Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Jan 2011
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
For the first time since 2001 (the fourth year for the Bowl Championship Series), there are two first-time competitors in the BCS title game. That says a lot about how difficult it is for a developing power to break through in college football -- and how well both Auburn and Oregon did in 2010.
How does a non-traditional power make it big in today's college football landscape? First, find some super-duper, mega boosters who will make an incredible impact on your program. Then, go hire an offensive savant to roam the sideline (for Oregon, that is head coach Chip Kelly; for Auburn, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn). Then, in Auburn's case, go sign a future Heisman winner from Blinn Junior College to make what might have been the biggest impact a first-year player has ever made in college football. Finally, move faster and faster until your opponent's legs give out. Voila! Title game appearance! It's just that simple.
Below is an extended preview of tonight's game. At the bottom is tonight's Cover It Live live-blog. Festivities will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Brian Fremeau: Much has been made about the blistering pace at which Oregon runs its offense. Auburn's Gene Chizik will reportedly discuss defensive substitution time with game officials prior to kickoff, and I expect Musberger and Herbstreit to make a big deal out of the validity of every injury stoppage. It's true that Oregon can operate more quickly than just about any other offense in the country when they want to. But aside from running a stopwatch between every snap, it's difficult to quantify precisely how fast they can be.
We can get a general sense of Oregon's pace by dividing time of possession by plays and/or drives, but we can get an even better approximation by mixing in a bit more data. I developed a method for estimating "real tempo," the time between whistle and snap, for a Maple Street Press article this past summer. First, I estimated the national average game time elapsed for pass plays, running plays, kickoff returns and turnovers, plus the average time elapsed when the clock stops temporarily for offensive first downs and out-of-bounds plays. Once these were established, I stripped out the game time from the elapsed time of possess for each team. The result produced an estimate of the real time elapsed between plays for each team.
By this methodology, an average of 23.5 seconds of real time elapsed between each Oregon offensive play this season, the fifth-fastest tempo in college football (behind Oklahoma, Middle Tennessee, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech). This isn't a representation of the Ducks at their fastest pace (15-18 seconds between plays), but I wasn't able to discern a dramatic difference in the Ducks' efficiency at faster or slower drive tempos. That said, Auburn's defense is not accustomed to facing any team working as quickly as Oregon. Auburn's opponents this year averaged 30.5 seconds of real time elapsed between plays, slower than the Tigers' offense operates. Substitution miscues and fatigue can certainly be a factor if Oregon keeps its foot on the accelerator throughout the game.
Another major factor may be field position, and that one could favor the Tigers. Oregon ranked 10th nationally in FPA and only played twice all year with a field position disadvantage. Auburn overcame field position disadvantages in half of its games, and Cam Newton successfully dug the Tigers out and led long drives all season. As explosive as Oregon's offense was this year, Auburn was more successful turning 60-plus-yard fields into touchdowns than the Ducks, and they did so against a stronger set of opposing defenses.
Here's a breakdown of each team, its frequency of strong starting field position (Poss Pct.), and its success at reaching the end zone from that field position this year (TD Pct.):
|Starting Field Position
(Yards from End Zone)
|99-80 Yards||79-60 Yards||59-40 Yards||39-1 Yards|
|Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.|
If special teams and turnovers don't create short fields for either team, I expect Auburn to have more success dealing with long field position than Oregon. And in terms of wearing down an opposing defense, a steady diet of Cam Newton may be even more effective than an up-tempo attack.
|Rushing: Oregon Offense vs. Auburn Defense (S&P+)|
|Rushing Success Rate+||27th||57th|
|Standard Downs Rushing S&P+||24th||33rd|
|Passing Downs Rushing S&P+||31st||52nd|
|Adj. Line Yards||51st||34th|
Rob Weintraub: LaMichael James is the master of the big play. Five times this season he's run for 50+ yards on a play, eight times for 40+ yards, and 11 times for 30+ yards. He's cracked paydirt 21 times and leads the nation with just under 153 yards per game. Because so much of Oregon's attack is predicated on isolating James with defenders in space, the little speedster can rack up the carries without taking the punishment that usually accompanies so many totes. That's not to say James isn't tough, and he gets plenty of yards between the tackles, especially as the defense wears down and tackling form starts to slip. The running game barely dips when backup Kenjon Barner is in the game -- he's another speedster with springy hips that make him elusive in tight spaces. Quarterback Darron Thomas is better at making option reads than actually running with the ball. Look out for freshman wideout Josh Huff on speed sweeps when the Ducks really want to make the Tigers defend laterally. Oregon's offensive line is undersized only if they play power sets. For this spread system, they are suitably athletic and smart. Center Jordan Holmes is among the best in the country, not to mention the fittest.
All eyes will be on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, winner of my prestigious Lowsman Trophy Award for best non-skill player in 2010, and how he holds up against Oregon's relentless attack. A clue to Fairley's fate may be gleaned from the Civil War, when Oregon State All-America tackle Stephen Paea wore down noticeably in the second half after chasing the ball like a madman for 50-60 snaps. In the fourth quarter, the Ducks went straight at Paea, and he was pushed back like he was wearing skates. Fairley is an exceptional penetrator with an attitude, and if he can knock Thomas or James from the game, it will brighten for the boys from the Plains. The PR battle has already begun, with Oregon players calling Fairley "dirty" in hopes of pulling an unsportsmanlike conduct flag or two from the refs' pockets on game night. Linebacker Josh Bynes, a sturdy and smart tackler, will also be under pressure to perform at a high level.
Jeff Scott of Ole Miss, a super-fast freshman, hit the Tigers for 134 yards on nine carries in a telling matchup earlier this season. Otherwise, though, Auburn tended to get better against the run as the game went on (probably partially due to their many late-game leads). How it handles the speedy backs in the back 30 minutes of the game will be crucial.
Bill Connelly: A lot of people -- myself included -- have harped on Oregon for its lack of elite defensive competition this season. Of the Ducks' 12 opponents, only Stanford's defense ranked in the Def. F/+ Top 25. The good news for the Ducks is, after tonight, they still won't have faced a truly elite defense. Auburn has holes, and the Tigers' lack of solid efficiency against the run could doom them. We can debate whether S&P+ has Oregon ranked too low, but even these rankings give the edge to the Ducks on the ground. Auburn prevented big plays on the ground, but Oregon will have no issue with pecking away, six yards at a time. In fact, with Cam Newton pacing the opposing sideline, waiting to get back on the field, the Ducks might even prefer it.
Auburn's poor success rates against the run are a bit confusing considering their solid defensive line. If Nick Fairley and company can get a good push and force Oregon backs to make their first move behind the line of scrimmage, that could take its toll. But if Oregon is allowed high efficiency early on, Auburn's front seven could wilt late.
|Passing: Oregon Offense vs. Auburn Defense (S&P+)|
|Passing Success Rate+||46th||48th|
|Standard Downs Passing S&P+||15th||50th|
|Passing Downs Passing S&P+||45th||16th|
|Adj. Sack Rate||5th||39th|
Rob Weintraub: James and Barner get most of the love when the talk turns to the Ducks 440-relay team of an offense, but wideout Jeff Maehl may be Oregon's best offensive player. The glue-handed receiver had 12 touchdowns on the season, despite averaging only 5.7 grabs per game, putting Maehl in the same homerun hitter category as the much faster Leonard Hankerson (13/5.5) and Jermaine Kearse (12/4.8). Chip Kelly may look to establish the passing game through Thomas-to-Maehl early -- if successful, that will make the run virtually indefensible, with Auburn's linebackers caught between taking deeper drops to stop the pass and holding their position in the box to stop James & Co., and the safeties unable to play run support effectively.
Auburn's secondary, led by safety Zac Etheridge, relies on a vigorous pass rush from Fairley and crew. Since Oregon gave up just seven sacks this season (third in the nation), the back four will have to step up its game. The Tigers have but 10 interceptions on the season, so asking the secondary to affect the game via turnovers may be unfair. If Auburn can slow the Oregon passing game enough to make the Ducks earn points on the ground and keep the snap total closer to 65 than 80, the defense will have done its job.
Bill Connelly: We know about LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and the stable of Oregon runners. We've spent much less time talking and thinking about Oregon's passing game. Though Darron Thomas is not an amazing passer when he has to pass, he has been devastating using passing game on standard downs, when opponents are gearing up to stop the run. Oregon throws the ball just 32.6 percent of the time on standard downs, but against an Auburn defense that is vulnerable against the pass on those downs, you might see them throw more.
When Oregon does throw the ball, they're probably going to Maehl. He may not average a ton of touches per game, but he has almost twice as many catches as No. 2 man D.J. Davis and more than three times more catches than anybody else in green, dark green, neon green, yellow, gold, silver, and whatever other colors Oregon claims right now. (That's a much easier statement when we're simply talking about crimson and cream or scarlet and gray.) Maehl is a big target who can get open downfield, and he has been an underrated weapon for Oregon this season.
In general, efficiency will be key for the Ducks. They hold the cards on standard downs, able to either peck and poke with the passing game or play it straight with the run, but the advantage would shift significantly if second-and-4 were to turn into second-and-7. Passing downs almost always favor the defense, obviously, but in this matchup, that advantage is magnified.
|Rushing: Auburn Offense vs. Oregon Defense (S&P+)|
|Rushing Success Rate+||1st||30th|
|Standard Downs Rushing S&P+||1st||43rd|
|Passing Downs Rushing S&P+||1st||11th|
|Adj. Line Yards||1st||21st|
Rob Weintraub: I call him the "Battering Cam" for a good reason -- at 250 pounds, Cam Newton has totaled more defensive backs this year than a chop shop. But it's his speed and niftiness that really get the heart racing. Whether he's outrunning future NFL corner Patrick Peterson to the goal line against LSU, or slipping past three defenders to convert a third-and-5 to keep a drive moving (Auburn ranked third in the country in third-down conversion rate, at 53.1 percent), Newton is the engine that makes Gus Malzahn's spread attack purr beautifully. Let's hope we don't have a Colt McCoy situation this season, with the star quarterback getting hurt early in the game -- bite your tongue, Weintraub! Meanwhile, Auburn does have running backs to work with, and they are excellent. Freshman Michael Dyer and sophomore Onterio McCalebb are perfectly capable of hitting a big play on the ground, especially working behind left tackle Lee Ziemba (a monstrous 6-foot-8, 320 pounds) and the rest of a punishingly good line. Right guard Byron Isom is a masher inside.
Oregon will use the TCU approach against Wisconsin, trying to outrace or duck under blockers to the hole and tracking down ball carriers from the weakside. Linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger are extremely fast and active, with good lateral quickness. Oregon may spy Newton with converted linebacker turned strong safety Eddie Pleasant. Oregon ranked highly against the run, mainly because teams were forced to throw to catch up against them. But the Ducks were sturdy against the run in the second half in close games against power offenses from Stanford and USC. Auburn is very patient and quite used to coming from behind on the ground, which will be important should they fall behind -- wearing down Oregon's front seven is as important to Auburn's success as it is when Oregon has the ball.
Bill Connelly: Auburn's offense was incredible in all aspects of the game, really, but even if marginally so, they were best at running the ball. With 91 rushing yards, Cam Newton can finish his first season at Auburn with 1,500 rushing yards and something near 3,000 passing yards. He has basically out-Vince Young'd Vince Young's 2005 performance. Catching them in third-and-long situations is damn near impossible because, even if you stuff them on first down, you probably won't on second down. And when you do force third-and-long, they'll probably convert anyway.
Newton has been complemented well by a three-headed running back stable. Dyer, McCalebb and 17th-year senior Mario Fannin (seriously, wasn't he the heir apparent to Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown?) combined for 2,108 yards and 19 touchdowns on 310 carries. They will be going against a good-not-great Oregon front seven. The Ducks allowed four 100-yard rushers in 2010, but only one (California's Shane Vereen) after October 2. They are quite respectable against the run, but they haven't faced anything like Cam Newton and company this year. Frankly, there isn't anything else like Cam Newton and company this year.
|Passing: Auburn Offense vs. Oregon Defense (S&P+)|
|Passing Success Rate+||2nd||24th|
|Standard Downs Passing S&P+||2nd||27th|
|Passing Downs Passing S&P+||1st||19th|
|Adj. Sack Rate||33rd||69th|
Rob Weintraub: Of all the mind-blowing numbers to come out of Newton's Heisman-winning season, this might be the most likely to spread gray matter all over the wallpaper -- he's 19 for 19 through the air on game-opening drives. When it comes to script reading, Newton is on the same level as Robert Evans. Malzahn deserves plenty of credit for designing plays that cater to Newton's strengths as a passer, and for calling them in good situations. Ziemba and company have kept Newton relatively clean in the pocket against an array of ferocious defenses (21 sacks allowed), and Newton's confidence as a passer has soared. Auburn threw it less often than all but four teams this season, but Newton managed 10.5 yards per attempt, attesting to the big-play capability of the Tigers scheme. Darvin Adams is Newton's favorite target, but Emory Blake (son of the great No. 8, former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake) is the big-play target -- seven of his 28 catches went for scores. In the red zone, Lassiter High School's own Philip Lutzenkirchen is a big target with soft hands.
The Ducks were highly ranked in pass efficiency defense, with the likes of Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley zinging catch-up balls at them in desperation. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is a blitzing fool, but he may dial that tendency back in the face of Newton's exceptional mobility (the memory of Terrelle Pryor burning Oregon's blitzes in last year's Rose Bowl is still fresh). If Oregon can get pressure from defensive end Kenny Rowe and his mates up front without help from blitzers, the Mallards will be in good shape. Cliff Harris is Oregon's big-play man on special teams, but he's also a ball hawk, with five picks, a number matched by fellow Ducks sophomore, the far less mouthy John Boyett. The matchup boils down to whether or not Oregon can force Auburn to throw in situations it would prefer not to. If Auburn dictates when it throws the ball, Newton will have the Ducks by the Cams.
Bill Connelly: Powered by a nice blitz and the aforementioned ball hawks, Oregon's pass defense is quite sturdy in passing downs situations. But as Rob pointed out ... How do you defend Cam Newton? Do you blitz and make him evade and improvise? Do you hang back and give him time to find a target? Aliotti joked that he's been sleeping like a baby this week:"Every two hours I wake up and cry." Can you blame him? Alabama couldn't stop Newton ... South Carolina couldn't stop him (twice) ... What can you attempt that they didn't? Aliotti has built a defensive unit that is mean, fast, and fun, and in a one-game situation, they might just have to make a few stops for Oregon to get a step on the Tigers. It should be fun to see how they go about attempting those stops.
F/+: These teams have put together very similar statistical profiles, but strength of schedule has carried Auburn to the top of the F/+ rankings. Early momentum could be key, but odds favor Auburn. Auburn 39, Oregon 28.
Rob: Auburn has been touched with magic dust all season, and unless it rusted away in the endless wait for the game, it will sprinkle down with the confetti over yet another champ from the SEC. Auburn 42, Oregon 36.
15 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2011, 9:57am by Mikey Benny