Unfamiliar territory: Ducks aren't the favorite

After a season of mostly wide-margined victories, the Oregon Ducks prepare for the national championship game against Auburn in an unfamiliar spot. They're the underdog.

"You know, we've been taking the mindset all year that it's a faceless opponent and it comes down to practice and preparation," receiver Jeff Maehl said. "Whoever has a better month leading up to the game is obviously going to play better. We understand what we need to do and what's created success for us this year so we just let everyone else talk and make their own predictions."

The No. 2 Ducks play the top-ranked Tigers on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., in the first-ever meeting between the two teams.

Oregon has never won a national title, while Auburn was crowned just once back in 1957.

The Ducks started the season ranked No. 11, with uncertainty about their quarterback situation. Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team in the offseason and Oregon prepared to break in sophomore Darron Thomas, who had limited experience.

But Oregon would go on to outscore its opponents 592-221, scoring an average of 49.3 points and winning by an average margin of 30.9 points as repeating Pac-10 champions. The Ducks' closest game was a 15-13 victory over California.

Oregon's hyper-drive spread-option averaged 537.5 yards of total offense, paced by LaMichael James, who ranked atop the nation with 153 rushing yards per game. The Heisman finalist also averaged a national-best 12 points a game.

Thomas performed admirably as a first-year-starter, throwing for 2,518 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Yet the underdog talk started just after Oregon's regular-season finale against Oregon State in the Civil War.

"Our players would think I'm crazy if I start talking about underdogs now," Coach Chip Kelly said at the time. "We've never used that as motivation for us — never have, never will."

While Auburn has the slight edge both in the rankings and with the oddsmakers, on the surface the two teams appear very similar.

Auburn, ranked No. 22 to open the season, also has a high-scoring offense, averaging 43 points and 498 yards per game. Cam Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy despite concerns about possible recruiting violations, threw for 2,518 yards and 28 touchdowns, and ran for 1,682 yards and 21 scores.

With both teams figuring to score big, the game could come down to the defense that's able to make the right reads, Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews said.

"It comes down to execution, just knowing the simple keys in their plays," he said. "You've got to read the line. That's where they have real success off teams — when they do a bunch of misdirection. They're pretty similar to our offense in the misdirection concept. But if you just read your keys, it should take you where the play is going."

Just like Oregon, the SEC champion Tigers aren't paying attention to the fact that they're the favorite going in.

"That's what makes college football fun, everybody has an opinion. But our team knows that the bottom line is the preparation we do right now, film work, walkthroughs and practice, and the importance of execution in the game, are the only things that matter for us to go out there and win," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.

Oregon resumed practice on Monday after a five-day break for the holidays. The team is practicing each day this week before a day off on Saturday and the trip to Arizona on Sunday.

Senior linebacker Spencer Paysinger said the team was focused. If there was any sluggishness from the time off, it wasn't evident.

"This is the only thing going on in my life. We don't have school and for us seniors, training for the draft doesn't start until after the game," Paysinger said. "These next two weeks, we're really honing in on Auburn."

The Tigers reported back to school on Monday after their holiday break, resuming five straight days of practice on Tuesday. The first practice was marked by reports that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn might be a top candidate for the head coaching job at Maryland. Malzahn was not talking about the matter.

But, again like Oregon, the Auburn players were only concerned with their next game.

"These next two weeks, we're here together," safety Zac Etheridge said. "It's just us and football."

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