Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend. Here is Week 14's version.
The cliche that defense wins championships doesn't apply this season. Oregon is the nation's highest-scoring team; Auburn is among the top five. Both have solid defenses, but they win because of high-powered offenses that feature Heisman candidates -- Oregon's LaMichael James and Auburn's Cameron Newton. Auburn scored more than 30 points in nine games this season. Oregon did that in 11 games. The national championship game may seem like a track meet or a drag race.
Nebraska has to upgrade its quarterback play to win a championship. For the second consecutive season, poor quarterback play was a major factor in the Huskers' losing the Big 12 championship game. Like Zac Lee last season, Taylor Martinez struggled mightily in a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma. He completed fewer than half of his passes, threw an interception in the end zone and was sacked seven times. To be fair, he played despite injuries to an ankle and toe, but that just raised the question of the reliability of Nebraska's backup quarterbacks.
It was fitting that Oklahoma won the last Big 12 title game. Nebraska was trying to win its first league championship since 1999, then skate off to the Big Ten. But the Huskers were denied. The Sooners have dominated the event since Bob Stoops became OU coach in 1999. The school's 23-20 triumph marked the program's seventh league championship in 12 seasons under Stoops. Texas won three, Nebraska two. And OU did it Saturday night with defense, which is Stoops' trademark. After permitting 20 points and 213 yards in the first half, Oklahoma allowed no points and just 80 yards in the second half.
Trouble may be brewing in Westwood. UCLA ended the season with a resounding thud, falling 28-14 at home to an average USC team. It was the Bruins' sixth loss in their final seven games, and it means UCLA finished its third season under Rick Neuheisel with a 4-8 overall mark and a 2-7 Pac-10 record. That makes "Slick Rick" 15-22 overall and 8-19 in the Pac-10, with one bowl, two eighth-place finishes and a ninth-place finish. Neuheisel has said he will evaluate each of his assistants. While the offense has been miserable, coordinator Norm Chow may be safe because he just signed a new deal. But defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough is at the end of his deal and could be a fall guy.
Auburn may have a defense. No one will confuse Auburn with a typical SEC defensive stalwart, but in a national championship game against Oregon, one key stop or two might be enough to win a shootout. In the past two weeks, a new Auburn defense emerged. The Tigers held Alabama to 69 rushing yards last week, and the Tide also was scoreless in the second half. Against South Carolina, Auburn avoided being torched by a top-flight wide receiver as Alshon Jeffery had four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. Yes, the game got away from South Carolina, but even when the Gamecocks were in striking distance, Marcus Lattimore was not a difference-maker. The title game should be high scoring, and Auburn looks a little better-equipped to handle the Ducks' offense than it did three weeks ago.
Mike Haywood guided the nation's best comeback story, but few noticed. Haywood was an offensive coordinator under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame -- a good gig, really, with a good title and none of the responsibility for the crummy offense -- before taking the head-coaching job at Miami of Ohio after the 2008 season. After going 1-11 last season, Haywood has led the nation's best turnaround this season, as Miami is 9-4 and won the MAC title. If the RedHawks win their bowl game, Haywood would tie June Jones' record at Hawaii in 1999 for overseeing the most dramatic one-season turnaround in NCAA history (nine wins). The MAC title game upset of Northern Illinois, a team that had cruised through the MAC unbeaten, proved why it was such a remarkable change. Backup quarterback Austin Boucher, a redshirt freshman making his third career start, passed for 333 yards and guided the winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the defense held Northern Illinois, which entered the game seventh in the nation in rushing, to 92 yards on the ground. The next hurdle for Haywood and Miami is to try to succeed where so many MAC programs have failed in recent seasons -- sustaining success.
Connecticut in the BCS? Unreal. Yes, the Big East is crummy this season. But that doesn't diminish the unbelievable road Randy Edsall and league champ UConn have traveled. Edsall became coach in 1999 and the Huskies became a full-fledged Division I-A team in 2000. The first game as an I-A member was a loss to an Eastern Michigan team that ended up going 3-8. The first season with a winning record came in 2003, when the Huskies went 9-3 but didn't go bowling. The first bowl came in 2004, a win over Toledo in the Motor City Bowl. Losing seasons followed in 2005 and '06, then came three bowl appearances in a row: the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the International Bowl and the Papajohns.com Bowl. This season, it's a BCS bid. From small things, big things one day come.
The Big Ten and Pac-10 are top-heavy. In Michigan State, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin, the Big Ten and Pac-10 have half of the nation's 10 best teams. The other teams in those leagues? Ehh. Mediocrity abounds. Arizona, which looked to be the third-best team in the Pac-10 for much of the season, ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak. The only other Pac-10 team going to a bowl is Washington, which finished 6-6 and needed a last-minute TD pass to subdue a two-win Washington State team. Illinois, which had a chance to make a statement that it was the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, instead lost at Fresno State, its sixth loss of the season. The others in the running for "fourth-best team in the Big Ten" have five losses apiece. There's Iowa, which collapsed down the stretch. There's Michigan, which heads into the postseason having lost five of seven. And there's Penn State, which may call its victory over Michigan its best win of the season.
Cameron Newton can pass (almost) as well as he can run. Newton took the college football world by storm this season with his running ability -- he has run for 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns -- but he has proved in his past two games that he also is one of the nation's best passers. In those two games, Newton was 30-of-48 for 551 yards, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He is on pace to set the FBS single-season record for passing efficiency. Here's the best testament to how far he's come as a passer: Newton ran for only 73 yards Saturday against South Carolina and 39 yards at Alabama last week, yet he arguably was the nation's most dynamic performer each of those weeks.
Oregon now has two dangerous running backs. Kenjon Barner ran for 147 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening victory over New Mexico while LaMichael James was serving a suspension. But Barner hadn't come close to matching that performance until Saturday. Barner's 133-yard performance in a 37-20 victory at Oregon State showed once and for all that he had come all the way back from an Oct. 9 concussion that knocked him out for two games. Oregon already boasts arguably the nation's top running back in James, who ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State. Now that Barner also is in peak form, Auburn has that much more reason to worry how its defense will handle the Ducks' rushing attack.