Sat Dec 04 08:44pm EST
Well, even the hints of doubt look silly now, don't they? Auburn and Oregon have occupied the No. 1 and No. 2 positions in the BCS standings for six consecutive weeks, and only solidified the inevitable today with convincing routs over South Carolina and Oregon State, respectively: The Tigers and Ducks are going to Glendale to play for the BCS Championship on Jan. 10. The performances left no doubt. All that's left is for the polls and computers to make the matchup official on Sunday.
That gives ESPN and its many-tentacled reach a little over a month to build two surprise contenders into gladiatorial armies of legendary proportions. Here's your early guide to the hype:
• It's all about the O. Not that there's ever been a lack of firepower on the biggest stage, but most BCS Championship teams have been overwhelmingly defined by the defense: Only two teams in the BCS era, USC in 2005 and Oklahoma in 2008, have ever made it to the title game with defenses that ranked outside of the top 10 nationally in total yards allowed. Neither Auburn nor Oregon is ranked in the top 25.
It will, however, be only the third championship meeting between two attacks that both average upwards of 40 points per game coming in. The last time: Florida's 24-14 win over Oklahoma in 2008; before that, there was Texas' epic, 41-38 comeback over USC in 2005. Brace yourself to hear the word "shootout" so many times it loses all meaning.
• Cam Newton vs. LaMichael James. The high-powered battle within the battle will be between the two unmistakable stars, who should finish first (Newton) and second (James) in next weekend's Heisman proceedings. That's nothing new: Six times in the last decade the championship game has featured two of the top five finishers in the Heisman balloting – their presence in the game being a significant factor in their standing in the Heisman race in the first place – four of which have featured a triumphant also-ran prevailing over the winner.
• Cam Newton vs. the NCAA. As of last week, Newton has been declared fully eligible to play, despite the NCAA's ruling that his father committed a violation by allegedly soliciting a six-figure payment from Mississippi State during the younger Newton's recruitment out of junior college last year. That verdict hinged on three conditions: a) That Cam Newton didn't know he was being shopped, b) That Auburn didn't know he was being shopped to another school, and c)That no money ever changed hands to or from anyone in Cam's circle in connection to his recruitment, with or without his knowledge.
Newton has been tentatively cleared, but the broader investigation into his recruitment remains open. If any evidence turns up between now and Jan. 10 that challenges any of those three conditions, he will be on the hot seat again.
• Redemption. Gene Chizik was met with skepticism and outright hostility when Auburn announced him as head coach two years ago. How could a relatively obscure guy fresh off a 5-17 stint at Iowa State possibly mount an effective rebuilding job in the same state as Nick Saban's fully functional Death Star in Tuscaloosa?
On the other side, Oregon coach Chip Kelly faced questions for most of the last year about the outbreak of discipline issues in February and March. The attrition from the team eventually included his starting quarterback, who'd just led the Ducks to at least 37 points in eight of nine Pac-10 games in 2009, their first outright conference championship since 2001 and their first Rose Bowl since 1995.
Now both are undefeated with arguably the best teams their respective schools have ever fielded in their second season. Maybe they can share a knowing smirk about it during the pregame handshake.
• That SEC thing. An SEC team has won the last four BCS championships, the single piece of factual information its fans have to hold over the rest of the country in their insistence on the on-field dominance of the South. Oregon's ever-changing array of flashy uniforms and spread option offense are the living antithesis of the salt-of-the-earth image the SEC cultivates for itself. Rest assured, their confidence in a fifth straight win – the first over a bunch of West Coast pretty boys – will be staggeringly high. The Ducks can either shut them up and usher in more respect for an expanded, rebranded Pac-10, or leave the rest of America to another year of gloating from the other side of the Mason-Dixon.