Thursday, January 13, 2011

More Thoughts on the Champs

In Tuesday's post I mentioned that it was storybook perfect for Wes Byrum to end his Auburn career by kicking a last-second field goal to win the national championship. Well, I am kicking myself for failing to mention how storybook perfect it was that Kodi Burns scored the title game's first touchdown and served notice that the Tigers' offense would outperform the Ducks'.

The first game Burns ever started for Auburn was the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. He was a freshman and he was a quarterback. In that game, Auburn unveiled an entirely new offense that the team had had only two weeks to learn. He orchestrated it to perfection and led the Tigers to an overtime win against Clemson. It looked like the sky was the limit for Burns and expectations soared for 2008, but that year turned into a debacle as the offense floundered and the Tigers limped to a losing record for the first time in a decade.

After a coaching change, practice for the 2009 season began with the knowledge that it was an open competition for the starting quarterback position. Burns narrowly lost it to Chris Todd, and many people speculated that he would transfer to another school. Burns, however, met with his teammates, declared his support for Todd, and said he was remaining at Auburn and would do whatever he could to make it a contender again. As the season progressed, he played whatever position he was asked whenever he was asked. He became a receiver, and in certain situations filled in for Todd at quarterback. His example cemented the team's "we're all in this together" attitude, and with that attitude the team reversed 2008's direction and turned in a winning season in 2009.

After Cam Newton arrived on campus in the spring of 2010, it was obvious that Kodi Burns, now a senior, would never regain the starting QB position. And once again, he embraced his role as a receiver rather than feel sorry for himself. Without the raw receiving skills of teammates like Darvin Adams and Emory Blake, he was rarely the primary receiver. He did not rack up impressive stats or appear on ESPN highlights, but he made his catches and he happily did the grunt work that receivers never get noticed for, like making blocks downfield to help the running game. Other than Newton himself, Burns was the only player on Auburn's roster to score as a runner, receiver, and passer this season -- finishing with one apiece.

He is the embodiment of everything that is meant when you call someone "an Auburn man." For him to go out with a championship ring, and to have scored a touchdown in the championship game on a 35-yard catch-and-run up the middle of the defense, is the embodiment of justice.

As much as I want to draw attention to Burns's contributions to Auburn football, there are other things I also want to mention before I draw the curtain on this remarkable season:

Since I previously pointed out that Auburn held Oregon's running game to 2.3 yards per carry on Monday, versus the 6.1 per carry they averaged during the season, today I feel compelled to point out that Auburn's running backs averaged 6.8 per carry on Monday.

I also feel compelled to point out how low Oregon's point total was on Monday (19) compared to its average for the season (43.3).

Since I previously mentioned some of Nick Fairley's stats, it is only fair that I say how incredible it is that the D line as a whole recorded nine tackles for loss in the title game, and a whopping 22 tackles overall. When linemen are making so many stops up front, linebackers have nobody to tackle 5 and 6 yards past the line of scrimmage, and that is good!

Wes Byrum was not the only bright spot on special teams. Punter Ryan Shoemaker, also a senior, planted three of his five punts inside the 20 and boomed one of them for 50 yards. And the coverage units repeatedly flocked to Oregon's speed demon returners and wrapped them up on the first try, even when it was a one-on-one situation at the moment. So the Ducks' return game, which had struck fear in the hearts of everyone they played all year, was neutered to the point it became a non-factor.

And one more thought about Byrum: Not only was he perfect on field goals for the night, he was perfect on end-of-game winners for his entire career. Made every singe one he ever tried. Incredible. And in the title game, his kickoffs were better than I ever remember them being before -- they averaged 70 yards and always came down around the goal line, helping negate Oregon's run-back abilities.

Often overlooked with all the attention given to the D line, and in all the unspecific talk about "dominating in the trenches," is just how important the offensive line was to Auburn's national championship run. With four seniors among the five starters and two of them (Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh) almost certain to be picked in the NFL draft, this was the best, most seasoned line in school history. All season long they opened gaping holes for our running backs and allowed Newton enough time to check all the way down to his third and fourth receiving options. It is my opinion that the offensive line is the most important collective position on the field, and if not for this year's line, Auburn probably wouldn't even have won the SEC West, much less the national championship.

I must praise Auburn's coaching staff. Gene Chizik, for solidifying his players' confidence and helping them believe they could win it all, when nobody else in America thought they had a snowball's chance in Hell. Ted Roof, for those out-of-his-ass halftime adjustments that always seemed to turn our defense from Swiss cheese into a brick wall. Tracy Rocker, for getting this year's D line to embrace their role as keepers of the flame that was lit by those great teams of the 1980's.

And Gus Malzahn, for his daring and creative play-calling. How many times did I swear at my TV when he had Newton line up in the shotgun on 3rd and short, having him field the ball seven yards behind scrimmage when he only needed to go forward for one? It was more times than I could count, but Auburn always seemed to wind up getting the first down, often with several yards to spare, even when they ran for it out of that formation.

And here is my favorite statistic of the week, and it relates to the 2010 Tigers only tangentially. I have always felt like Auburn wins more three-point games than any other team in football, and it especially felt like that this year as four of their fourteen games were won by exactly three points. Well, check this out: Going all the way back the undefeated season of 2004, Auburn's last five bowl victories have all been by three points: 16-13 over Virgina Tech, 17-14 over Nebraska, 23-20 over Clemson, 38-35 over Northwestern, and on Monday, 22-19 over Oregon. What are the odds of that? To me this looks like a time-tested trend rather than a one- or two-time coincidence. This tells me that as a program, over the long haul, Auburn's players have the character to prevail when things are tight.

I have gone on and on and could keep doing so, but I need to wrap it up and it would be wrong if I did not acknowledge how good a team Oregon is. Although Auburn proved itself to be the best team in America this season, the Ducks proved they are not far behind and are clearly a national championship caliber team. Jeff Maehl, their receiver, is the kind of scrappy player every coach loves. And based on comments made on Oregon fan blogs, and made by Oregon fans on Auburn fan blogs, I have to say that their fans are among the classiest and most knowledgeable in the nation.

In completing my final one-man "poll," I struggled over where to rank Oregon because they took Auburn down to the last minute and it didn't seem right to rank them lower than second for that. But TCU had no losses and proved they are for real in the Rose Bowl, and how could I punish them by ranking them lower than second when they were one of only two unbeaten teams at the end? So, based on how things played out, I put TCU second and Oregon third. But a very large part of me thinks Oregon would win if they played each other, so I am very uncomfortable with those two spots in my "poll." I mention this because it is the first time I can remember feeling that way at the end of a season.

Anyway, I have gone on long enough. I will type this one more time for my own satisfaction, because I have waited more than 20 years for the chance to do it and I don't know if I will get the chance again: Auburn Tigers, National Champions. Officially. War Eagle!

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