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Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Oregon, Auburn break with tradition

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It has been a tenet of football wisdom for more than a century: Defense wins championships. And now it might be sent to the College Football Hall of Fame, along with leather helmets, Woody Hayes' short-sleeved dress shirts and the position of fullback. Defense won't win this crystal football.

Nick Fairley
Don't tell Nick Fairley, but no one is suggesting Auburn reached the BCS title game on the back of its defensive unit.

I'm not saying that neither the Oregon defense nor the Auburn defense will play well Monday night. I'm not saying that Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley is not worthy of the Lombardi Award or that Oregon corner Cliff Harris is not quicker than a teenage texter. But you can't look at the teams in the 2011 Tostitos BCS National Championship Game and believe that defense is the engine that propels either one.

The Ducks and the Tigers built a new road to No. 1, which makes them entirely appropriate here in the Valley of the Sprawl. They are here because their offenses gobble up real estate and score points at rates that would make Bear Bryant's houndsteeth fall out. They are to football a generation ago what the iPhone is to a rotary dial.

But that sets these two teams apart. Neither Oregon nor Auburn has traveled to the doorstep of the national championship via the same route taken by the teams that came before them. Your typical No. 1 surrenders yards begrudgingly and points not at all. Chicks might dig the long ball, but if the single ladies want to put a ring on it, they stick with defense.

Take the national championship game of two years ago. Oklahoma, led by Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, set all kinds of records in 2008. The Sooners scored at least 50 points in nine of 13 games and more than 60 points in each of the last five. They gained 564 yards per game. But Oklahoma scored 14 points against Florida.

Two years earlier, Florida did the same thing to a prolific Ohio State offense. That's what great defenses do to great offenses. They disrupt and disarm offenses, and sometimes, as was the case a year ago, they disable offenses. When Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus blasted into Texas quarterback Colt McCoy on the Longhorns' fifth offensive snap, McCoy left the field with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder. He took Texas' chance of winning with him.

But now we get to uncharted territory. Oregon and Auburn do not have defenses that could be described as great. Oregon's defense is very good, indeed. The defense bailed out the Ducks in their darkest hour. Oregon won at Cal 15-13 because the Ducks held the Bears to one offensive touchdown and 193 total yards.

The Oregon defense does have a note from home explaining its occasional absence. Coach Chip Kelly has no use for time of possession. That is certainly not the way defensive-minded coaches think. TCU coach Gary Patterson said last week that the best way for the Horned Frogs to deal with Wisconsin's massive offensive line was to keep the TCU offensive line on the field (they didn't -- the Badgers held the ball for 36:35).

Oregon (27:59) finished in the bottom 20 in time of possession. Which is to say, given how long Oregon must play defense, its stats are actually very good. For instance, Oregon finished the regular season 25th in total defense (331.6 yards per game) but eighth in yards allowed per play (4.53).

Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who has been at the school since before Oregon achieved statehood, has done a masterful job of developing the depth necessary to deal with the issue of never getting off the field.

Oregon line
Oregon doesn't waste any time getting plays off on offense, a trait that ensures its defense spends more time on the field than most.

So you can make a case in defense of the Ducks' defense. But I'm not sure Alicia Florrick could make a case for the Tigers. They've allowed at least 24 points in six of nine Southeastern Conference games. Their opponents completed 62.7 percent of their passes. Opponents scored on 88 percent of their trips to the red zone, which is a higher percentage than even that of the prolific Oregon offense (84 percent).

What the Auburn defense does well is adjust. The Tigers didn't give up a fourth-quarter touchdown in their past four games.

Oregon and Auburn will bring to the University of Phoenix Stadium two offenses that play fast and score faster. Oregon runs its opponents ragged, leaving them literally gasping for air. Auburn uses its No. 2 bludgeon. No one penned up Tigers quarterback Cam Newton for more than one half.

If both offenses play well, it will be a BCS National Championship Game like none other. That would be fitting because Oregon and Auburn are not built like national champions. In that and myriad other ways, they have broken the mold.

If you look, you can find the good in both defenses. But that's the point. You have to look. That's not what we've come to expect from championship teams. They are carried by their defenses. The 2010 national champion will not share that profile, not unless the BCS upends its structure and names TCU the national champion.

It says here, that will not happen.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.