SCOTTSADALE, Ariz. -- On the night of Jan. 4, 2006, then 16-year-old Cam Newton sat in front of the television with his family in College Park, Ga., transfixed by the dazzling performance of Texas star Vince Young in the Longhorns' 41-38 national championship victory over USC.
"That's something that you go on YouTube and type that in and you get goose bumps just watching it," said Auburn's Heisman-winning quarterback, who will get his own shot at glory in Monday night's BCS National Championship Game against Oregon. "Hopefully I could have half the performance that he did."
Across the country on that same night, high school freshman Cliff Harris watched from Fresno, Calif., as Young outdueled Trojans stars Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Harris dreamed of one day playing on the same stage.
"I was like, 'Man, I want to play in that game right there,'" said Oregon's All-America cornerback and punt returner. "It's kind of surreal that I'm living that game now."
Five years have passed since those undefeated, star-studded Texas and USC teams treated us to the most riveting BCS championship game to date. Frankly, the four since haven't come close.
Ever since the BCS moved its marquee event to a week after New Year's, teams and fans have waited through inordinate buildups only to be let down by largely anticlimactic conclusions. Florida and LSU pounded Ohio State. A showdown between Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow was decided in large part by interceptions. Last year's Alabama-Texas game was all but over the moment Colt McCoy went out with a shoulder injury on the Longhorns' first drive.
We beseech you, college football gods, to allow Auburn-Oregon to buck the trend. Let Newton deliver his Vince Young moment. Let Darron Thomas and LaMichael James leave both the fans and the Auburn defense breathless. Let this be one of those games fans fondly reminisce about five years from now the way Newton and Harris do about Texas-USC.
Lord knows we could use it.
We've waited what seems like an eternity -- 37 days since the Tigers' and Ducks' last games -- to witness this matchup. We've muddled through 23 long days and 34 mostly forgettable bowls to get to the one that matters most. We've listened to Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly spend more hours answering questions about the game than it will take to actually play it.
But really, we're seeking a reward for a struggle that dates back farther than that. This year, more than any in recent memory, we need a fantastic finale to help heal the wounds of an inarguably ugly college football season.
The first games kicked off Sept. 2, but the tumultuous 2010 season unofficially began three months earlier when news first broke of the Pac-10's attempt to annex five Big 12 schools. The weeks of ensuing media madness foreshadowed a season in which headlines over money, greed and exploitation often overshadowed the actual sport around which they centered.
In June, the story was conference realignment. By July, it was agents. North Carolina's promising season deteriorated into a mess of allegations and suspensions. Georgia's year was derailed by one star's game-worn jersey. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions destroyed USC's season and possibly more to follow.
Then, just as we'd finally focused in on the games at hand -- as we watched Auburn and Oregon begin their journeys to January's collision, debated TCU's and Boise State's worthiness, watched Stanford's unlikely rise and Florida's and Texas' inexplicable slides -- the scandal of all scandals rained stink upon the season. Allegations of Newton's father shopping his son's signature for $180,000 enveloped the sport and threatened to mar both Newton's and Auburn's accomplishments.
Days before the NCAA rendered its controversial decision absolving the quarterback of wrongdoing (for now), Newton and Auburn gave us the game of the year, rallying from a 24-0 deficit to beat Alabama, 28-27. Later that same day, Oregon produced another of its patented second-half surges to dispose of Arizona. What had been a potential duel in the desert became inevitable. A cloud continued to hover over Newton, though we were temporarily distracted by yet another pre-bowl scandal involving Ohio State players, tattoos and sold trophies.
So we turn to the Tigers and Ducks, two non-traditional powers and first-time BCS title game participants, in hopes of wrapping the season with a more palatable final image. Five years ago, Texas produced that image with a game-changing fourth-and-two stop of USC's LenDale White. The same man who oversaw that defense will be standing on the sideline Monday night in Glendale.
"I think everybody would agree that this is going to be a great game," said Auburn's Chizik, the once-scorned head-coaching hire who went from a 5-19 stint at Iowa State to a 13-0 campaign this fall. "In these games, there's always two or three plays that are going to stand out that everybody is going to remember. We tell our guys that. You never know what you're going to do on that single play to change the game."
Given the makeup of these particular teams, most assume those game-changing plays will come on offense. More than nearly any title contender before them, Auburn and Oregon got here first and foremost because of their ability to score, and score quickly.
The Ducks will do as they always do -- line up, run a play, race back to the line and run another play. The second an Auburn defender doesn't get in position on time or takes even one step in the wrong direction, James is liable to break through a crease and dash 60 yards to the end zone, or Thomas to hit receiver Jeff Maehl in stride as Maehl streaks untouched through the secondary.
"Their pace is unmatched by anybody in the nation," said Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes. "It's insane for one, and their speed is outrageous."
Every time Newton takes a snap, meanwhile, there's the possibility he'll run over somebody, run around somebody or buy time in the pocket and uncork a perfectly placed bomb to Darvin Adams or Emory Blake. No Auburn opponent has yet figured out how to contain Newton for four quarters.
"We've seen just about every type of [defensive] plan you can have to come after him," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "Cam's got that unique ability, when things do break down, he can make a play."
Just as these teams' frenetic offensive styles signify a larger trend in the sport, their respective conference affiliations carry weight.
It's no coincidence that the past four largely forgettable title games have all been double-digit wins by SEC teams. Since 2006, the SEC has asserted its superiority over the nation's other football-playing conferences with an annual title-game coronation. That Auburn could not only capture the SEC's fifth straight national title but also become the fourth different league school (following Florida, LSU and Alabama) to win in that span is a remarkable testament to that conference's elevated level of competition.
But where the best of the Midwest and Southwest fell short, an unlikely challenger has emerged from the Northwest. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott and Oregon's Kelly, two men in their second years on the job, have helped usher in a new era for a once stodgy league that now resembles the West Cost's greater image of innovation. Ending the SEC's reign of dominance would do wonders for the conference's budding reputation.
"We can play football with anyone," said Oregon's Harris. "If the SEC thinks they're going to just walk over us because they're the SEC and we're the Pac-10, then they've got another thing coming to them."
Ultimately, however, this night is about all of college football, beloved by so many yet unquestionably scarred. The BCS evokes its own set of annual criticisms, many of which were well deserved this year. But 2010 spawned so many other reasons for outrage, from perceived NCAA hypocrisy to ruthless conference power-mongering.
Yet the sport's popularity continues to endure, as evidenced by the incredible interest in Monday's game. Before StubHub had to shut down sales due to a supply shortage, the cheapest seats at University of Phoenix Stadium were going for several thousand dollars apiece, making it the most sought-after event in the company's history ahead of Super Bowls, World Series, et. al. The fact that Oregon and Auburn are BCS championship newcomers has seemingly heightened the demand, as the schools' fans are desperate to soak up their moment in history.
"I mean, is it not obvious to everybody the enormity of college football and what it's become?" said Auburn's Chizik. "I'm not really sure why this game has been tagged as the hottest ticket maybe ever or whatnot, but I'm glad it is."
It's up to Chizik's and Kelly's teams to produce a return on those considerable investments, but Monday's game is not just for Auburn and Oregon fans. It's for all the fans across the country who spend their fall Saturdays in tailgate lots and in front of televisions, obsessing over a sport that both excites and aggravates.
In 2010, the headaches often drowned out the heroics. Here's hoping Jan. 10, 2011, delivers a much-needed dose of rejuvenation.