Auburn-Florida St. Preview

Much maligned throughout its 16 years of existence, the Bowl

Championship Series is going out with a bang.

In its final year before yielding to the highly anticipated

College Football Playoff, the BCS has delivered a title-game

matchup that’s evoking little debate about a pairing of teams that

took very different roads to the Rose Bowl for Monday night’s

showdown.

Top-ranked and unbeaten Florida State will look to complete its

romp through the 2013 season when it takes on No. 2 Auburn, which

to many has looked like a team of destiny all year.

Though the BCS system sometimes resulted in a month of heated

arguments over whether the right teams were playing for the

national championship, it often came through with the consensus

correct matchup. That wasn’t enough to preserve the BCS, which

makes its exit in favor of the four-team playoff that goes into

effect next season.

By delivering Auburn-Florida State, the system that was put in

place to end those championship debates is providing one last

reminder that it was sometimes capable of doing just that.

”We all complain about the BCS, but isn’t it funny how often

they get it right,” fourth-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher

said.

Of course, there was little question that Fisher’s team was

going to fill one spot in the title game after establishing itself

as the nation’s most dominant. Led by runaway Heisman Trophy winner

Jameis Winston at quarterback and the nation’s top defense in terms

of points allowed, the Seminoles (13-0) outscored opponents by an

average of 53.0-10.7 and won every game but one by at least 27

points.

Florida State pounded its four ranked opponents by a 200-35

margin, and it’s now seeking its first BCS title since the 1999

season, when it beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

Even a sexual assault investigation of Winston couldn’t blunt

the team’s momentum. The freshman was cleared of allegations that

he raped a fellow student in December 2012 when Leon County State

Attorney Willie Meggs announced Dec. 5 that there was not enough

evidence to go forward with the case, one that has raised questions

about the thoroughness of the investigation and the Tallahassee

police’s response to the allegations.

Winston, who also won the Walter Camp player of the year award

and the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback, told

reporters at a Heisman press conference that ”I knew I did nothing

wrong.” Two days after being cleared, he passed for 330 yards and

two touchdowns while rushing for 59 yards and a score as Florida

State defeated then-No. 20 Duke 45-7 in the ACC title game.

”We wanted to win this championship so bad,” Winston said after

the game. “We were looking forward to having an undefeated

season.”

For that to happen, Winston and his teammates will have to

derail an Auburn team that took a thrilling path to Pasadena.

The Tigers (12-1) were the beneficiary of two remarkable plays

this season that allowed them to reach this point. The first came

Nov. 16 against Georgia when Ricardo Louis scored on a deflected

73-yard pass from Nick Marshall on fourth and 18 with 25 seconds

left for a 43-38 victory. The spectacular play, during which the

deflected ball sailed over Louis’ shoulder and into his hands in

the open field, appeared to be one for the ages.

Instead, it was only the second-best play of the season for

Auburn.

In what will go down as one of the greatest moments in college

football history, Chris Davis returned a missed field-goal attempt

more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play to give the

Tigers a 34-28 win over then-No. 1 and two-time defending national

champion Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30.

”We’re a team of destiny,” Davis said then. ”We won’t take no

for an answer.”

It was difficult to take Davis’ words with a grain of salt when

Auburn went on to knock off Missouri 59-42 in the SEC championship

game the following weekend. Hours later, unbeaten Ohio State lost

to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship, opening the door for

Auburn to reach the title game.

The Tigers’ amazing story has been developing since a disastrous

2012 season, during which they went 3-9 and didn’t win a conference

game. That led to the dismissal of Gene Chizik, who guided Auburn

to the national title just two years before, and the hiring of Gus

Malzahn, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11 who served

as Arkansas State’s coach in 2012.

The result has been a remarkable turnaround due largely to

Malzahn’s dynamic offense.

”A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week,” said

Malzahn, who agreed to a six-year, $26.85 million deal Dec. 5.

”This team is.”

Auburn’s surge to Pasadena has also given the SEC an improbable

opportunity to extend its run of seven consecutive BCS titles. The

conference will certainly be sad to see the system go, having won

all seven BCS championship games and two more BCS titles with

victories by Tennessee after the 1998 season (Fiesta Bowl) and LSU

after 2003 (Sugar).

”We feel we’re the best team in college football,” Tigers

running back and Heisman finalist Tre Mason said. ”We’ve got to

continue to prove it.”

Mason and the Tigers will be one of the rare SEC representatives

to find themselves an underdog in a BCS championship. Florida State

was established as an early touchdown favorite.

The challenge faced by Auburn is a daunting one, as a defense

that ranks 88th nationally with 423.5 yards allowed per game will

be tasked with containing a Seminoles offense that averages 529.4

yards.

Winston passed for 3,810 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10

interceptions with a 190.1 rating, while Devonta Freeman (13 TDs)

and Karlos Williams (11) paced a rushing attack that scored 41

times. Receivers Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw each

went over 900 yards, and they and tight end Nick O’Leary combined

for 36 touchdowns.

“We’re excited about playing Auburn. … they’re dynamic, they

make plays on offense, defense, special teams,” said Fisher, who

has signed a three-year extension through the 2018 season. “(They

have) won games a lot of different ways and (are) very well

coached, and it will be a great opportunity and a great challenge

for our team.”

While Auburn could have a difficult time holding down Florida

State, the Tigers might be able to keep up with the Seminoles on

the scoreboard. Averaging 505.3 yards and 40.2 points, Auburn’s

triple read-option, hurry-up attack led by Marshall has proved

mostly unsolvable for opponents all season.

Facing four top-10 teams, the Tigers won the last three such

matchups while averaging 46.0 points.

Marshall has been at his best down the stretch, rushing for 503

yards and six TDs in the last four games and posting a 163.5 passer

rating with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the past

three.

All 11 of his rushing scores have come in the last eight

contests.

”You just have to embrace the moment,” Marshall said. ”Just

seize the moment of being in the championship game, period. It

doesn’t come too often, so when you’re in it you just have to make

the best of it.”

Mason has been even more devastating to opposing defenses of

late, totaling 868 yards with 13 touchdowns in Auburn’s last five

games. He was all but unstoppable against Missouri, running for 304

yards on 46 carries and scoring four times.

Auburn, though, will get perhaps its toughest test in the big,

fast and opportunistic Florida State defense. With nose guard Timmy

Jernigan anchoring the 3-4 scheme, the Seminoles lead the nation

with 25 interceptions and have 33 sacks, among the most in the

country.

The Seminoles are allowing 152.0 yards per game through the air,

best in the FBS. Sixteen Florida State players have at least one

INT.

The Seminoles are hardly vulnerable against the run either,

allowing 93.0 yards per game for a mark that’s among the best in

the nation. The matchup of that powerful run defense against

Auburn’s complex ground attack seems likely to go a long way toward

determining the outcome of this game.

Defensive back Lamarcus Joyner has 64 tackles, five sacks and

two interceptions, while linebacker Telvin Smith has recorded a

team-high 75 tackles – 9 1/2 for loss – with three interceptions

returned for 147 yards. Jernigan has recorded a team-best 10 1/2

tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks despite facing frequent double

teams.

“When you have those guys on defense, especially that can

control that middle, it makes everyone around you so much better,”

Fisher said of Jernigan. “He makes two other guys great because he

takes the double-team and the stuff you have to do to block him and

account for him.”

Auburn faced six ranked teams in 2013, with its only loss coming

at then-No. 6 LSU by a 35-21 score Sept. 21.

The Tigers and Seminoles will be meeting for the second time in

a bowl game, with Florida State winning 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl

after the 1988 season.

The last matchup was a 20-17 Auburn home victory in 1990.