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Good Hands Roadside Rivalry Road Trip: Keys to a National Championship

It's not a reach to say that tonight's Auburn-Oregon game may be the most scrutinized and analyzed game in college football history. Watch or read a story on Auburn and you start to feel real good. A few minutes later, the talking heads move to Oregon and you begin getting that sinking feeling.

Can you relate?

So what are Auburn's chances tonight? What must they do to slow down Oregon and put points on the board? Here are the keys to a national championship:

Overcome rust and nerves - Few teams have endured a layoff like Auburn and Oregon. Knocking the rust off after 37 days can't be easy. Each year, the days between season's end and the championship game get a little longer.

Talking yesterday, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said he was confident in the game plan, but the great mystery was how the team would respond to the layoff. No matter how many times you practice, when you don't play, your timing suffers. The team that adjusts best will likely take control of the game early.

Nerves always play a role early in big games. Going back to last year, Alabama came out nervous in the first quarter and Texas seemed to have control of the game early until quarterback Colt McCoy left with an injury.

Some like to point out that Oregon may have the edge because it's used to playing games in Arizona and is more familiar with the area. Don't buy it. Neither team has ever been in this position. It doesn't matter if the game is played in Baghdad. Nerves will play a role early. One advantage for Auburn should be its 24 seniors and their leadership.

Don't fall behind by more than 10 points early - One thing is a near certain: If Auburn falls behind early like it did with Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, then it's lights out.

Oregon likes to strike quick and the second half is when they do most of their damage. Dig yourself a hole early and the odds of coming back are slim. Interestingly, Auburn is the only team in the country who gives up fewer points in the second half than the first half.

Open up the running lanes - Auburn's oversized offensive line should handle Oregon's defensive front. The senior rich group must open the running lanes for Onterio McCalebb and Michael Dyer. Throw in Cam Newton's ability to move and Oregon will be forced to stay home and respect the run. This should open up the door for Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Emory Blake. Their size advantage over the Ducks defensive secondary should play in their favor.

Nick Fairley must be disruptive - Oregon will have little choice but to put two blockers on Fairley. Even when he's not in on the tackle, he regularly frees someone else up to make the stop or put pressure on the quarterback. Watch closely early on to see how he handles a quick Oregon offensive line.

Auburn defensive secondary must rise up again - Coming off their best performance of the year against South Carolina, the Tiger backfield must duplicate its effort again to have a chance.

Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas certainly doesn't get the hype of his counterpart, but he's been nearly as effective through the air as Cam Newton. He's completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,518 yards. He's also fairly dangerous on the ground, shredding opponents for nearly 500 yards of rushing.

Oregon's receiving corp. is a senior group led by Jeff Maehl, Sr., 6-1, 184. He's grabbed 12 touchdown receptions this season, which is a school record. Duck receivers have a reputation for running disciplined routes and are great downfield blockers.

Auburn cornerback T'Sharvan Bell must continue the high level of play he's shown in wins over Alabama and South Carolina. Neiko Thorpe must prevent giving up the big play, which is what Oregon's offense thrives on. Without question, this is Auburn's chief concern.

Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams - Auburn's kickoff coverage is among the best in the nation, giving up only 19 yards per return. Kicker Wes Byrum has been fairly consistent this season, dropping the ball around the 5 yard-line most kicks.

If there's a concern, it's Auburn's punting unit. While coverage has been decent, inconsistencies by the punters have put Auburn in jeopardy more times than needed. Ryan Shoemaker will get the start and must be consistent for four quarters. Fortunately for Auburn, there hasn't been a lot of punting this season. It needs to keep it that way tonight.



Note - Former Auburn star Karlos Dansby will give away ten pairs of BCS Championship tickets - Noon to 1 p.m. MST today at the Upper Deck Sports Grill in Scottsdale - It's a free event and Dansby will be signing autographs, taking photos and participating in Q&A and trivia with fans on-site.