No. 1 Auburn will play No. 2 Oregon in the national championship game Jan. 10 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., a pairing that was a foregone conclusion by Sunday night.
The Tigers (13-0) and Ducks (12-0) had been paired 1-2 in some order in the BCS rankings for the last seven weeks.
Rewind four months and that was hardly the case.
While college football heavyweights like Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma graced the top of the polls at the beginning of the season, it was two teams that started outside the top 10 that will play for the crystal football, the first time that’s happened in the BCS’s 13-year history.
Oregon started the year ranked 11th, coming off a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State and wondering how it would cope after kicking quarterback Jeremiah Masoli off the team.
Auburn was ranked 23rd, having lost five SEC games in Gene Chizik’s first year and trying to figure out how a junior college transfer named Cam Newton would fit into their offensive system.
“Every week we just slowly saw ourselves climbing up the charts,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “It’s just kind of cool to watch it all unfold, week after week. Just seeing us make it to the top, called to the big stage is just a great feeling. It’s unbelievable.”
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Not a whole lot of interviews Sunday night, but here are some highlights:
- Reactions? We've got them: "You always just dream of that moment to hear your name called to play in the national championship game,” Stevens said. “Just to see it flash across the screen was just amazing.”
- “What an honor. It’s an amazing feeling,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “This is four years of real hard work and dedication paying off. It’s just amazing what perseverance can do through ups and downs.”
- Chizik has been in this position before. The second-year Tigers coach was Texas’ defensive coordinator during the 2005 season, when a Vince Young-led Longhorns squad topped Southern California 41-38 in a thrilling finish to claim the national championship. “There is something different about playing in the national championship game,” Chizik said. “My recollection and memory of it is something that is really hard to describe. You have to be there to do it. It is a great time.”
- Oregon moves FAST. Just like Auburn claims it likes to do (the Tigers haven't paced teams as much as they usually do this year, probably because they don't need to with Newton in charge). “They put up a lot of points,” Stevens said. “It helps us, a little bit, as a defense to have practiced against our offense, even going back to the spring, because it helps you with the pace and things like that. But they are a talented team and it will be a challenge for us.”
- Chizik gave another good quote about Newton's Heisman worthiness. “Somebody asked me if I think he is the best player in college football,” Chizik said. “In my 25 years of doing this, he is the best player I have been around, and I have been around some great ones.” Chizik will be joining Newton in New York, by the way.
- While the Pac-10 has won one title in the 13-year history of the BCS (Southern California won it in 2004 but vacated it as part of the Reggie Bush NCAA ruling), the SEC has taken six, including the last four: Florida (2006), LSU (2007), Florida (2008) and Alabama (2009). Auburn will try its best to uphold the SEC’s reputation. “You want to show that the SEC is the best conference in America," Ziemba said.
- Disastrous BCS teleconference today, with background noise and moderator problems throughout [insert lame BC-Mess joke here]. Amid the noise, Oregon coach Chip Kelly was asked about what the key to his offense is. "One of the things we do is eliminate this phone call," he quipped. "I tell you what, if the game's going to be as hard as this, we have a lot of work ahead of us."
- The Ducks too weren't surprised about the selection process. "I think both coach Chizik and myself felt if we won our games we were probably going to be in this one," Kelly said. "So we weren't on pins and needles waiting for the selection show to happen. But everybody's excited just because of how hard our players have worked."
- Kelly was asked if last year's Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State did anything to help the team prepare for this game. "I think any time you play in a game, you can learn from it," he said. "We didn't intentionally lose the Rose Bowl so we could have fuel for the fire for this year, I can tell you that. We got beat by a really, really good Ohio State team. Obviously, when the last game you play is a loss, there's always going to be fuel for motivation in the off‑season. So yeah, there was something to do with that."
- There are 36 days until the title game. That's a lot of time to practice, although there are limits to what the Tigers can do. "Our practices will be limited to what we think is the right amount," Chizik said. "You can have walkthroughs, meetings and practices until you are about tied of it. Again, I think it goes back to a great balance. All year long in our regular season, 11 straight weeks of playing ball – we had to try to come up with the right balance that we thought was most suitable for our team and we will do the same thing in this game.”
- Chizik thought the SEC title game was really the first time the Tigers put together a complete game. "I just feel like that game was a long time coming," he said. "I felt good about yesterday’s game, going into the game. I felt great about our level of focus and concentration in practice. I really felt like our plans were really good. I felt like the players had that look, had that feeling about them that they knew they were 60 minutes away from a Southeastern Conference championship."
- Auburn coaches will hit the road recruiting this week. They have some catchup to do, since they were preparing for a game last week. But the extra exposure from being so highly-ranked is paying off. "You still have to work at it, just like anything," Chizik said. "You have to work at it like crazy. No, they are not just going to come to you, you have to go get them and you have to go relentless in your pursuit of the best players in the country, which we will continue to do. The bottom line is, the exposure has been great, the response has been great. You just have to continue to go out there and work really hard at it, and, again, try to be the best at our trade and get the recruits in.”
- We asked Zimeba about Cammy Cam Juice, which, if you don't know what it is, you need to watch this clip of CBS's Tracy Wolfson here. "Yeah, it's sour," Ziemba said. "It's more powder than it is water. He needs to keep the recipe in the house."
- We also found out Ziemba is crazy superstitious. He always has the team physical therapist come up to him with Gatorade and water after he comes off the field. He takes the water first, drinks half of it and throws the rest out to his right side.
- But that's not all. Everything in his locker is neatly organized. He has to win two games of Solitaire on his phone on team bus rides to different venues. He has to have his gloves and helmet in the right place when he's stretching. "If I accidentally knock my gloves over, it throws me all off," he said. "It's crazy. I'm telling you, it's crazy. It's bad."
- Ziemba, he of the flowing locks, also wears a headband during games. He couldn't find his before Saturday's, though. "I was panicking," he said. "And I was a captain so I had to go out earlier. Oh my goodness. I was like in the equipment, like 'Somebody.' And there was nobody in there. My whole mind-set was just way off. Oh man." How did he solve it? "I ended up getting a headband," he said. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs for a headband. I ended up finding the one I lost, in the locker where it wasn't supposed to be."
- And lastly, Auburn, as the No. 1 team, gets to wear dark jerseys in the title game. Oregon, as No. 2, will wear light jerseys. I'm interested to see what the Ducks come up with.