Florida State or Auburn better hope to come out on the right end of the title game's most important matchups if it wants to win the national championship.
Football is a game of matchups. How can one team stop the opposing team's best players?
Much of Auburn's game plan will focus on stopping Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner threw for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Winston has been a sensation since Day 1, and there's little that makes you think he'll shrink from the spotlight in the national championship.
It isn't all about Winston, though. Plenty of star players look poised to have a major say in how the game unfolds.
The victor may well be determined by who wins these three matchups.
Tre Mason and Nick Marshall vs. Florida State Front Seven
Auburn ranks first in rushing offense, racking up 335.69 yards a game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason have been marvelous on the ground.
Florida State gave up only 116.54 yards a game, but it's safe to say the Seminoles haven't faced an offense like this. Nobody has found a solution for the Tigers' simplistic yet effective running game.
The Missouri Tigers came into the SEC Championship with a respectable defense, yet they conceded 545 yards rushing.
The key will be stopping Marshall and Mason in the second level of the defense.
Mason isn't a speedy home-run back, so Florida State will have to ensure that he's wrapped up after four or five yards so those runs don't turn into 10- or 15-yard runs.
Marshall is a great athlete, though, with the speed and athleticism to elude the defense in the open field.
If Auburn finds success with both Marshall and Mason, the Noles won't have a chance.
Dee Ford vs. Florida State Offensive Line
Although Auburn ranks 54th in sacks per game, the Tigers have a sweltering pass rush. Gus Malzahn and Ellis Johnson are adept at finding new ways to get after the quarterback. If the QB doesn't get sacked, he's at least been pressured enough to disrupt his throw.
Dee Ford has been the standout performer.
The senior defensive end leads the team in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8.5). He's so quick off the edge and more than capable of being a nuisance in the pocket.
Malzahn praised Ford last week, via James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser:
“There’s no doubt he is an impact player,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Ford. “He has the ability to make a play when the game is on the line. He’s showed that this year. He plays his best games in the biggest moments, and we are going to need him to do that again.”
If Ford can hassle Winston in the pocket, the problems in Auburn's secondary won't play a big role in the national championship. After all, the best way to stop an opposing team's aerial attack is preventing it from getting off the ground.
The Tigers rank 103rd against the pass, surrendering 259.3 points a game. Should the 2013 Heisman winner get time in the pocket, he'll find open receivers.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all had at least 900 yards receiving this season, and they're all more than capable of getting loose for big plays.
Florida State vs. Fate
As dumb and simplistic as it sounds, some teams lead charmed lives.
Growing up in Ohio, I watched as the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes combined talent with a little bit of magic en route to a national title. Time and again, the stars aligned for the Bucks, whether it was Craig Krenzel's touchdown to Michael Jenkins against Purdue, Chris Gamble's pick-six against Penn State or the entire national championship against Miami.
You get the same feeling with Auburn. Everything has fallen into place for the Tigers. They've had the "Kick Six" and "Prayer at Jordan Hare," not to mention how Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Michigan State and Baylor all faltered, allowing a one-loss team into the title game.
At this point, who's going to doubt Auburn? Florida State may have lost before it even takes the field.