No doubt, the SEC is the college football conference routinely flexing its muscles in the national championship. But in this year’s Super Bowl between San Francisco and Baltimore, it’s not the Southern boys who have the best chance to make the biggest impact.
In fact, come Sunday, Ohio State will have more alums on the field than any SEC team. So will Miami.
And yes, so will Oregon with the 49ers’ LaMichael James and Will Tukuafu and the Ravens’ Ed Dickson, Dennis Dixon and Haloti Ngata.
For James, the biggest spotlight couldn’t come at a better time. In the Niners’ NFC Championship win over the Atlanta Falcons, James scored his first NFL touchdown. By all accounts, he’s peaking at the right time after being sidelined for the first 12 games. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has made it clear the benching had nothing to do with rookie hazing or forcing him to pay his dues: San Francisco just had a wealth of capable running backs with more experience ahead of James on the depth chart.
“Any time you’re a competitor, you want to be on the field, helping your team win,” James said. “So, I had to do it throughout practice. I didn’t give an excuse to slack off and not to try get better because you never know when your number is going to be called.”
Harbaugh, who coached at Stanford — against James — during Oregon’s recent BCS spree, called No. 23 throughout the team’s last four regular-season games and into the postseason. During the Niners’ two playoff wins, he has averaged 6.9 yards per carry, even higher than his astronomical 6.6 average at Oregon.
“Once he started getting comfortable, we saw a dynamic football player,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “Coming from a big university, playing in big games and being a big-time player, having to sit out and be humbled like that, it’s a testament to the character he has.”
Ready to lay to the wood to James will be fellow Duck Ngata.
It’s hard to overstate the impact the latter has had in his seven years with the Ravens. The former All-American at Oregon has been named to five All-Pro teams and four Pro Bowls and battled through this postseason with a slew of injuries, notably to his knees. Ray Lewis may be getting the lion’s share of the publicity surrounding the Ravens’ D this season, but it’s the Paul Bunyan look-alike that’s clogged the trenches this season, with eleven tackles through three games.
For the Ravens’ O, tight end Dickson has had a solid year. Although his receiving stats took a dip with the emergence of Dennis Pitta, his blocking has improved tremendously, according to Pitta.
“We utilize the tight end well,” Pitta said. “It’s a big part of our pass game. It’s something that we feel like we can create mismatches with the defense. I think we have tight ends that can run and get down field and catch a lot of footballs. That’s helped us … Ed and I work well together. I think we both have important roles on this team. It’s fun to play with him and to have been here these last few years with him.”
It will be the task of San Francisco’s defense to keep Dickson and Pitta in check. Tukuafu, a defensive lineman, has been used in reserve this year but likely will only see significant action if the line suffers a major injury. Dixon likely won’t see the field at all, as he’s only listed on the Ravens’ practice squad.