breathe. You're going to have several million dollars in the bank 14 months from now. No need to act so crazy.

A Rose for California coach Jeff Tedford: Jeff, it's not really about the rose. It's the guy giving it to you. It's Aaron Rodgers. He's back. With four more years of eligibility.

A Rose for Colorado running back Rodney Stewart: Does anyone know you rushed for 1,318 yards last season? No? Well, here's a rose and a guess you're going to be the "Who the heck is that guy?" player in the Pac-12.

A Rose for Oregon coach Chip Kelly: You don't like my rose, Chip? Oh, did I mention that Nick Fairley is allergic to roses? And that this rose doubles as a time machine? And you can go back and get quarterback Darron Thomas to make the right read on the first play of the second quarter?

A Rose for Oregon State: But it's not just a rose. It's a Rose Bowl. You like?

A Rose for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck: Not to get all serious, but we're glad you're back. Stay healthy.

A Rose for UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel: "Hey, Rick, the Pac-12 blog told me to give you this rose. I coach defense. My name is Dick LeBeau. Can I have a job?"

A Rose for USC coach Lane Kiffin: It's from the NCAA. Note reads: "Sorry. We were wrong about you and the Trojans." Anybody have any idea what that means?

A Rose for the Utah student section: They don't know about the MUSS yet, do they?

A Rose for Washington running back Chris Polk: Guess who finally gets the credit he deserves in 2011? Can I interest you in a Pac-12 rushing title, perhaps?

A Rose for Washington State: It has six petals. One for each win in 2011.

Best & worst of the bowl season

January, 13, 2011
Taking a look at the best and the worst of the Pac-10 bowl season.

Best defensive performance (team): Washington held Nebraska to just seven points and 189 yards in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. In their meeting on Sept. 18, Nebraska scored 56 points on 533 total yards.

Best defensive performance (player): Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov had a game-high 12 tackles and three sacks in the Discover Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech.

[+] EnlargeMason Foster
Patrick Green/Icon SMIMason Foster's 12 tackles and two sacks helped Washington beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
Best defensive performance (player) II: Washington linebacker Mason Foster had a game-high 12 tackles with two sacks and a pass breakup in the Huskies win over Nebraska.

Best offensive performance (team): Stanford rolled up 534 total yards -- 281 passing, 247 rushing -- in its 40-12 win over Virginia Tech.

Best offensive performance (player): Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.

Best offensive performance (player) II: Washington's Chris Polk rushed for 177 yards and a touchdown against what was supposed to be a rugged Cornhuskers defense.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl caught nine passes for 133 yards in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game against Auburn. He had an 81-yard reception and a leaping catch on a 2-point play that tied the game late in the fourth quarter.

Worst offensive performance: Arizona scored just 10 points against a mediocre Oklahoma State defense. The problem was more sloppiness -- four turnovers, eight penalties -- than anything else.

Worst defensive performance: None. Now isn't that strange? Arizona would seem like a possibility, but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense gained only 312 total yards, even though they scored 36 points. Oregon gave up a bunch of yards, but held Auburn to 22 points -- 21 below the Tigers' season average. Meanwhile, Washington dominated Nebraska, and Stanford held Virginia Tech to 12 points and 288 yards.

Best cheap shot: Arizona safety Adam Hall flattened Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon away from the ball in the Alamo Bowl. It appeared that Blackmon's showboating after a 71-yard touchdown pass didn't amuse Hall.

Worst performance by a future Pac-12 member: Utah, which will join the conference in 2011, got pounded 26-3 by Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos outgained the Utes 543 yards to 200. The Utes had three fumbles.

Best goodbye: It's been a tough year for Huskies quarterback Jake Locker, but he led the Huskies to a four-game winning streak to end the season -- including their first bowl game since 2002 and their first postseason win since 2000.

Biggest disappointment: The Oregon offensive line couldn't handle the Auburn defensive front, most particularly defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Of course, Fairley is fairly good.

Best catch: At a full sprint, Oregon wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei tipped the ball to himself over his right shoulder in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn and went 43 yards to the Tigers 3-yard line. Ducks fans: Don't think about what happened over the next four plays.

Best quote: When Luck was asked how he reacted to a Cardinal offensive lineman catching a deflected pass in the end zone for a safety, he said (sounding very Stanford-y): "Football can be a very funny game. No point in getting emotionally hijacked over it."

Best quote II: Polk on how Washington dominated Nebraska: "We just ran right at 'em. We knew we could win if we ran the way we know how to run. They couldn't stop it. We whupped a team that didn't respect us."

Pac-10 bowl overview

January, 12, 2011
The Pac-10 went 2-2 this bowl season (Utah, we would have included you if you beat Boise State. You did not, therefore you played that game as a Mountain West team).

The record about says it: Not great. Not a disaster. Mediocre.

Yet we'd rate it north of mediocre. Here's why.

The two wins were dominant efforts against teams that were still ranked in the final polls. Stanford whipped Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Discover Orange Bowl and finished No. 4 in the country in both polls. Washington shocked Nebraska 19-7 in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.

More than a few folks saw Stanford coming; the Cardinal were widely considered the nation's best one-loss team entering the bowl season, and Andrew Luck & Co. did nothing to lose that label at season's end.

Few saw Washington coming, and not just because Nebraska stomped the Huskies 56-21 on Sept. 18. The Huskies were ravaged by injuries -- particularly on defense -- late in the season. While it's fair to say the Cornhuskers were uninspired -- they sure looked flat -- that shouldn't take away from the Huskies showing the gumption to physically push around a team that had previously pushed them around.

And then there are the losses.

Not much to say about Arizona in the Valero Alamo Bowl. It got flat-out whipped by Oklahoma State, 36-10. The only upside was it wasn't as humiliating as the 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats ended the season with a five-game losing streak, and they took a step back after seeming to be on the cusp of becoming a Top-25 program.

As for Oregon, it lost 22-19 to a very good Auburn team on a last-second field goal in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. No shame in that.

Still, the loss stings for a number of reasons. For one, a program doesn't get many shots at a national championship. The Ducks fell short of winning their first, and a lot of folks -- including me -- thought they were going to win.

Second, the Pac-10 had a chance to make a national statement versus the top-dog conference, the SEC. That didn't happen, which means that it won't be hard for SEC fans to crow and crow and crow about their dominance because, well, the conference is dominating college football.

The Ducks were game, and the strong defensive effort probably surprised some folks, but there was little to suggest that the Tigers weren't the stronger team. (It helps to have the two best players in college football in QB Cam Newton and DT Nick Fairley.)

Further, Oregon's second consecutive defeat in a BCS bowl game -- the Ducks went down to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season -- means the outright Pac-10 champion lost to another conference's champion two years in a row. That's a hit to Oregon's and the conference's image as it expands to the Pac-12.

Still, when the bowl invitations were announced, a 1-3 finish seemed a real possibility. Everyone knew that Auburn was good -- it was favored over the Ducks -- and it was not unreasonable to wonder if Stanford, despite being favored, would be distracted by the "Jim Harbaugh is leaving" talk that eventually proved true. Arizona and Washington were substantial underdogs.

So, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being "super-awesome, 2008 5-0 success," and 1 being total disaster (not unlike 2009), I'd give the Pac-10 a "7" this bowl season.

In a year when even the mighty SEC only went 5-5 in bowl games, going 2-2 isn't so bad, particularly when it includes two wins over nationally ranked teams.

But, oh, it would have been meaningful for the Ducks to be enjoying a confetti shower on Monday night.

Oregon loses battle in trenches

January, 11, 2011
Oregon's Chip KellyAP Photo/Matt York"The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point in the football game," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon fought like heck. Its defense held Auburn to 21 points below its season average. The Ducks made things interesting with a late touchdown.

But when you cut to the chase of the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, when you really talk about what matters in football, the reality is this: Oregon's offense got whipped up front by Auburn's defense in a 22-19 loss.

"The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point in the football game," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "I will give Auburn credit. They've got a great front four. Nick Fairley proved he was the best defensive lineman in the country. It was a tough matchup for us."

Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner, had three tackles for a loss and a sack and was a disruptive force inside. But he wasn't the only one. Auburn had 11 tackles for a loss and held the Ducks to just 75 yards rushing. They entered the game averaging 303.8 yards rushing per game. The Ducks averaged 6.1 yards per rush this season; they gained just 2.3 against the Tigers.

With the running game sputtering, that put the pressure on Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. Sometimes he came through. Other times he didn't. The sophomore did shake off two early interceptions to set career highs with 27 completions on 40 attempts for 363 yards and two touchdowns.

The total yards were fairly close -- Auburn gained 520 yards and the Ducks piled up 455 -- but the Tigers' yards felt more meaningful, in large part because they rushed for 255 yards and converted 9 of 17 third downs, compared to the Ducks' 5-of-15.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Fairley
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRENick Fairley and the Auburn defense combined for 11 tackles for loss against Darron Thomas and the Oregon offense.
Auburn ran 85 plays, a BCS National Championship Game record. Oregon ran 73.

"Their defensive line is really good," said Ducks running back LaMichael James, who was held to a season-low 50 yards rushing. "You know, it was tough to get around those guys. It was a difficult matchup."

A pattern has emerged: When a good defense gets extra time to prepare for the Ducks' offense -- Boise State, Ohio State and now Auburn -- it seems to thrive.

"You could say that," center Jordan Holmes said. "But we're not going to make excuses."

Still, Oregon had a shot. With the Ducks down 19-11 with five minutes left, linebacker Casey Matthews forced a fumble from Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner. Oregon then drove 55 yards for a touchdown -- converting on a fourth-and-5 with a 29-yard pass in the process -- and Jeff Maehl made a spectacular leaping catch for the 2-point conversion to knot the count.

Only problem: There was 2:33 left on the clock. The Tigers took over and got a huge play from Michael Dyer: A 37-yard run deep into Ducks' territory when Dyer appeared down on a tackle from safety Eddie Pleasant, but broke away as defenders fatally relaxed.

The play was reviewed, but referee Bill LeMonnier of the Big Ten explained it like this: "The ruling on the field was there was nothing other than the foot that touched the ground. Replay... could not find any other body part touching the ground. So by rule he was not down."

The Tigers kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired to earn their first championship since 1957.

And the Ducks were left to wonder about plays that were left on the field. Thomas seemed particularly frustrated by a pair of first-quarter interceptions.

"I came out killing us from the jump," he said of the two picks, one of which came on the Auburn 14-yard line.

Thomas felt it was Ducks miscues that hurt them more than what Auburn did: "I don't think Auburn stopped us from winning the game. We stopped ourselves."

But, really, it was about Auburn beating the Ducks. And it felt not unlike the Ducks' loss in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State last year, a game that Kelly also attributed to superior play by the Buckeyes' defensive line.

Obviously, for Oregon to take that final step up in the college football pecking order, it's going to need to get tougher up front on both sides of the ball.

The future was already on the Ducks' minds. They open against LSU in 2011 in Cowboys Stadium. That means they face another tough defense with lots of time to prepare.

"We have next year," James said. "We are going to play plenty more football games. We are going to win plenty more."

Or as Kelly said when he opened the postgame news conference for the losing team: "We'll be back."

Not a good start to third for Oregon

January, 10, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon needed a stop on defense and some points from its offense to swing the momentum early in the third. It didn't get either.

Auburn kicked a short field goal for a 19-11 lead on its first possession. It's bad news that feels like a minor victory, because the Auburn offense seems to be asserting itself.

The Ducks got a break on their first possession of the third when Tigers defensive tackle Nick Fairley was flagged for a personal foul, but they failed to take advantage. The drive stalled after the Ducks pushed into Auburn territory.

The momentum is on Auburn's side. The Tigers are playing fast and loose and Oregon still seems unsure.

The defense will need to make a play. If the Tigers push their lead into double digits, things could get dicey for the Ducks.

BCS championship game predictions

January, 10, 2011

The time for talking -- and typing -- is almost over as we get ready for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game between No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon, a pair of unbeatens who light up the scoreboard.

But first we need to get off the fence and make a prediction from both the Pac-10 and SEC blogs.

Chris, I'll start us off.

Oregon 38, Auburn 30: Auburn has a couple of outstanding individual players in quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, but the Ducks are a superior team. The Tigers' comeback win over Alabama was impressive -- perhaps the most impressive performance in the regular season -- but they also played a number of close games against teams that the Ducks would have taken to the woodshed. To me, it seems like Auburn peaked 37 days ago, which is too early. The Ducks are going to be sharp bell-to-bell. They will outflank the Tigers, they will wear them down and then they will get physical and knock them over. Newton and Fairley will make some plays, but in the end they won't make enough as the Pac-10 ends the SEC's run of national titles at four.

Chris Low: Ted, I do believe that we’re actually going to play a football game.

Auburn 42, Oregon 31: After 30-plus days off and breaking this game down from every angle imaginable, we find out who’s ready to take home the crystal trophy. Oregon will no doubt put a lot of pressure on Auburn’s defense. But in the end, the Ducks won’t be able to tackle Newton. Who has this season? The Tigers also won’t stray from their clutch lock-down mode defensively in the fourth quarter and will walk away with the SEC’s fifth straight BCS national championship.

Three keys for the BCS title game

January, 10, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Here are three keys for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

1. Newton down on first contact: A quarterback feels pressure and decides to bolt: Almost every time that happens, a defensive player will have a shot to make a play at or behind the line of scrimmage. You know: You're screaming at your TV screen as the QB shakes a guy, ducks under a guy, or escapes an arm tackle. The Ducks need to make that play as much as possible. Think back to the 2010 Rose Bowl. How many times did Ducks just miss getting Terrelle Pryor down, only to watch him convert a third-down play with a scramble? Cam Newton will make plays with his feet. He will get away. He's too good to be completely muted. But if the Ducks make tackles -- one-on-one, in the open field, in the backfield -- when they have a shot, then that will go a long way to shutting down an offense that is entirely centered around Newton.

2. Scheme, scheme, scheme: Oregon has good players, but it also has s great scheme. Coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti are very good at finding and exploiting weaknesses, and they are also good at finding ways to offset an opponent's strengths. They can keep a team off-balance, and they are good at countering whatever an opponent is doing to scheme against them. So what's Aliotti's plan for keeping a lid on Newton? Blitz a lot? Or don't blitz? Use a spy? Or not? As for the Ducks' offense, they need to first account for the active physical presence of tackle Nick Fairley. What might Kelly have in store for the nation's best defensive lineman? And how many tweaks -- and tricks -- has Kelly added over the past five weeks? Good money is on the Ducks throwing a lot of things at the Tigers that they haven't seen and may not expect.

3. Turnovers, third downs, special teams: Oregon ranks seventh in the nation in turnover margin. Auburn ranks 32nd. The Ducks need to win that battle. Auburn ranks third in the nation in third-down conversions. Oregon ranks ninth in third-down conversion defense. The Ducks need to win that battle. While the kickers are a push, the Ducks are better in the punt game -- both kicking it and receiving it. The Ducks need to assert their superiority on special teams. While big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, it's also the little things that earn a team a national championship.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The talk before the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game is almost at an end, but here's a quick preview to tide you over before kickoff.

Our prediction comes later.

Who to watch: Cam Newton vs. the Oregon front seven. This sounds obvious but it has to be. Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner, is the most dominant college football player in years. He accounted for 48 touchdowns. He's 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and runs with great speed and power. Can he consistently break contain against the Ducks and sprint into the open field? If the Ducks have a great day tackling, and if the first Duck doesn't miss Newton, then Oregon wins this game. Oregon knows what it's like to chase a big, fast quarterback after playing Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor in last season's Rose Bowl. Will that knowledge lead to enlightenment?

What to watch: The start and the finish. After a 37-day layoff, it will be interesting to see how sharp -- or rusty -- each team looks. Neither has been dominant in the first half this year, and both are no strangers to slow starts and falling behind early. Both are great at making halftime adjustments. And both are outstanding in the fourth quarter. Which fourth-quarter team gets a lead going into the final frame? Further, while some pundits have said Auburn's offense also likes to play at a fast pace, it's nothing like Oregon's. Just about every team Oregon has faced this year has wilted in the fourth quarter because of the Ducks relentlessness. Check out the Tigers defenders in the fourth quarter -- particularly tackle Nick Fairley -- are their hands on their hips? Are they breathing hard? If they are, and the score is tight at that point, count on the Ducks surging.

Why to watch: Heck, other than it's the national championship game and one of the toughest tickets in college football history? Start with Newton. Whatever you want to say about his off-the-field stuff, he's an outstanding player. And this is almost certainly his last college game. Then there's Fairley. He may end up the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this spring. Auburn folks think he's going to dominate inside. If he does, the Ducks could be in trouble. For the Ducks, it's about the team, not individuals. Coach Chip Kelly's offense has had more than five weeks to prepare. What might his mad scientist offensive mind come up with? How fast can the Ducks play with all the commercial breaks? Will the Tigers defense wear down? And what about the Oregon defense? It's been overlooked all year. Then, when it gets to the title game, many pundits call them small and overmatched, no matter what the statistics say. Will Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger and company make a national statement about Pac-10 defenses? Oh, and there's that, too. A victory over the SEC in the national title game certainly would please every college football fan who is tired of hearing about the conference's dominance. And a loss would further cement the SEC's reputation as the preeminent conference.

Blogger debate: Auburn vs. Oregon

January, 9, 2011
LaMichael James and Nick FairleyUS PresswireHow will Oregon's quick, but undersized LaMichael James do against big, bad Nick Fairley and Auburn?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Players on both sides admitted that they saw this matchup coming long before the regular season ended.

Yep, Auburn and Oregon have seemingly been on a collision course for some time now.

It’s the matchup most of college football was hankering to see, and we get it on Monday night in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

SEC blogger Chris Low and Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller lock horns in a little debate leading up to the game.

Chris Low: First of all, Ted, I know you’re not used to this. A Pac-10 team plays in the BCS National Championship game about as often as one of your teams fills up its stadium. In fact, until I saw Oregon out here in the Ducks’ spiffy new threads, I didn’t realize there was a team in the Pac-10 (other than USC) that was serious about its football. Anyway, my advice is to pace yourself, get plenty of rest before the big game and go ahead and start looking up the BCS National Championship Game records for most rushing yards allowed, most points allowed and most times we’ve seen a quarterback run over a linebacker. The guy who wears No. 2 for Auburn ain’t (as we say in the South) real easy to bring down. Honestly, can Oregon’s undersized defensive line hold up against Auburn’s big, veteran offensive line and the brilliance of Cam Newton?

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Dale Zanine/US PresswireCam Newton has been running over opposing defenses all season, accumulating 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground.
Ted Miller: Ah, SEC trash talk is great fun. Pac-10 fans always hear it before a Pac-10 team leaves a footprint on an SEC team's forehead. Sure, the SEC has won a few of these BCS games – I forget how many because SEC folks never, ever mention it – but it's curious that none of those wins came over Pac-10 teams. And Chris, just what is the SEC's record with the Pac-10 this millennium? And now, after years of so-called SEC powers jumping behind shrubberies when USC came strutting by looking for a game, you've got Oregon smirking back at you. Auburn, Auburn, Auburn: You are in trouble. I worry because you don't seem to know what's coming. How's the cardio coming? Cam Newton? We over on the West Coast are really glad that a good quarterback played in the SEC this year. Must have been weird! But in the Pac-10, Cam Newton would be just another good quarterback. He's tall. He's heavy. Maybe one day he can be Andrew Luck's personal assistant? Newton isn't the best quarterback Oregon played this season. And the Tigers certainly don't have the best offensive line. Stanford and Auburn would have been a nice game. Oregon beat Stanford by 21 points, shutting out the Cardinal in the second half. To be serious: Oregon isn't going to shut down Newton and the Auburn offense. But you're going to see the Auburn punter more than Jackson Rice. The Ducks’ defense is fast, well-coached, forces a lot of turnovers and asserts itself in the second half. What about the other side of the ball? Is that really an SEC defense? How did Auburn get to this game with a ‘D’ that gave up more than 30 points to Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia?

CL: The truth is that this isn’t your typical SEC defense. The last four national championship defenses – all SEC defenses, I might add – were dominant in terms of limiting yards and points. This Auburn defense, while it did improve down the stretch, isn’t going to be confused for being a dominant defense. What the Tigers do have is a dominant player in junior tackle Nick Fairley, who’s the ultimate disrupter up front. Good luck in blocking him. And, yes, I’ve heard a time or two that Oregon does like to play at a fast pace. But it’s difficult to play at a fast pace when you’re continually having to peel your quarterback off the field. Fairley doesn’t just sack quarterbacks. He plants them. But back to the entire Auburn defense. The Tigers have an impeccable sense of timing. When they have to make a play on defense or make a key stop, they do it. It’s usually a different player doing the honors, too. And during winning time (the fourth quarter), the Tigers have outscored their opponents 128-48. The question is: How are the Ducks going to respond when they face a team that can match their speed, and at the same time, is significantly more physical?

[+] EnlargeOregon's Darron Thomas
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREDarron Thomas and Oregon ran past the most physical team they faced this season, Orange Bowl champion Stanford.
TM: I'm curious about how Fairley will, er, fair. This might shock SEC fans -- shock! -- but the Ducks have played against a lot of A-list defensive linemen over the past two seasons: Cal's Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan, UCLA's Brian Price, USC's Jurrell Casey and Oregon State's Stephen Paea. And they've been able to physically handle them. Or at least scheme them out of the game. Further, Auburn won't be the most physical team the Ducks have played: Stanford, last seen stomping Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl, might be the most physical team in the nation. Also, it's a bit of a myth that the Ducks don't play smashmouth. LaMichael James gets a lot of yards between the tackles. In fact, that's where Oregon goes in the fourth quarter when defenses start begging for mercy. Funny you should mention the fourth quarter. Auburn certainly has some nice numbers, but the Ducks have outscored foes 115-24. Think about that: Opponents score an average of 2 points per game in the fourth against Oregon. Chris, we're doing predictions on Monday. But it's clear you're going SEC and I'm going Pac-10. Give me some keys for Auburn to make you look smart and me look dumb.

CL: I think one of the most important keys for Auburn is not to give up anything cheap in the kicking game. The Tigers are 92nd nationally in net punting. Tackling well in the secondary will be equally important. Giving up 10- and 15-yard plays is one thing. But there were times this season when the Tigers gave up too many plays down the field in their secondary. Finally, Auburn needs to make Oregon prove it can tackle Newton. Nobody else has been able to this season. Newton didn’t run as much in those final few games, because teams were daring him to throw the ball. So he beat them throwing it. Something says the Ducks can expect to see a heavy dose early of No. 2 coming right at them. Good luck with that!

TM: Oregon will need to tackle well. It sometimes didn't do that in last year's Rose Bowl against Ohio State and Terrelle Pryor, whose speed and dimensions are not unlike Newton's. I like the Ducks' chances when Newton is passing. They rank sixth in the nation in pass-efficiency defense and grabbed 20 interceptions. The Ducks picked off Andrew Luck twice. Turnovers will be a key. The Ducks force a lot. Auburn doesn't give the ball away much. The Ducks need to win that battle. And the team that wins third down likely wins this game. Well, we're almost done with all the talking -- and typing -- here's hoping we get a competitive, entertaining game into the fourth quarter. Gosh, and I sure hope those big, mean SEC guys don't hurt those itty-bitty Duckies!

Plan doesn't change for Kelly, Oregon

January, 9, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon coach Chip Kelly faced the media for the final time Sunday before the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, and when asked for his opening statement, his response won't surprise those who follow the Ducks.

"Wow. Haven't heard enough?" he quipped. "Game is tomorrow night. Let's go play. Questions?"

The time for talking, which Kelly never really engaged in with much relish anyway, is almost over. Time to walk the walk.

While Auburn coach Gene Chizik spoke with reporters for a full half hour, Kelly was done in 15 minutes. When asked general questions about college football rules, the BCS system, the SEC vs. the Pac-10 and that now infamous refund Kelly provided a fan unhappy with the result at Boise State in 2009, Kelly refused to engage.

"It's about playing the game now," Kelly said.

As for the game, Kelly did have some thoughts.

The Ducks defense is going to have to tackle well, particularly when Tigers quarterback Cam Newton and his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame takes off running. The offensive line is going to have to win the battle with Nick Fairley and a tough Tigers front four. And the Ducks need to protect the ball and force Auburn to make mistakes.

"Whoever wins that turnover battle is probably going to win the game," Kelly said.

Oregon ranks seventh in the nation in turnover margin, and its 35 forced turnovers ranks third. Auburn ranks 32nd in turnover margin.

Moreover, Oregon has a decided advantage with special teams. Explosion plays and field position likely will provide a significant measure.

"The hidden yardage usually occurs in the special teams game," Kelly said. "It will be an interesting matchup. That battle I think there could be a determining factor in the game -- how well do we defend them in their return game and how well do they defend us in our return game."

Kelly did admit that the Ducks playing in the Rose Bowl last year should help. Almost the entire starting lineup from the crew that was upset by Ohio State is back. Kelly supported the notion that his team being a year older, a year more mature and experienced should be beneficial.

"In life, you are a byproduct of your experiences," Kelly said. "The fact we have played in a game of that stature like the Rose Bowl, hopefully we can learn from that, the good and the bad. I think our kids are a little bit more mature. I watched them as the season went along. There wasn't a huge celebration at the end of it. It was about we still have another game to play. I think maybe we were happy to get there last year. Now we have to see if we can do the next step and actually win the game."

When asked if Auburn could simulate the Ducks' offensive tempo in practice, Kelly essentially said no, but noted, "We can't simulate Cam Newton."

And that was about as close as Kelly came to putting a face on the Ducks' foe. Kelly has stayed true to his mantra of playing a "faceless opponent" every week this season, and it's worked well 12 times. He's not going to change now, no matter how big the stage.

"It's about what we do," he said.

So Kelly's final thoughts about the biggest game in Oregon history are simple, and you've certainly heard them before: Stick to the plan. Play fast, play hard, finish. Win the day.