AUBURN, Ala. -- They used to be known best for their uniforms, all 80 combinations of green, yellow, white, black and steel that made them the Nike poster boys.
But these Oregon Ducks have shown they can play some football too, as their 12-0 record suggests, and their road to the Bowl Championship Series national title game is similar to Auburn’s.
This will be the first time both teams play in the BCS championship game; both are led by second-year head coaches whose credentials were questioned when they took the job; and both have up-tempo offenses that have lit up scoreboards.
To get you up to speed, here is a primer on Oregon football:
The history: The Ducks have played football since 1894, but their modern success began near the end of an 18-year run by Rich Brooks, the same coach who resigned from Kentucky last winter.
After starting slowly, Brooks led Oregon to a Rose Bowl berth in 1994 with a 9-4 record, the program’s first outright conference championship in 100 years.
Brooks left for the NFL after that year, leaving the job for offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti, who went 116-55 in 14 years, guiding the Ducks to two conference titles and a No. 2 ranking in 2001.
Bellotti quit coaching in 2009 to become athletics director and, like Brooks, handed the reigns to his offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly.
The coach: Kelly, a Manchester, N.H., native, has an unusual background, building his reputation as an offensive mastermind as coordinator at Division I-AA New Hampshire from 1999-2006. Using a fast-paced, spread offense -- sound familiar? -- his teams averaged 400 yards or more per game in seven of eight seasons and broke 29 school records in 2004.
Bellotti hired him as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator in 2007. His spread attack flourished in his first season, when Oregon led the Pac-10 in scoring and total offense.
Kelly’s first game as head coach was a disastrous 19-8 loss at Boise State that ended with the infamous punch thrown by LeGarrette Blount, prompting his suspension. A season-ticket holder, embarrassed by the performance, wrote Kelly a letter demanding a refund for his expenses to travel to the game. Kelly mailed the fan a personal check for $439.
Since then, it’s been nothing but success. Despite injuries and suspensions, Oregon has gone 22-2 since the Boise State debacle, winning two Pac-10 titles and earning a No. 1 ranking in the polls for the first time in school history.
Kelly won the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year Award on Monday after the Ducks led the nation in scoring (49.3 ppg) and were second in total offense (537.5 ypg).
The running back: Oregon’s Heisman Trophy hopeful is running back LaMichael James, a 5-foot-9 185-pound sophomore who leads the country with 1,682 rushing yards. He thrived in Blount’s absence last year, racking up 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns. He upped his touchdown total to 21 this year and had three games where he topped 200 yards. He has run for 100 yards a school-record 18 times.
The quarterback: Jeremiah Masoli’s legal troubles led to his dismissal last spring, but sophomore Darron Thomas has run the show with just as much success. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas has 2,518 passing yards and 28 touchdowns this year to go with 488 rushing yards and another five scores. Only once has he accounted for fewer than two touchdowns.
The rest: Eleven other Ducks made the All-Pac-10 first or second teams. Offensive lineman Jordan Holmes, tight end David Paulson (370 yards, 4 TD), linebacker Casey Matthews (68 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 INT), defensive back Talmadge Jackson (59 tackles, 1 INT) and punt returner Cliff Harris (20.9 avg., 4 TD) are first-team selections.
The booster: The Ducks’ No. 1 fan is Nike founder Phil Knight, an Oregon graduate who Forbes estimates is worth $11 billion, making him the 23rd-richest person in the United States. Knight has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Oregon and its athletics department. No wonder he has a personalized locker in the football team’s locker room.
The mascot: A handshake deal between Leo Harris, Oregon’s first athletics director, and Walt Disney in 1947 made Donald Duck the school’s official mascot. Ducky, as he is called, does pushups after every Oregon score, one for each point in the Ducks’ tally on the scoreboard. In a 72-0 win against New Mexico this season, he did 506 pushups.