By Eddie Pells/The Associated Press
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s almost unheard of — a quarterback cranking out a string of 13 straight games with never an off day. But Auburn’s Cam Newton spent the 2010 season redefining what’s possible at that position.
Every bit as rare: an offense that can’t be stopped. But Oregon, led by running back Michael James, has scored 37 or more points 11 times in an equally impressive undefeated season.
These are the reasons people are envisioning scores like 60-55 and 55-53 for the BCS title game Monday in nearby Glendale, a reason the matchup has turned into such a red-hot ticket.
No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon, a pair of newcomers to the championship scene, both have offenses that almost never take a break. The Tigers (13-0) have Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing, passer efficiency and scoring. The Ducks (12-0) have James, the key to an offense that likes to snap the ball 9 to 11 seconds after the end of the previous play, and one that scores a nation-high 49.1 points a game.
“They’ve got a lot of fast guys and they play fast,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “But so far, we’ve been fast enough to win 13 games, too.”
This pair of exciting, point-a-minute teams are coached by Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly — quite possibly the most obscure coaching duo to pace the sideline in a championship game since the BCS began in 1999.
Both are in their second seasons as head coach at their schools. Chizik is a former defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas who came back to the Plains despite a 5-19 record at his first head-coaching job at Iowa State. Kelly was hand-picked by his predecessor, Mike Bellotti. After his first game as Oregon’s head coach, a 19-8 loss to Boise State to start 2009, Kelly famously cut a check to reimburse a season-ticket holder who wrote him to complain about the performance.
Hard to imagine anyone’s complaining now.
“We stand for three things: playing fast, playing hard and finishing. We’ve done it with our 12 opportunities,” Kelly said. “Our vision has not to do with championships. Our vision has nothing to do with getting a crystal ball or rings. It is all about playing the game. That’s what we’ve done all along and that’s what our vision is.”
Auburn has been pummeled all season with questions about Newton’s status, the result of a meandering investigation into allegations that his father was involved in a failed pay-for-play scheme during Newton’s recruitment to Mississippi State.
The NCAA cleared Newton to play shortly before the SEC title game, and with the Tigers confident — at least for now — they won’t have to give back the BCS’s crystal ball trophy if they win it, the most notable controversy this week has been the debate over whether Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley is a cheap-shot artist.
Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner as the nation’s best lineman, has brandished a reputation for playing hard through the whistle, and sometimes beyond. How Oregon’s quick — but not huge — offensive line handles Fairley could dictate how well Oregon’s fast-paced offense runs.
“He’s got speed, strength, technique,” Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “Basically, all the things you don’t want to see as an offensive guy lining up against him, he’s got.”
James, who has averaged 152 yards and almost two touchdowns a game for an offense that has scored 40-plus points 10 times this year, said he can tell when a defense is breaking down.
“You start seeing a lot of hands on hips, broken tackles, things like that,” he said. “You see them blitzing but not really blitzing because they don’t have the energy.”
Knowing Oregon will try to push the pace in this game, the way the Ducks have all year, Chizik said he would have a very specific conversation with officials before the game, urging them to enforce a rule that allows the defense time to make substitutions if the offense does. Kelly said it won’t make a difference, “because we don’t sub.”
“When we want to play fast, we know the rules,” he said. “If we are trying to play at a fast tempo, we are not trying to sub in those situations.”
Oregon’s mission on defense is to try and become the first team to stop Newton, who has the body of a linebacker — 6-foot-6, 250 pounds — but the skills of a running back and quarterback.
He averages 108 yards rushing a game, completes 67 percent of his passes and has accounted for 49 touchdowns — 21 running and 28 passing. After he passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more scores in a 56-17 blowout of South Carolina in the SEC title game, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said a 60-55 score was a possibility in the title game.
“You have two of the best offensive minds in football,” he said, speaking of Kelly and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
All of which may really mean that whichever defense plays better will lead its team to a championship.
“Both defenses have something to prove and want to show up and are tired of answering questions about how it’s going to be 55-53,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “They have a point to prove. I think it will be a low-scoring game, lower-scoring because of the way the two defenses are going to show up in a bad mood.”
But while defense wins championships, offense sells tickets, and almost everything points to this being a high-scoring game. Auburn heads into the game favored by 2½ points, though more telling is the over-under for the contest, set at a whopping 74 points.
Demand for this game was, according to ticket seller StubHub, at a record level. So high at one point that the company had to shut down sales when it ran into a glitch with one of its sellers. That problem was remedied, but tickets for the game were still averaging in the $2,000 range Sunday on a variety of broker websites.
An estimated 15,000 Auburn fans came to Arizona without tickets, hoping to be part of a championship moment that hasn’t happened at that school since 1957.
Oregon has never won a national title, and hadn’t had that on the radar until about a decade ago. The school that produced Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad on the football field is still probably best known as a counterculture track school where the late runner Steve Prefontaine, of 1970s fame, remains the top sports figure.
That could change Monday night — but someone will have to stop Newton.