For one of the few times in its 16-year history, the participants in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game will not come with any controversy.
Ohio State's season-capping loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night cleared the air for Florida State and Auburn—the two teams many were clamoring to meet one another regardless.
The final standings won't come out until later Sunday night, but the results are a mere formality. The Tigers will meet the Seminoles on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, and it's hard to think of two teams playing at a higher level or more deserving of the honor.
They say you have to beat the king to be the king. Well, that's exactly what Auburn did. The Tigers' all-time great victory over Alabama on Nov. 30 shifted the entire paradigm of the college football season and essentially set up the matchup you see today.
Auburn needed a victory over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, of course, but Tre Mason made sure that wasn't in question with a 304-yard, four-touchdown evening that allowed his teammates to sit back and watch the night unfold.
It's been a storybook season for Gus Malzahn and his team. Just a year after Gene Chizik was fired following a 3-9 season, Malzahn has resurrected the program.
Florida State, simply, is one of the most dominant regular-season college football teams in history. Assumed Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has led the offense, and Jeremy Pruitt's defense has been the most dominant in the nation, as the Seminoles have won their games by an average margin of 41.8 points. To put that in perspective, that's more than 12 points higher than second-place Baylor.
As such, Winston and Co. had no televisions to watch on Saturday night. They merely needed to unseat Duke in the ACC Championship Game, a task that proved breezy even despite an unsteady first half. Winston finished with four total touchdowns, and the Seminoles even got to run up the score a bit against the upstart Blue Devils, scoring a 45-7 beatdown.
It all leads to this. Or, rather, it will lead to this in about a month's time. The strange bowl structure gives these two sides nearly a month from their last game until kickoff, a period that could either kill momentum or allow time for injuries to heal. With that in mind, here's a quick preview of what to expect from the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
When: Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Florida State Seminoles
The last time Florida State finished a regular season undefeated, it was 1999. Bobby Bowden was the coach, the ageless (OK, he was pretty old) Chris Weinke was at quarterback, and Peter Warrick was the most dominant receiver on the planet. That Seminoles squad was the second in a run of three straight national-championship-game berths, and they went wire-to-wire as the nation's top team.
These Seminoles won't quite get that distinction. But they do have enough talent to make you think long-term contention isn't out of the question.
Winston will be the most talented quarterback Auburn has faced all season. Yes, that includes you, one Jonathan Paul Manziel. Winston broke the FBS record for most touchdown passes (38) and yards (3,820) as a freshman in Saturday's victory against Duke, and he should have no trouble extending those records by a bit against the Tigers.
Elite skill-position players adorn the field for Florida State, highlighted by the three-headed running back attack that makes things so much easier on Winston. Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder, Jr. each present their own matchup problems and are threats to break long gains every time they tote the rock.
The trio combined for a whopping 32 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, averaging well over six yards per pop. Williams alone managed 705 yards on just 86 carries—an astounding 8.2 yards per carry average.
The Seminoles have a similar trio at wide receiver. Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw have each compiled over 900 receiving yards on the year and have all scored at least once on a 50-plus-yard reception. Benjamin was Winston's muse in the conference championship game and has been a touchdown machine all year, leading all skill-position guys with 14 scores.
The question here, though, is whether Florida State can score. It can, and it will. Auburn isn't mistaking anyone for a defensive juggernaut. The Tigers have allowed at least 20 points in nine of their 13 games, which is exactly eight times more than the Seminoles have done so.
What remains to be answered is whether Pruitt's defense can continue its brilliant run. The Seminoles have finished their regular season allowing fewer than 10 points in four of five games, and the outlier in that stretch was an 80-14 win over Idaho. Yes, 80 points. And, yes, Idaho in November. No one said this was the toughest schedule in the world.
In fact, that actually seems like a perfect time to transition to...
The Tigers will easily be the biggest test of Florida State's season. Clemson is heading to a BCS bowl game, and Tajh Boyd is no slouch, but this running game that Malzahn has installed has rampaged its way through the best conference in the nation en route to the title game.
Mason is obviously the biggest name of the bunch, thanks in large part to his heroic performances in back-to-back weeks down the stretch. The junior back scampered for 164 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers' shocking defeat of Alabama, and then topped it all with a career-best performance in the conference championship game.
Mason obliterated his own career bests and the SEC record books on Saturday. He ran the ball a career-high 46 times—14 more carries than he's ever had in a single game—and a championship-game record 304 yards. It was the most by an Auburn running back since Curtis Kuykendall was taking the carries all the way back in the middle of World War II.
The Heisman Trust will now likely be sending Mason a well-deserved invitation to New York City, where he'll smile all pretty like and watch Winston bring home the bronze statue. But Mason alone isn't what makes Auburn so dangerous.
It's Malzahn's scheme that will keep Jeremy Pruitt up at night. The key to a Malzahn offense isn't any wild innovations; it's simplicity. The Tigers run a few pet plays out of a variety of sets, designed to send a defense in a state of disarray right before the snap.
Jet sweeps, read-option plays and a bunch of the same stuff college defenses have been seeing for years comprise the majority of Malzahn's system. His teams do it better because they have such a high level of repetition that it's become second nature.
The CBS broadcast noted on Saturday that Auburn's read-options don't even necessarily feel like "reads." They feel like preordained guesses made in the huddle, based on the information they have on the opposing team's defensive alignment.
Whether that's true or not is unclear; Malzahn isn't about to tell everyone he makes Nick Marshall's decisions for him. But the Tigers are so crisp that it looks like pre-decided reads even if they aren't.
That makes for an interesting matchup for Florida State, which has all season prided itself on thwarting opposing passing attacks with its secondary. The Seminoles were still an elite unit against the run, as it is very hard to quibble with the 13th-ranked defense in the nation. But their stifling secondary, which picked off 25 passes and forced opponents to a nation-low 152 yards per game, was their calling card.
Remember, Missouri came into the SEC Championship Game ranked No. 14 against the run. Auburn went for 545 yards in the matchup. It's not a guarantee that the Tigers do the same come January, but what makes this matchup so intriguing is that nothing is guaranteed.
Assuming, of course, no voodoo magic happens and Alabama somehow winds up in the national championship instead.
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