Auburn and Florida State will bring plenty of star power to the BCS National Championship, but some under-the-radar players will tip the outcome.
X-factors can swing games because stars are supposed to deliver huge performances. When (not if) Jameis Winston and Tre Mason carry their respective offenses at the Rose Bowl, it will surprise no one.
Rather, the guys who step up to complement or counter the greats around them deserve notice. With one game deciding the final BCS champion, an unexpected career night can earn a given player and his team a place in college football history.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State
Fun fact: Did you know that the Seminoles, sporting the 2013 Heisman winner under center, bother to run the ball?
It's true, because Devonta Freeman provides the perfect support to Winston's aerial attack.
At 5'9", 205 pounds, Freeman is an absolute load to bring down, capable of pounding the ball between the tackles or bouncing outside and punishing smaller defenders. That physical running style has earned him a hard-fought 5.3 yards per carry this season, as well as 13 rushing touchdowns due to his red-zone proficiency.
He can also catch the ball a little bit out of the backfield, tacking on 19 catches for 257 yards and another score to his 953 yards on the ground. If that weren't enough, he's superb in pass protection, bringing the same mean streak from his run game to make him an every-down back.
That makes him an excellent safety valve for Winston. If Auburn can manage to bother Winston, Florida State has a dependable second option it can fall back on.
Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
You might think the Tigers have a potent passing game, since you associate Auburn with this play:
However, that's by no means the case. Nick Marshall joins Mason as one of two 1,000-yard rushers on this Auburn team, but he has thrown for just 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. Auburn does not want to get into a shootout because gunslinging is not its signal-caller's strong suit.
Against Winston, balancing the offense with some effective passing will be necessary to keep up. That means Marshall is going to need help from Sammie Coates.
It's a major red flag that Auburn's leading receiver only has 38 catches, but he has maximized those opportunities, turning them into 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He's 6'2", but the sophomore has the speed to beat the secondary deep and the strength to shake off defensive backs trying to take him down.
Auburn must have that dimension in its game to win, and Coates is one of the few Tigers who can offer it.
Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
While Winston put his physical gifts to work on the offensive end, Telvin Smith has anchored the defense with experience and a nose for the ball.
The senior linebacker weighs just 215 pounds, but that hasn't stopped him from making plays all over the field. Smith leads the Noles with 61 tackles, has gotten into the backfield for 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks and has picked off three passes, two of which he has returned for touchdowns.
That pedigree makes the task of him tracking down Mason, who is only 10 pounds lighter than Smith, less tenuous than it might have been otherwise. But even at his small size, Smith has the relentlessness and the tenacity to take on and take down the Heisman nominee.
Smith's passion is infectious, and the more big plays he makes, the more Florida State is going to get fired up. Auburn's blockers need to get to the second level and keep him away from the ball-carriers, or else the Seminole defense could overwhelm the Tigers.
Chris Davis, CB, Auburn
Again, you might not know everything Chris Davis can actually do on a football field if you have only seen this:
Yes, Davis returns punts, which made him an appropriate choice to position deep on that field-goal attempt. In addition to that instant classic against Alabama, he is averaging 20.1 yards on 14 punt returns, one of which he also took back for a touchdown.
But his biggest impact comes on defense, where he makes outsized contributions for a cornerback. Lining up at the nickel, he is constantly making plays in the middle of the field, leading the Tigers with 65 tackles and tying Jonathon Mincy with 11 pass defenses.
His do-everything approach to the secondary will be vital against a Florida State offense that stretches opposing DBs to their breaking point. If Davis can hold up, he can help Auburn get the upper hand it needs on the No. 1 team in college football.
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