On an exhaustive list of terrifying ordeals that I'd rather never experience, watching Auburn play for a national championship, much less win one, is roughly on the same level as falling off the north slope of Mount Everest, tailgating on the back side of the New Orleans levee system with a hurricane approaching, jumping in front of the A train, and being exiled to a North Korean rice farm.
Nevertheless, for some unknown cruel reason, this day has come to pass. The harsh reality is that a mere sixty minutes separates Auburn from erasing the Curse of 1957, and standing in their way is a Pac-10 team not named USC. Forgive me if on that alone I don't feel overly bullish going into tonight, but nevertheless try to measure these two teams on an objective level.
When I look at the match-up between these two teams objectively, three major points practically jump out at me:
- The best player on the field will be wearing an Auburn uniform
- Auburn looks to hold a decided advantage in both line match-ups
- Oregon seems somewhat ill-suited to attack Auburn's greatest weakness, it's porous pass defense
Given those three factors, all of which heavily favor Auburn, I find it very difficult to legitimately expect an Oregon victory, much less predict one in this space. Darron Thomas has been a highly efficient passer this season -- even though he's not the pure passer his raw numbers would indicate -- so he may be able to somewhat take advantage of the Auburn secondary, and admittedly his mobility could give them issues, but even so it's very hard to see Auburn pulling off the upset as long as the first two factors hold true.
And apparently I am not the only one who feels that way. The betting class in Vegas has been bearish on Auburn all season long, yet when you peruse the college football picks as I write this, you see Auburn is a narrow favorite. Oregon actually opened as a relatively comfortable favorite after this match-up became official, but massive amounts of money quickly begin pouring in with a contradictory opinion and on short notice the line reflected that disparity.
I'll be very honest here when I say that, notwithstanding their 12-0 record, I am very skeptical of Oregon. In the offseason, with the departure of Pete Carroll and the NCAA's subsequent punishment of USC, I worried that the Pac-10 -- a conference that has spent much of the past decade as a one-team show -- would devolve into a sub par conference with no true powerhouse program, and a conference that would create the risk of a somewhat unremarkable team running the table with an undefeated season and landing in the BCS Championship Game. I fear that Oregon may in fact be that team.
The three touchdown pounding of Stanford was, in hindsight, a very impressive victory for the Ducks. The problem is that once you get beyond that lone victory, their resume is as barren as the Arizona desert. Of their other eleven games on their schedule in 2011, a whopping ten of those games came again teams with six or more losses on the season. Want to guess the one opponent this season that Oregon had, outside of Stanford, that didn't have at least six losses? Mighty 7-5 USC, led by none other than Lane Kiffin.
In other words, for all of the exploding scoreboards and blowout victories, Oregon really has not played much of anyone this season. They had one big game, at home, and the rest of the year consisted of them running roughshod over a bunch of teams that ranged from mediocre-at-best to outright laughingstocks. Most people have a decent working understanding of the term battle-tested, but for all intents and purposes this Oregon team is barely even skirmish-tested. 12-0 record notwithstanding, I cannot quite purge my mind of seeing this team get slapped around physically by Boise State and Ohio State a year ago.
Perhaps there is hope to be found in that Oregon may be better prepared and more focused. The distractions have been significantly greater for Auburn during the lay-off -- no Heisman Trophy winner, no top assistant interviewing for multiple head coaching positions, etc. -- and for what it's worth I'd take Chip Kelly as a coach any day of the week over Gene Chizik. And, regarding focus, Auburn has had a much later curfew in Glendale than Oregon, and have in general seemingly taken much more of a laissez-faire approach to the entire ordeal. Perhaps that can help key them to victory, much like it did our victory over Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. On the other hand, as much as it would kill any coach to admit it, preparation and focus aren't everything. Speaking of Miami, Nebraska was undoubtedly the better prepared and more focused team in the 2002 Rose Bowl, but that ultimately did nothing to limit the domination that night by the Hurricanes.
The caveats-in-closing, of course, are that anything can happen in a single individual game, and that even strong probabilities occasionally roll snake eyes. Hopefully Oregon can find some way, any way, to pull off the upset, but I must be brutally honest here and say that on an objective basis I think it's clear that Auburn is the superior team and the end result will likely have hoisting the crystal ball into the desert air tonight. If the unthinkable comes to pass, though, take solace in the fact that this day has been 53 years in the waiting for Auburn, and hopefully it will be another 53, or more, until this day comes again.
Hope for the best.