Thursday, January 6, 2011

Countdown to "The Natty" - The Role of Special Teams?

What will the role of special teams play in the game? Who has the advantage?

Yes, special teams will be very important in this game.

Some games - even most - do not hinge on a big special teams play. Rather, kickoffs, punts and tries for extra points for the most part go as everyone predicts and that's that. Fine.

However, I think in the championship game this year, the teams are so evenly matched that special teams play may be an area where one of the two squads can carve out an advantage.
For Oregon, their special teams have had a VERY good season. Whether its kickoffs and returns, punts and returns or extra points, the Ducks have really performed. Long kick returns by fast and elusive players, fake kicks, great's all there.

Cliff Harris is the nation's leading punt returner with four TDs this season, and if the Ducks can stop Cam Newton and force a punt or two, he'll have his chance to score again. Oregon's kickoff returners are also very fast and can break long runs.

Oregon's kickers are what I would call slightly above average, but not spectacular. Their punter is good, but has been out sick for the last few weeks. The Ducks' field goal kicker was consistent all season long until just at the end when he missed a few he should have hit. I would also say that he's not a proven commodity beyond the 35 yard kick range. He's made ones from longer than that, but not a lock.

The Ducks have also executed some nice trickery. For example, they've converted two-point TD conversions several times this season out of odd formations - mainly to stun and demoralize the opponent more than needing the extra 1 point beyond a normal kick. They've done surprise onside kickoffs, and fake punts to great effect. I would not be surprised to see any or all of this again Jan. 10.

The only negative for Oregon's special teams is that - more than most years that I can remember - kick returners have an unfortunate habit of fumbling the ball. It seems like very fourth or fifth kick return features the ball on the turn. Some Oregon gets back, some they lose. Up to now, it hasn't mattered as the rest of the team is so good they overcame these mistakes. I doubt that will be the case against Auburn.

In short, special teams for the Ducks are strong, diverse and a proactive weapon. If they can avoid fumbles...look out...they could be a difference maker in Oregon's favor.

Moving to Auburn, well..special teams is one area where Cam Newton is not on the field. So, he can’t hurt Oregon on kicks and returns. So far as I know! That right there is a bonus for Oregon.

I am not as familiar with Auburn's special teams play, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and flat out assume they are above average. But, I notice they've only had one TD on a kick or punt return all season, and they are only averaging eight yards on punt returns and 22 yards on kickoff returns. Decent I guess, but nothing spectacular. They have a field goal kicker with a 75% success rate with a long of 48 yards. Again, decent enough, but nothing to write home about. And their punter averages 39 yards per kick.

I assume Auburn is not above trickery either and I expect they'll try something at some point in the game off a kick.

OK, so after all that, here's my thought...

Auburn's special teams are average and don't likely offer Auburn an advantage. Oregon's special teams are above average...with the potential negative of fumbles. If Oregon can avoid fumbling on special teams, I think the net advantage goes to Oregon...and that this could account for a TD for them. Thus, making a difference in the game.

We shall see!

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