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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

National Title Game: Auburn vs. Oregon

Saturday, Sept. 4. It was a beautiful day in New York, a day full of potential — a day that mirrored the promise held by the upcoming college football season. While the days were numbered, it was impossible to actually picture the day when it would all end: yet here we are, on Jan. 10, 2011, and in less than 24 hours the long, cold, dark wait begins anew. What will we do for the rest of January? I suppose there will be enough wheeling and dealing among players entering the N.F.L. draft, recruits choosing their school of choice and coaches entertaining more lucrative offers from new employers to keep us busy until February, but what then? Why does college football leave us when we need it most?

Auburn (13-0, 8-0)

Regular season in review How do you remove the albatross of 5-19 from around your neck? Try leading your team from five wins to the national title game in two seasons, a rapid reversal of fortunes that has taken Auburn’s Gene Chizik from laughable to laudable in 24 months — and has seen his Tigers follow along the same lines, though despite a 5-7 finish in 2008, Auburn’s stock was far higher than its first-year coach. It’s amazing what a fresh chance can do for a coach; that and a once-in-a-generation quarterback can truly perform miracles. Despite the somewhat untouched back story of Chizik’s refurbishment, the real message to take from Auburn’s 13-0 run through the SEC is that Cam Newton might be the finest college football player in a generation — a striding, dodging, pinpoint-passing dynamo who was nothing if not superb. There are other pieces of this Auburn puzzle, but Newton’s the most meaningful piece: Auburn’s good without him, but the Tigers are not great, or anywhere close to great.

Regular season high point The Comeback — all caps. Down 24-0 to Alabama, Auburn outscored the Crimson Tide by 28-3 over the final 36 minutes to keep its national title hopes alive. In a rivalry packed with memorable moments, players and coaches, this win should lead highlight packages for years to come.

Regular season low point Not applicable.

Regular season offensive M.V.P. Quarterback Cam Newton. The Heisman Trophy winner was the rare recruit who not only lived up to the enormous expectations but exceeded them by leaps and bounds, putting together one of the finest individual seasons in college football history. If you’re looking for the most telling aspect of Newton’s season, consider this: as jaw-dropping as his numbers may be, they don’t begin to tell the whole story.

Regular season defensive M.V.P. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He was good in 2009 — not great, but an asset. He was dominating in 2010, the constant source of double- and triple-teams and the most disruptive interior presence in the country. If part of us knew that Newton would excel, it was far harder to predict that Fairley would be as impressive as he was: 55 tackles (21.0 for loss), 10.5 sacks and an interception, though he lands negatives points for returning that pick minus-one yard. Yeah, it’s tough to find anything negative to take from Fairley’s season.

Oregon (12-0, 9-0)

Regular season in review How to run an offense in 10 plays or less: it’s not about quantity but quality, espouses Chip Kelly, and it’s more about speed, speed, speed than time of possession. The latter category? Overrated. Oregon enters tonight ranked 104th nationally in time spent with the ball, controlling its own fate offensively for less than 28 minutes per game. Make it count, says Kelly — and Oregon listens. In a perfect world, it seems, Oregon’s drives on offense would take one play, last 20 seconds, encompass 80 yards and end with a score. Good morning, good afternoon and good night. More often than not, however, the drives take — gasp — seven or eight plays, last three or four minutes and end with a touchdown. Not that Auburn doesn’t try to do the same thing, or that the Tigers don’t have equal ability to score in one, two or three plays: it’s just that Oregon isn’t beholden to one star player, but rather excels because of a system and a philosophy that breeds confidence — that mentality drives this team, propelling the Ducks through any and all in-game setbacks that might derail a weaker team.

Regular season high point Stanford is the best win on paper. U.S.C. might have felt the best: the Trojans had swagger, barking and braying all week about how they could take down Oregon, and even hung with the Ducks before the inevitable second half collapse. Like Auburn, Oregon’s regular season was one long, continuous high point.

Regular season low point Not applicable.

Regular season offensive M.V.P. Running back LaMichael James. While his season started on a sour note — James missed the first game of the year due to a violation of team rules — the sophomore was nothing if not consistently brilliant, rushing for at least 100 yards in 10 of his 11 games and never less than 91 yards. In his one game in double-digits, James ground out tough yard after tough yard to help the Ducks avoid an upset at California.

Regular season defensive M.V.P. Cornerback Cliff Harris. Call me crazy: I thought Harris was one of the best defensive backs in the country, with his explosiveness in the return game adding additional flashes of brilliance to an already dynamic performer. As a cornerback, Harris brings the swagger needed to excel against the Pac-10′s best while ignoring any bouts with inconsistency. As a punt returner, Harris is simply the nation’s best: he averaged 19.5 yards per his 28 returns, bringing four back for touchdowns.

Know Your Sponsor

Tostitos One of Frito-Lay’s flagship chip brands, Tostitos was first introduced in 1979 and reached full national distribution two years later. The brand was the title sponsor behind the Fiesta Bowl from 1995-2006; since 2007, it has been the name behind the B.C.S. National Championship Game — and, Frito-Lay hopes, the chip of choice for the discerning fan. Tostitos comes in 10 flavors, with the Hint of Lime flavor the most popular with both Pre-Snap Read and its founder, editor and chief correspondent.

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