Tuesday, January 11, 2011

War Eagle!

After beating Oregon 22-19 in last night's BCS Championship Game, the wait is over. After 53 years, the Auburn Tigers are officially the national champions.

Those of us who bleed orange and blue have finally witnessed an undefeated team that does not have to say "we didn't get invited to the title game because..." We have finally witnessed a best-in-the-nation unit that does not have to say "we got skipped over in the final poll because..." In college football's unconventional, no-playoff system, some of us have considered Auburn the national champion of a few other seasons during the past generation; but I will not get into that right now because all we should be doing today is celebrating.

Yesterday was surreal. On game days I am usually a nervous wreck from daybreak until the final second has ticked off the clock, but that was not the case yesterday. My heart was racing, but I was always confident our guys would pull it out.

It was a strange game in that both Tiger fans and Duck fans will look back and find reasons to believe the score did not reflect what happened on the field. I think Auburn should have won by more than three because they controlled many aspects of the game and squandered so many opportunities, like Darvin Adams failing to catch a perfectly thrown bomb on 3rd down to kill our first drive, and Eric Smith dropping a TD pass on 4th and goal in the second quarter. However, Duck fans can just as easily say their team squandered opportunities by twice driving inside Auburn's 5-yard line and coming away with no points.

Despite everything that went on during the course of the game, two things made the difference: Auburn controlled the line of scrimmage, and was much faster than anyone else Oregon played this season. When the Ducks tried to go up the middle, they got stuffed, and when they tried to go outside, they couldn't get around the corner and start flying like they did againt their regular season opponents. They averaged 2.3 yards per carry last night after having averaged 6.1 for the whole season; and America's leading rusher, LaMichael James, was held to just 49 yards.

For most of the past four months I have been very critical of Auburn's secondary, but in the last couple games I watched its DB's dramatically improve their tackling. Then, last night, their tackling was tremendous and their coverage was better than it has ever been.

And how about that defensive line? Of course Nick Fairley was a monster, recording three tackles for loss plus a sack, but the whole unit dominated. Watching them rack up two goal line stands was exhilarating, especially the one in the third quarter, when they stopped Oregon on 3rd and goal from the one and then stopped them again on 4th and goal from the one.

Offensively, it was a total team effort for the Tigers. Cam Newton did not have any of his patented highlight reel plays, but he did complete clutch throws to multiple receivers all over the field. And he showed his strength and grit on one particular running play, when he lowered his shoulder and drove a linebacker backwards several yards. Meanwhile, the team ran for 254 yards and Michael Dyer's 37-yard scamper during the final drive was one for the ages. It looked like he was tackled after a 6- or 7-yard gain, and every player on the field assumed as much; however, his knee had remained about an inch off the ground, and after bouncing up and realizing the whistle hadn't blown, and looking to the sideline and seeing the coaches waving for him to keep running, Dyer hustled down the right sideline to put his team in field goal range. Shortly thereafter, he ran for 16 more yards, all the way to the one-yard line, ensuring that Wes Byrum would have as short a kick as possible for the decisive field goal.

And how sweet it was to see Byrum complete his storied career with a last-second field goal to win the national title! Most fans' first memory of Byrum is of him defeating Florida with a last-second field goal his freshman year (and actually converting the kick twice because an "ice the kicker" timeout was called by Florida right before his first attempt). Since then, Byrum has kicked a slew of other game-winners and become Auburn's all-time leading scorer. It was storybook perfect for him to go out the way he did.

A final thought on the game itself: I think the fact that Oregon resorted to such things as a fake extra point in the second quarter (resulting in a two-point conversion) and a fake punt in the third quarter, and that they went for it three times on fourth down -- and still couldn't win -- is further evidence that Auburn is clearly the best team.

Finally, I have to talk about the season as a whole and mention how satisfying it was to watch the 2010 Tigers not only go undefeated, but improve every single week in the process. I do not remember a single game in which they did not perform better than the week before. Their resiliency has been amazing, as they have come from behind seemingly every week. I specifically remember four games in which they trailed by 13 or more points, including that magnificent rally from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa.

After watching so many humdrum offenses over the years, it was thrilling this year to see an Auburn team that was so explosive you knew they could score at any time and overcome any deficit they faced.

After watching so many hardcore defenses over the years, it was peculiar to see an Auburn team whose defense was not its strength. But man, it felt right seeing that defense come of age when it mattered most, and seeing it hold America's highest scoring team to just 19 points on the biggest stage of all! Defense just had to be a decisive factor on the team that broke Auburn's drought of official national championships.

What a team and what a game. And what a season it has been from September until now.

Since I posted my own one-man "poll" during the season, I will do so again now that the bowls are done. Here is the final Stanton's Space Top Twenty for the 2010 college football season:

1. Auburn

2. TCU

3. Oregon

4. Ohio State

5. Stanford

6. Wisconsin

7. Boise State

8. Arkansas

9. LSU

10. Oklahoma

11. Alabama

12. Virginia Tech

13. Nevada

14. Oklahoma State

15. Michigan State

16. Texas A&M

17. Florida State

18. Mississippi State

19. North Carolina State

20. South Carolina

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