Published January 05, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – All this talk about the unstoppable offenses set to be unleashed by No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon in the BCS title game is enough to make a defensive coordinator's head spin.
After fielding who knows how many questions Wednesday about what's expected to be a wild night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale, Oregon's Nick Aliotti summed it up like this:
"Here's what I think. I think that there's going to be a game on Jan. 10. Cam Newton is going to play for Auburn in a very high-powered offense. I think that LaMichael James and Darron Thomas et al. is going to play for Oregon in a high-powered offense.
"There's going to be two defenses that have to get on the field at some point in time and the one that does the best job of stopping the other team's offense is probably going to win.
"How that's going to happen," Aliotti paused for almost 4 seconds, "I don't know."
That old conventional wisdom about defense winning championships doesn't seem to apply to Auburn and Oregon.
For the first time in the 13-year history of the Bowl Championship Series, neither team playing for the national title will finish the season ranked among the top 10 defenses in the country. In nine of the previous 12 BCS championship games, both teams ended the season ranked in the top-20 nationally in total defense.
The Ducks ranked 25th in the nation and third in the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 331.5 yards per game. Pretty good, but it's coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced, spread offense, averaging 537 yards per game (second best in the country), that draws most of the attention.
"I think Oregon puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team off the mere fact that they have an explosive offense, so they are going to put up points," Newton said. "You go from a team in the first quarter trying to be balanced to the second quarter and third quarter just trying to keep up with their offense."
Auburn's defense is ranked 55th nationally — roughly the middle of the pack — but offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's unit has more than made up for any issues on the other side of the ball.
"Every time the offense takes the field, we expect to score," Auburn quarterback-turned-receiver Kodi Burns said. "Coach Malzahn instills that in us."
Auburn averages 497 yards per game, with Newton leading the way on the ground and through the air. The Heisman Trophy winner was the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher with 1,409 yards and he threw for 28 touchdowns and 2,589 yards.
"He's a great athlete, performs really well under pressure and the biggest thing is he's a double-threat, he can throw the ball and he can run," Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Bair said.
Malzahn, who in just six seasons has gone from high school coach in Arkansas to one of the hottest head coaching prospects in college football, doesn't call Auburn's offense a spread.
"We're a two-back, run, play-action team with an emphasis on going fast and throwing the ball vertically down the field," he said. "We go from the shotgun which probably makes people think it's a spread."
And, yes, the Tigers also like to pick up the pace. They don't quite go as fast as Oregon, but they don't dilly-dally between plays, either.
"We think pace is a great advantage in college," he said. "We try to mentally and physically wear down a defense."
Aliotti, in his third stint and 20th season as an assistant with the Ducks, has had to adjust what he considers a successful game for his defense because of the way Oregon's offense plays.
"It's difficult sometimes to feel really good about the way you play defensively when you play a lot of plays," he said. "And there's two ways to look at it. If you stop them in three downs, you won't play a lot of plays. But we play very fast on offense therefore that puts us on the field quite a bit."
In many ways, Auburn-Oregon is a matchup that typifies an era in which offenses have evolved far more quickly in college football than defenses. With various incarnations of the spread and a plethora of dual-threat quarterbacks — from Vince Young to Pat White to Tim Tebow and now to Newton and Thomas — it's never been tougher to play defense.
"I think teams are doing a good job of doing little bits and pieces of a lot of different packages," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who was a defensive coordinator at the University of Miami and a defensive assistant in the NFL before taking over the Scarlet Knights.
"Back when option football was first big, the option quarterback was a slight guy, maybe 185, 190 pounds. Now you're talking about these 235-pound monsters who can throw and run. You look at those quarterbacks and what they're doing with those quarterbacks, it's a whole different deal."
And no teams give defenses more to deal with than Auburn and Oregon.