By Tuesday morning, a long, long offseason will have begun, but fortunately, first we're treated to a BCS National Championship Game filled with intriguing storylines. It's the final game of the BCS era, before next year's four-team College Football Playoff begins. The BCS delivered the kind of matchup most people wanted: undefeated Florida State, capping a thoroughly dominant season with a freshman Heisman winner, against 12-1 Auburn, bouncing back from a disastrous 2012 and pulling off two miracles to put itself in position to extend the SEC's national title streak. Here's all the pertinent information.
The Road to Pasadena
Florida State. The Seminoles posted one of the most dominant seasons in the history of football. Their schedule was unquestionably weak, with only one actual top-10 or top-15 caliber team, but aside from some hiccups against Boston College, there was never doubt about any game. Most notably, in mid-October, Florida State went to Clemson for a night game in one of the nation's most hostile environments and walked out with arguably the most impressive win of the season: a 51-14 mauling in which freshman quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Florida State won 13 games by an average score of 53 to 10.7, only once allowing an opponent to come within 20. The Seminoles lead the nation in both yards per play and yards per play allowed, with unmatched depth on both sides of the ball and a deserving Heisman Trophy winner in Winston, who ranks first in yards per attempt.
Auburn. Any "Team of Destiny" drinking game during the broadcast will require a surplus supply of alcohol. After falling to 3-9 last year and failing to win a game in the SEC, the Tigers fired Gene Chizik, two years removed from a national title, and hired Gus Malzahn, his former offensive coordinator. It turned out to be a brilliant move, resulting in one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history. The Tigers had to work out the kinks early in the season, barely escaping Washington State and Mississippi State and losing on the road to LSU, but their run game and young defense got better as the season went on. Auburn beat Georgia with one of the most remarkable finishes in the history of college football, then somehow topped it in the Iron Bowl of the Century with the Kick Six. So close to 9-3, Auburn instead went 11-1, won the SEC West, then unleashed hell on Missouri's defense with a 545-yard team rushing effort in the SEC title game to make running back Tre Mason a Heisman finalist and send Auburn to Pasadena, with the help of Michigan State's win over Ohio State.
What's at Stake
The SEC's championship streak. Some cracks in the SEC's dominance have begun to show, and Alabama's loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was rather startling. But there's still an opportunity for the league to extend its national title streak to eight years, which would comprise the entire second half of the BCS era. SEC fatigue has long since set it everywhere outside the Southeast, and a win by Auburn over such a dominant Florida State team, from the ACC, would continue to solidify the league's standing heading into the College Football Playoff era, even if, no matter the result, the SEC is still king.
The state of Alabama's championship streak. The recent streak of SEC dominance is even further concentrated in the state of Alabama. Nobody outside the Alabama border has won a national title since Florida in 2008, with Alabama winning three of the last four and Auburn winning in 2010. Taking the crystal football to Tallahassee wouldn't be very far away, but it's far enough for anyone who doesn't call into the Paul Finebaum show.
Florida State's place in history. In addition to ranking first in offensive and defensive yards per play, Florida State is first in points and points allowed, second in turnover margin, third in third-down conversions, first in red-zone scoring and first in pass defense. The Seminoles are good at everything, with NFL players at every position, and they have blown out everyone. A convincing win against Auburn makes a lot of the schedule concerns moot and would make 2013 Florida State easily one of the best teams of the BCS era.
Further immortality for Gus Malzahn. Win or lose, Malzahn has already established his place as one of the brightest minds in football, making his mark at Auburn with an up-tempo spread running offense that combines old-school and modern principles to serve as sort of the idealized version of a college run game. After the dominance against Mizzou, Auburn leads the nation with an average of 335.7 rushing yards per game. It's been a rather amazing rise for Malzahn, from high school coach, to Arkansas and Tulsa offensive coordinator, to national title-winning offensive coordinator at Auburn, to Arkansas State head coach, to Auburn head coach, all since 2006. He was largely responsible, with Cam Newton, for the 2010 title anyway, but now's a chance to get one in only his second season as a head coach -- a year after Auburn hit rock bottom without him.
Top Five Plays Involving the Tigers or Seminoles
1. Auburn's Chris Davis vs. Alabama
2. Auburn's Nick Marshall and Ricardo Louis vs. Georgia
3. Florida State's Jameis Winston vs. Boston College
4. Winston vs. Maryland
5. Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin vs. Clemson
Top 10 Players in the National Championship
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. The obvious Heisman Trophy winner, Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt and passer rating, completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,820 yards. He showed in the Clemson game that he's unflappable in the face of a good pass rush.
2. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn. A redshirt sophomore who will probably head to the NFL draft after a breakout season. Auburn allowed 16 sacks in 13 games and averaged 6.5 yards per carry, with Robinson sealing off the left side.
3. Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State. A versatile defensive back who can play anywhere in the secondary -- and has -- at only 5-foot-8, 190 pounds. He actually leads the Seminoles with five sacks and three forced fumbles.
4. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn. Broke out in the second half of the season to get to New York as a Heisman finalist. Ranks ninth nationally with an average of 124.7 yards per game and has been at his best against quality opponents, with 164 yards vs. Alabama and 304 yards vs. Missouri.
5. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State. Was a preseason All-America pick despite starting only two games last season and lived up to the hype. While not enormous for a tackle, Jernigan is quick and disruptive, leading the Seminoles with 10 ½ tackles for loss.
6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn. Still far from a complete player, but has a really high ceiling if he continues his progression as a passer. Completed 60 percent of his passes with an average of 8.3 yards per attempt, while ranking eighth in the SEC in rushing yards per game, with 11 rushing TDs and an average of 6.6 yards per carry. Has developed into a perfect point guard for Malzahn.
7. Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State. Actually played 13 games at defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman, moving to the O-line as a sophomore last year and putting his athleticism on display. The Seminoles rank 86th in sacks allowed, but that's to be expected with an improvisational freshman quarterback, no matter how good Winston is.
7. Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State. At 218 pounds, is almost like another safety on the field. Leads the Seminoles in tackles and has 9 ½ tackles for loss.
8. Christian Jones, LB, Florida State. Numbers don't jump off the page this season, but when everyone on the defense is an NFL prospect and every game is a blowout in the second half, individual stats are hard to compile. Jones is a versatile athlete who led the team in tackles last year.
10. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn. A multitalented player who's also a musician, Ford ranks third in the SEC with 9 ½ sacks and sixth with 12 ½ tackles for loss.
Auburn's advantages. Missouri supposedly had the best defensive line in the SEC. Auburn's running game embarrassed it. At this point in the season, with Marshall and Mason more comfortable in the offense, Auburn's ground game appears unstoppable. Malzahn's offense always seems several steps ahead of the defense, with options on every play keeping defenses off-balance and guessing because they can't adequately cover everyone. It's fast and disorienting, and it leaves defenders out of position play after play. Florida State's defense is deep and talented, but it has faced nothing like this Auburn run game, because nobody has faced anything like this Auburn run game. It's no accident the Tigers ran for 545 yards against Missouri. Defensively, the Tigers have a mix of old and young pass rushers who are as good as anyone Winston and the FSU line have seen, aside from Clemson …
Florida State's advantages. … Of course, while Clemson had three sacks and an interception against Florida State, Winston was never bothered, throwing for 444 yards. The Seminoles have an absurd arsenal of weapons, going three-deep with stud running backs (Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams, James Wilder) four-deep with top targets in the passing game (TE Nick O'Leary and WRs Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene) and a much-improved offensive line loaded with NFL prospects. The Seminoles are so balanced and can beat defenses in so many ways that there's no way to account for everything. They don't even have to be all that creative because their players are simply better. Eventually, someone's going to make a play, and then someone else is going to make a play … and suddenly Winston has 300 passing yards at halftime. It's sort of the same situation on defense, where a plethora of veteran stars and emerging young players combine to create strengths at every level, making Florida State the best defense Auburn has seen all season. Meanwhile, Auburn's defense doesn't stack up, ranking 95th in yards per play allowed with a secondary prone to giving up big plays.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State. It's a wonder that anyone ever prevents Benjamin from catching passes. Benjamin is actually third on the team in catches (50 for 957 yards and 14 TDs), but he's perhaps the most physically imposing wide receiver in the nation at 6-foot-5, 234 pounds. Not only is he impossible to cover in the red zone, but someone that size shouldn't be able to move so well, either.
Corey Grant, RB, Auburn. The Auburn offense rolls behind Marshall and Mason, but Grant is the changeup who can make a big play at any moment. Much like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon last year, Grant has been a situational home-run hitter in a backfield that also features Cameron Artis-Payne. Grant is averaging 10 yards per carry with six touchdowns on only 65 carries.
Roberto Aguayo, PK, Florida State. The Seminoles have yet to really play a close game, which means field-goal kicking hasn't actually been that important. But Aguayo, a freshman, won the Groza Award anyway, making 19-of-20 field goals and all 90 extra points. Auburn senior Cody Parkey, while solid, has missed five field goals and an extra point.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn. A five-star recruit in the class of 2013, Lawson appears poised to live up to the hype, with four sacks and 7 ½ tackles for loss as a true freshman. If Auburn is going to force Winston to make mistakes, it's going to need more than just Dee Ford getting in his face, which is where Lawson comes in.
How to Watch
ESPN is debuting its "Megacast" for the game, with content available on just about every ESPN platform. For the traditionalist, the game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, with Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi calling the action.
Florida State 38, Auburn 28. Auburn's rushing offense might be the best aspect of this game, but to this point it doesn't seem Florida State actually has a weakness anywhere. Auburn's passing game, meanwhile, is serviceable but nothing special, and its pass defense has frequently been shredded. If anyone can move the ball on Florida State, it's probably Auburn, but this Seminoles team is built like the best Alabama teams of recent years: unfairly talented at every position, only with the nation's best quarterback, too.
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