PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Kickoff is only hours away for Auburn and Oregon. By this time Tuesday, there will be a new national champion. So what does each team need to do to ensure it is the one raising the Waterford Crystal football? Here are three keys for each side.
1. Don't fall behind early. Auburn trailed 17-3 to Clemson, 20-7 to South Carolina (the first meeting), 21-7 to Georgia and 24-0 to Alabama. The Tigers wouldn't be here if they weren't resilient, but they also wouldn't be here if any of those opponents had a killer instinct. The Ducks do.
When the Ducks get an opponent down, they go for the throat by ratcheting up their breakneck offensive pace and wearing down the opposing defense. "Our guys smell blood," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said, "and they attack."
2. Hit Darron Thomas as often as possible. There's a reason Oregon's quarterback has thrown 28 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions: His receivers are running wide-open on most passing plays. They get so open because linebackers and safeties must respect Oregon's play-action fakes. That moment of hesitation to ensure LaMichael James isn't getting the ball on a handoff allows the Ducks' receivers to get open.
So how do you force a quarterback to miss an open receiver? You hit him. And hit him. And hit him again. Even if they can't sack Thomas, Auburn's defenders need to pressure him. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley can't worry about what the officials might think of a hit after Thomas releases the ball. It's more important to let Thomas know the Tigers will be coming play after play. "It's instinct," Fairley said. "Really, you just got to hit him. You are going to get flagged or you're not."
3. When in doubt, it's third-and-Cam. Gus Malzahn is an offensive guru. But when it's third-and-short, Malzahn shouldn't try to outthink things. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is taller than all but one of Oregon's defensive starters. He is heavier than all but three. So he can bulldoze a defensive end, but he can also juke a safety.
Newton should get the ball, moving north-and-south. The chains will move every time.
1. Work smart, not hard. Oregon probably doesn't have a single offensive lineman who can block Fairley one-on-one. Hardly any team does. In fact, Fairley is awfully tough to block two-on-one. But if Fairley isn't anywhere near the play, he has no effect. The beauty of Oregon's spread is its ability to use the entire width of the field. That makes it easy to negate the impact of a star defensive tackle.
Get the ball to playmakers such as James or Kenjon Barner outside the tackles and Fairley will have no impact. Against most teams, Auburn's speedy linebackers would string out such plays for minimal gain. But Oregon is faster than most teams, and if those linebackers miss their shots at Oregon's backs, they'll be eating feathers.
2. Don't force anything. Thomas can't let Auburn's pass rush or its defensive speed unnerve him. If he doesn't have a wide-open receiver, he needs to run or throw the ball away -- just as he has all season. He also shouldn't be afraid to take a sack. It's better to keep the ball and fight on second or third down than to try to force a pass into coverage and give the Tigers the ball.
Thomas seems to have a firm grasp of his role. In most cases, the quarterback is the star of the offense. In this case, the offense is the star. It's Thomas' job to manage it correctly. "The ball is in my hand every play," Thomas said. "So I've got to make the right decision."
3. Don't be a hero. Attention, Oregon defenders: If you see Cam Newton with the ball, do not approach him alone. Try to keep him moving laterally long enough for your friends to show up and help you fell him. No matter how great you think you are, there isn't one of you who can tackle Newton one-on-one in the open field.
Listen to linebacker Casey Matthews, who seems to have a firm grasp of the only way to get Newton on the ground. "He's not your ordinary quarterback. I mean, he's huge, 6-6, 250," Matthews said. "He's got a pretty powerful stiff arm. ... We know he is a very tough runner, and he's not like most quarterbacks. He will lower his shoulder and try to get those extra yards. We've got to wrap him up as a team."