At the beginning of the season, Auburn and Florida State were considered longshots to play for the national championship. Fast forward to Jan. 6 in Pasadena, and that’s the unlikely, yet highly anticipated matchup to determine college football’s 2013 champion.
In addition to crowning the No. 1 team in the nation, this game is also the final matchup in the BCS era. Next year – for better or worse – college football’s postseason shifts to a four-team playoff format.
The BCS era has been kind to both Florida State and Auburn. The Seminoles opened the BCS era with an appearance in the national championship, losing 23-16 to Tennessee after the 1998 season. But Florida State won the national title the next year and played for it again after the 2001 season. Auburn has only one previous appearance in the BCS title game, a 22-19 victory over Oregon to claim the championship for the 2010 season.
Auburn’s ascension into the national championship game was more of a surprise than Florida State, but the Seminoles didn’t have an easy path to their 13-0 record. Florida State had to replace six assistant coaches, and 11 players from last year’s team were selected in the NFL Draft. But coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well, and the Seminoles’ roster was able to quickly reload in time for 2013. And Fisher’s hires on the coaching staff were outstanding, including the additions of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri.
After a 3-9 record last year, Auburn parted with Gene Chizik and brought former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn back to the Plains as head coach. Recruiting talent hasn’t been an issue for the Tigers, so it was no surprise the Tigers were one of the most-improved teams in the nation. However, no one could have expected what transpired at Auburn in 2013. Sure, the Tigers caught a few lucky breaks, but this team improved throughout the season and finished the year on a nine-game winning streak.
Auburn and Florida State have 18 previous meetings. The Tigers own a 13-4-1 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1990. There are some current ties between the two programs, as Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig worked under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State from 2010-12. And Fisher worked at Auburn from 1993-98 under Terry Bowden.
Auburn vs. Florida State
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7.5
Three Things to Watch
Florida State’s run defense vs. Auburn’s offense
The Seminoles are loaded with talent on defense. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought a new scheme to Tallahassee, but the production didn’t drop from 2012. Florida State ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense last year and led the nation in fewest yards allowed per play (3.9). Despite seven new starters, the Seminoles were dominant once again, holding opponents to 10.7 points per game and just 3.9 yards per play in 2013. Florida State’s defense held Clemson’s high-powered offense to just 14 points and only one opponent scored more than 20 points in 2013. But the Seminoles’ defense will be tested by an Auburn offense that finished the regular season on a tear. The Tigers averaged 47.8 points per contest over their final four games, largely due to their rushing attack. Quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason combined to rush for 2,644 yards this season, and both players averaged at least five yards per carry. Marshall is a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, as he is adept at carrying out the fakes and reads to run Auburn’s offense. Of course, no offense is successful without a good offensive line, and the Tigers have a solid front five. Left tackle Greg Robinson is the headliner, but center Reese Dismukes is one of the best in the nation. Can Auburn’s offensive line continue to win the battle in the trenches against Florida State? The Seminoles have held their last six opponents to under 3.3 yards per carry, and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is one of the best in the nation, but end Mario Edwards Jr. is stout against the run and is a key piece for Florida State’s defense on Jan. 6. Which unit will win the battle at the point of attack? If Auburn’s rushing game has success, it will help to keep the Seminoles’ offense on the sidelines and control the tempo of the game. However, Florida State wants to put the Tigers into long-distance situations and force Marshall to beat the defense with his arm.
Auburn’s secondary vs. Florida State’s passing attack
Auburn and Florida State rank as top-five teams in Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2014.
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch in the national championship. Auburn’s pass defense ranked last in the SEC, allowing 259.3 passing yards per game. The Tigers did manage to pick off 13 passes and limit opponents to a completion percentage of 57.9, but the secondary also ranked 61st nationally in pass efficiency defense. A late bowl game is always tough for high-powered offenses. The long delay between the end of the regular season and a national championship can lead to some early rust for an offense, which is something to watch for Florida State on Jan. 6. Auburn’s secondary allowed eight passing scores over the final three games, and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel torched the Tigers for 454 yards and four touchdowns in mid-October. As defenses have found out this year, there’s simply no easy way to stop Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Heisman Trophy winner has
. And while Winston can get a bit impatient at times and try to force the big play, he has been nearly flawless this year (67.9% and just 10 interceptions on 349 attempts). The redshirt freshman is surrounded by a deep group of weapons, starting in the receiving corps with Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin. Greene leads the team with 67 catches, while Benjamin has grabbed 14 touchdown passes. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another valuable piece in the passing attack, catching 33 passes (16.9 ypc) and seven touchdowns this year. Auburn doesn’t have the pieces to match the individual talent the Seminoles have in the secondary. And with that in mind, the Tigers have to be able to generate pressure with their defensive line. End Dee Ford is the anchor, but senior Nosa Eguae is a solid player on the interior. If Florida State’s line protects Winston, the receivers should win the one-on-one battles with Auburn’s secondary. But if the Tigers can generate pressure with their front four, it will significantly help their odds of slowing the Seminoles’ offense. And one other factor to watch for Auburn will be red zone defense. The Tigers are allowing a good chunk of yards to opposing offenses, but this unit has been tough inside of the red zone. Auburn ranks eighth nationally in red zone defense, limiting opponents to 23 touchdowns on 48 attempts this year. Once Florida State gets inside the 20, can the Seminoles score touchdowns instead of field goals?
Turnovers and special teams
We could talk about several areas in this section, but in the national championship, every area of the game is magnified. One small mistake could be end up as a game-changing play, which is why turnovers and special teams should be monitored throughout Monday night’s matchup. Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo is one of the best in the nation, connecting on 19 of 20 attempts in 2013. And the Seminoles are set on returns with Kermit Whitfield (kickoffs) and Kenny Shaw (punts). Punter Cason Beatty was average this year, managing 40.8 yards per kick. Much like Florida State, Auburn’s special teams have been solid. Kicker Cody Parkey has connected on 14 of 19 attempts, and punter Steven Clark averaged 42.5 yards per punt, while placing 23 inside the 20. The Tigers are also in good shape on returns, with Chris Davis averaging 20.1 yards per punt return (with one touchdown), while Tre Mason and Quan Bray take the lead on kickoff returns. In the turnover department, Florida State has an edge. The Seminoles have forced 34 turnovers this year, creating a margin of +17. Auburn is even in turnover margin, forcing only 18 turnovers in 2013.
Key Player: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall is the x-factor in this game. Florida State will load up to stop Auburn’s rushing attack, which should leave Marshall with opportunities to make plays through the air. The junior made progress as a passer in his first season with the Tigers, finishing 2013 with 1,759 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 60.4. Marshall’s rushing ability is a perfect fit for this offense, but his arm will be a critical aspect on Monday night. Auburn doesn’t have the standout playmakers like Florida State has in the receiving corps, but Sammie Coates (22.1 ypc), Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis and Quan Bray form a solid group of options for Marshall. If the Seminoles jump out to an early lead, the Tigers won’t be forced to abandon the run, but more will be placed on Marshall’s arm. If Auburn does fall behind by two or three scores, is Marshall up to the task to pass his team back into the game? And on the flipside, the junior averages 6.6 yards per carry and will be a key cog in the rushing attack on Monday. Marshall has thrown only five interceptions this year. He needs to another mistake-free game on Monday night for Auburn to claim another national championship.
Last year’s BCS Championship between Notre Dame and Alabama was a total dud. Expect things to be different on Jan. 6. Florida State and Auburn should provide an entertaining game, with two teams bringing contrasting, but still high-scoring offenses to Pasadena. The Tigers are a run-first team, while the Seminoles are balanced and capable of hurting opposing defenses in a variety of ways. A key question to watch on Monday night: Can Auburn get pressure with its defensive line? Or will the Tigers have to blitz? If Auburn has to blitz, Winston and Florida State’s receivers will hit on several big plays. But if the Tigers can control the battle in the trenches by getting pressure on Winston with their front four, Auburn will be in good shape. When the Tigers have the ball, they have to stay out of long-distance yardage situations. Although Auburn can throw the ball effectively, its offense just isn’t built to rally from a three-score deficit. Florida State has simply dominated this year. Will the Seminoles pickup where they left off in the ACC Championship? The Tigers navigated the SEC with one loss but seemed to get better each week. Will Auburn once again find a way to win a close game?
Florida State 38-34
Jameis Winston, QB, FSU
Florida State 37-34
Devonta Freeman, RB, FSU
Florida State 35-27
Jameis Winston, QB, FSU
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Florida State 42-33
Jameis Winston, QB, FSU
Florida State 45-35
Jameis Winston, QB, FSU
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn