The final game of the BCS era will take place on Jan. 6, and it's dripping with intrigue.
The hottest team in America will face off with the best, when No. 2 Auburn takes on No. 1 Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif.
Auburn wasn't even ranked in the Oct. 13 USA Today Coaches Poll, but the Tigers came out of nowhere to win their final nine games—including the final two over Alabama and Missouri, both of which were ranked in the top five at the time.
The Tigers' success has been founded on a punishing and multi-dimensional running game that features Heisman finalist Tre Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall and speedster Corey Grant. Once Auburn got momentum going in that running game, it snowballed and took some pressure off the "bend but don't break" defense.
But was Auburn just hot down the stretch, or are the Tigers elite?
The answer to that question hinges on the team's secondary, which will have its hands full next Monday night with a talented and deep Seminole wide receiver corps that features Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene.
Defense doesn't win championships anymore; "just enough" defense does. For Auburn to have enough, cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy, safeties Ryan Smith and Jermaine Whitehead and "star" defensive back Robenson Therezie must be on their game.
"It’s going to be a big challenge," Mincy said, per Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers. It’s a great opportunity that we can go out there to show that we can be a proven defense."
Benjamin presents the biggest issues. At 6'5", 234 pounds, he is a clone of Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham—who caught six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn.
Nobody in Auburn's secondary—or any team's secondary, for that matter—can match up with Benjamin. He turns 50-50 balls into 75-25 balls with his size and is the ultimate insurance policy when quarterback Jameis Winston gets pressured.
While Benjamin is the most imposing figure on the outside for head coach Jimbo Fisher, Winston spreads the ball around to he, Shaw and Greene very well. Each member of the trio has more than 900 receiving yards.
As my colleague Michael Felder pointed out, blitzing Winston won't do the trick, because Auburn's back end needs help capitalizing on mistakes generated by pressure. In fact, as ESPN's David Hale notes, Winston has been elite against the blitz this season.
Jameis Winston vs. blitz this season: 70.6% comp, 20 TD, 3 INT, 12 sacks.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) December 30, 2013
Auburn will have to get pressure with four.
The good news for Auburn is, despite a big statistical day by Green-Beckham in the SEC Championship Game, Davis and Mincy actually played well against the NBA power forwards Missouri trots out at wide receiver.
Sure, there were a few blown assignments that led to big plays, but Mincy was in good position to high-point the football more times than not. Davis' leaping ability and ability to break on the football also played a critical role in the outcome of the game—including a fourth-down stop with Auburn up 10 and only 4:27 remaining.
|Auburn's Opponents' Long Passing Plays|
|Play Type||Number of Passing Plays||SEC Rank||National Rank|
|10+ Yards||119||14th||T 91st|
|20+ Yards||50||14th||T 113th|
|30+ Yards||27||14th||T 119th|
|40+ Yards||14||14th||T 112th|
|50+ Yards||6||T 14th||T 87th|
That doesn't mean that the Tigers have to shut down Winston and his trio of receivers. That's not Auburn's M.O.
The Tigers have given up an SEC-worst 27 passing plays of 30 or more yards and 14 of 40 or more yards. Conversely, Florida State led the ACC and is fourth in the nation in pass plays of 20 or more yards with 71.
Auburn bends but doesn't break, so when an opportunity presents itself, whether it's generated from pressure or not, the Tigers have to pounce—just as they've done all year.
The secondary will have to come to play for the Tigers to have any hope of hoisting the crystal football for the second time in four years.
If not, it could be a long night in Pasadena.