Auburn's bid to return to BCS title game appears more difficult than Oregon's

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 10:39 PM

GLENDALE, ARIZ. - During their respective postgame news conferences Monday night following the Bowl Championship Series title game, Oregon Coach Chip Kelly and Auburn Coach Gene Chizik looked to their left at the players seated next to them on the dais and made references to the possibilities that lay ahead.

Despite his team's 22-19 loss to the Tigers, Kelly's near future appears more certain and, thus, more promising. Among the players seated next to him were quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James, the primary sparks for one of the most potent offenses in the country. Both players will suit up for the Ducks next season.

The cast that will help Chizik defend Auburn's national title seems significantly less stable. Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton said after the game he had not yet made a decision as to whether he will return for his senior season with the Tigers.

"Honestly, I'm not going to make no decision right now," said Newton, who threw for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on Monday. "It's something that I'll have to sit down with Coach Chizik and my family and just get the vibe of so many different people. We'll go from there."

Considering the returning talent at Oklahoma and Stanford, it's entirely possible neither Auburn nor Oregon will make a return trip to the BCS title game, which next season will be played at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

And then there's always Boise State and Texas Christian. A perpetual Cinderella with no margin for error, Boise State loses its top two wide receivers but brings back quarterback Kellen Moore, the nation's most efficient passer this season.

The Broncos will leave the Western Athletic Conference to join the Mountain West in July, but its most notable new conference partner is on its way out. TCU moves in 2012 from the MWC to the Big East, where the Horned Frogs will play in a conference that possesses an automatic BCS bid. As such, they will have a more streamlined path to the BCS championship game.

TCU was one of three teams to finish the regular season undefeated, but it had to settle for a berth in the Rose Bowl, where the Horned Frogs defeated Wisconsin, 21-19, on Jan. 1. TCU finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press top 25 poll, one spot behind Auburn - which claimed its first national title since 1957 - and one spot ahead of Oregon.

"We want our chance, but I think the Rose Bowl was our chance," TCU Coach Gary Patterson told reporters following the Horned Frogs' win over Wisconsin. "Until we have a better way of doing it - but, you know, it's a lot of fun."

TCU joined Auburn as the only two division I-A teams still unbeaten at season's end, but it will have a tougher time repeating that feat next fall. The Horned Frogs will be without quarterback Andy Dalton, whose eligibility has expired after he won 42 games during his collegiate career.

Many college football followers figured Stanford also would be replacing its starting quarterback heading into next season, but sophomore Andrew Luck elected not to enter the NFL draft, where he likely would have been the top overall pick. With Luck and seven defensive starters returning, the Cardinal will look to improve on its No. 4 finish in this season's final AP poll.

Oklahoma's most crucial returning piece is wide receiver Ryan Broyles, who teamed up with quarterback Landry Jones to haul in 131 receptions this season. The Sooners' offense is set to produce prolific numbers during the 2011 campaign.

James, who earned all-American honors after leading the nation in rushing this season, announced prior to the BCS championship game he would return for his junior year. Between him and Thomas, who threw for 363 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions Monday, the Ducks' offense is poised to be just as dynamic next fall as they were en route to their national title game appearance.

"We play football, but it doesn't define who we are," James said Monday night. "There's going to be better days. We have next year. We're going to play plenty more football games. We're going to win plenty more. I think this is a lesson for us."

The primary lesson Oregon can take from Monday's loss is that it will need to be more physical in the trenches if it hopes to compete with teams from the Southeastern Conference. And given that the SEC has produced the past five national champions, it seems likely at least one of the teams participating in next year's BCS title game will hail from that conference.

Led by defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Auburn defensive line paid frequent visits to the Oregon backfield and limited the Ducks to 75 yards rushing. But the Tigers may be without Fairley's services next season. Fairley, a junior, said Monday night he would wait to decide whether to enter the NFL draft.

Should Auburn lose its offensive (Newton) and defensive (Fairley) cornerstones, Chizik will have many holes to fill in the coming months. Less than 12 hours after celebrating a national championship, Chizik appeared to have come to grips with his new reality.

"It's expired," Chizik said in a news conference Tuesday morning. The Tigers, he noted, "have to start all over starting today."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company