AUBURN, Ala. — The Bowl Championship Series title game matchup isn’t one anyone predicted at the beginning of the season.
No. 1 Auburn will play No. 2 Oregon in the national championship game Jan. 10 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., a pairing that became official Sunday night.
The Tigers (13-0) and Ducks (12-0) had been paired 1-2 in some order in the BCS rankings for the last seven weeks. Rewind four months and that was hardly the case.
While college football heavyweights like Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma graced the top of the polls at the beginning of the season, it was two teams that started outside the top 10 that will play for the crystal football, the first time that’s happened in the BCS’s 13-year history.
Oregon started the year ranked 11th, coming off a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State and wondering how it would cope after kicking quarterback Jeremiah Masoli off the team.
Auburn was ranked 23rd, having lost five SEC games in Gene Chizik’s first year and trying to figure out how a junior college transfer named Cam Newton would fit into their offensive system.
“Every week we just slowly saw ourselves climbing up the charts,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “It’s just kind of cool to watch it all unfold, week after week. Just seeing us make it to the top, called to the big stage is just a great feeling. It’s unbelievable.”
Neither school has a storied history of championships. Auburn shared the 1957 title with Ohio State, but has not won it since, despite finishing undefeated in 1993 and 2004.
Oregon has never won a national championship in football.
Chizik has been in this position before. The second-year Tigers coach was Texas’ defensive coordinator during the 2005 season, when a Vince Young-led Longhorns squad topped Southern California 41-38 in a thrilling finish to claim the national championship.
“There is something different about playing in the national championship game,” Chizik said. “My recollection and memory of it is something that is really hard to describe. You have to be there to do it. It is a great time.”
Expect plenty of points. Both teams have their own version of up-tempo offenses that have given defensive coordinators fits all season.
The Ducks rank first nationally in scoring (49.3 ppg) and second in total offense (537.5 ypg). The Tigers are sixth in scoring (42.7 ppg) and seventh in total offense (487.7 ypg).
Oregon’s spread attack is led by running back LaMichael James, the nation’s leading rusher with 1,682 yards.
“They put up a lot of points,” Stevens said. “It helps us, a little bit, as a defense to have practiced against our offense, even going back to the spring, because it helps you with the pace and things like that. But they are a talented team and it will be a challenge for us.”
Auburn has Newton, the do-it-all quarterback who has accounted for 49 touchdowns and should become the school’s third Heisman Trophy winner Saturday.
“Somebody asked me if I think he is the best player in college football,” Chizik said.
“In my 25 years of doing this, he is the best player I have been around, and I have been around some great ones.”
While the Pac-10 has won one title in the 13-year history of the BCS (Southern California won it in 2004 but vacated it as part of the Reggie Bush NCAA ruling), the SEC has taken six, including the last four: Florida (2006),LSU (2007), Florida (2008) and Alabama (2009).
Auburn will try its best to uphold the SEC’s reputation.
Said Ziemba, “You want to show that the SEC is the best conference in America.”