Auburn is 60 minutes away from extending the SEC’s national title streak to eight in a row. The Tigers are a surprise contender for the BCS title, but this team is one of the hottest in the nation and moved to the No. 2 spot after Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State.
The Tigers were a dismal 3-9 in 2012 but rebounded quickly under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Behind quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, Auburn is averaging 335.7 rushing yards per game. Marshall is still developing as a passer, but the junior has made progress over the second half of the season.
Auburn lost 35-21 to LSU in late September, but the Tigers rallied with nine consecutive victories to close out 2013, including a huge victory over Alabama to win the SEC West.
Here are five reasons why Auburn is the team to beat on Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
5 Reasons Why Auburn Will Beat Florida State for the National Championship
1. Auburn can run the ball … on everyone
We realize that Florida State is stout against the run. The Seminoles rank 14th nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 116.5 yards per game. Looking at yards per attempt — a more accurate indicator — they are tied for ninth in the country at 3.14. This, however, should not be too big of a concern for Auburn, which has proven it can run the ball on any defense. Want proof? Tigers rushed for 545 yards against Missouri (378 more than it allowed per game vs. SEC competition), 296 against Alabama (173 more than its SEC average), 323 against Georgia (163 more than its SEC average) and 444 against Tennessee (209 more than its SEC average). On the strength of the aforementioned 545 yards against Missouri, Auburn now leads the nation in rushing with 335.7 yards per game. If that holds up, the Tigers will be the first non-triple option team to win the rushing title since Nevada — led by Colin Kaepernick — did so in 2009.
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2. The Tigers are very good on the offensive line
Auburn’s scheme and the skill players who operate that sheme are no doubt key reasons for the success of the Tigers’ running game, but we can’t forget this team is outstanding on the offensive line. Four of the five starters were 4-star recruits, and three of those four were ranked in the top 100 nationally in their respective classes. Alabama coach Nick Saban, during his guest spot on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday morning, singled out Auburn’s offensive line as one of the best in the SEC. The group, led by center Reese Dismukes, has done a tremendous job opening holes for the Auburn ball-carriers and has protected quarterback Nick Marshall when the Tigers decide to throw the ball — which isn’t often. The line has held up against some of the best the SEC has to offer, but Florida State will present a huge challenge. The guess here is that veteran position coach J.B. Grimes will have his guys ready to play.
3. Nick Marshall continues to improve
Nick Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer with a ton of ability but not much experience as a quarterback at a high level. After playing defensive back at Georgia as a freshman in 2011, Marshall signed with Garden City (Kan.) Community College as a quarterback. The results were mixed: He proved to be one of the nation’s most productive dual-threat weapons, but he threw 20 interceptions in 12 games. Surely, a quarterback who was picked off 20 times in the junior college ranks couldn’t get the job done in the SEC. Well, Marshall has proven his skeptics wrong. After a decent start to his junior season, Marshall has been playing as well as any quarterback in the nation over the latter half of the season. He has only thrown one interception in the last seven games, and that came in a 32-point win over Tennessee. In Saturday’s win over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, Marshall did lose two fumbles but was otherwise superb running the Tigers’ attack. He completed 9-of-11 for 132 yards and one touchdown and added 101 yards rushing and one TD on 16 carries. With about a month to prepare for the Florida State defense, Marshall could emerge as the biggest difference-maker in the BCS title game.
4. Auburn has experience playing in close games
Half of Auburn’s 12 wins have come by eight points or fewer. That could be an indication that this team is a bit lucky, or it could simply mean this team knows how to win close games. Depends on your point of view. But there is no arguing the fact that Auburn is more prepared to play in a tight game than its opponent in the BCS National Championship Game. Florida State, the most dominant team in the nation from wire to wire, did not have a game that was decided by less than 14 points. The Seminoles never had to play under pressure in the fourth quarter. What will happen if this team, quarterbacked by a redshirt freshman, is forced to make plays late with the game on the line? Conventional wisdom suggests that Florida State will be fine in such a scenario — it’s good to have talent on your side — but coach Jimbo Fisher can’t be 100 percent sure how his team will respond. That is not a concern for Auburn, which has proven many times this season that it can operate under the most stressful of conditions.
5. Auburn is a team of destiny
We can dive into the numbers, look at the strengths and weaknesses on each side, but sometimes in sports, certain teams seem to have destiny on their side. How else can we explain what has happened on the Plains this season? A team that went 0–8 in the SEC last season — and was outgained by more than 200 yards in those eight league games — won the SEC West. A team that needed two key fourth-quarter stops to beat Washington State at home in the opener, is playing for the national title. A team that was responsible for two of the unlikeliest endings in the history of college football — in consecutive games — finds itself in position to complete the greatest worst-to-first script since … maybe forever. Florida State appears to be the more talented team — just ask the boys in Vegas — but Auburn has made a habit of defying the odds this season.