Auburn vs. FSU: Biggest Obstacle for Both Teams Heading into National Title Game

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 07:  Quarterback Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates on stage after defeating the Duke Blue Devils 45-7 in the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Don't look now, but the 2014 BCS National Championship Game is finally on the precipice of arrival. I mean, there's still four days between now and when the No. 2 Auburn Tigers and No. 1 Florida State Seminoles will meet. But...we're almost there!

If you've somehow gone into a winter hibernation filled with eggnog and champagne and forgotten who these teams are, well, it's tough to blame you.

By the time Florida State and Auburn take the field in Pasadena, Calif., it will have been exactly one day less than a month since they were both in action. The ridiculous prolonging of this bowl season at times turns this title game into a farce, a high-cost spectacle that rarely produces actual good football.

It took about six seconds last season before we all realized Alabama would turn Notre Dame into toothpaste. 

As we say goodbye to the BCS, it's hard not to look back and realize how little we've learned. Only twice in the past decade has the national championship game come down to one score, and of those contests, only USC-Texas in 2005 truly felt like something special. Whether it's due to the layoff or merely a sample bias, something clearly was awry with the system.

That said, it's still the one we have. For now. And looking at these rosters, you start to get a little fear. No one ever wants to go out with a dud.

With that in mind, then, let's check in on the biggest obstacle facing both these clubs. 


Auburn: So. Much. Talent.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 07:  Quarterback Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles scores a touchdown in the third quarter against the Duke Blue Devils during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Charlotte, N
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The problem for Auburn in this game isn't necessarily to identify one player and curtail its game plan around stopping his effect. And that's not because the Seminoles are an offense run on socialistic principles where all get their equal share. There are stars on this roster—whom it would benefit the Tigers to stop.

Unfortunately, stopping one star merely means another equally talented player will be able to take advantage.

NFL talent adorns this Seminoles roster to the point you have to wonder how all these players got out of the SEC's grasp. There are six Florida State players in the top 100 of ESPN's 2014 NFL Draft prospect rankings (subscription required for full list), and 10 who would theoretically be drafted if those rankings represented the order of selection.

Keep in mind that zero of those players are named Jameis Winston, who will not be eligible to leave school until after next season. The Heisman winner was the most consistently excellent player in college football, a rare combination of otherworldly physical skills and charisma. Only Bryce Petty and Zach Mettenberger remotely approached Winston's uncanny 10.95 yards per pass attempt. He dipped below a 70 adjusted QBR in just one game all season long.

Keep in mind, again, that this is a freshman quarterback. You would have to dig through the all-time coffers to make a proper judgement, but Winston might be the most polished freshman quarterback in college football history.

Of course, it helps that he has the type of athletes at skill positions that would make NFL quarterbacks' mouths water. Running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams each average at least 5.8 yards per rush; Williams averages more than eight. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is one of the most explosive wideouts in the nation, Rashad Green is one of the most steady and Kenny Shaw is a damned good third option.

I say this all for one reason: Auburn has to stop those guys. Together. On a football field. With people watching them and stuff.

This is important, for a second reason: Auburn's defense might not be equipped for such a task. The Tigers grade out fine, but unspectacularly on that end. They're 38th in points allowed, and Football Outsiders' defensive S&P has them 32nd. 

Missouri dropped 42 points in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn has given up at least 20 points eight times this season. Florida State has done so once. 

It's anecdotal information, and we won't know how these teams fare against one another until the opening kickoff. But for Auburn to have a chance in this game, it's going to need an absolutely out-of-this-world performance from its defense. I'm just not sure this team has it in them.  


Florida State: Can the Seminole Defense Slow Down Tre Mason? 

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates his fourth quarter touchdown with teammate quarterback Nick Marshall #14 against the Missouri Tigers during the SEC Championship Game at Georgia Dome on December 7, 2013 in Atlanta,
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For all of the excitement about Winston and the offense, it sometimes goes unnoticed that Florida State has the best defense in the country as well. The Seminoles possess a propensity for stifling opponents on the scoreboard, with 10.7 points allowed per game leading the nation. 

The power of the defense is built in Jeremy Pruitt's elite secondary. Led by likely first- or second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State has suffocated passing games this season. Opposing quarterbacks averaged an FBS-low 152 yards per game through the air, throwing just 12 touchdowns against 25 interceptions. They completed a mere 52 percent of their passes.

Remember Clemson's Tajh Boyd? He threw for just 156 yards, throwing two picks and completing only 17 of 37 passes. Miami's Stephen Morris? He fared a little better, if you're satisfied with 192 yards, two picks and two touchdowns. No matter the talent level, Florida State's secondary has destroyed opposing quarterbacks.

Just one little thing: All that is just fine with Auburn.

The Tigers may not vomit at the sight of a forward pass, but Gus Malzahn's offense gets pretty close to it. They rank in the bottom 20 of FBS in passing yards per game, with Nick Marshall's passing attempts meant only to keep defenses on their toes. Malzahn has built an offense that serves as a polar opposite to the high-flying passing attacks you see in major football today and created something arguably more exciting.

Spearheading that charge is Tre Mason, the spectacular junior running back whose SEC title game was one of the most impressive masterpieces of 2013. He rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Missouri, helping him finish sixth in the Heisman voting. It was the second-most rushing yards in Auburn history and concluded a red-hot run that helped push Auburn to the title game. 

And while Florida State is still a stellar run defense, it pales in comparison to its passing game. Instead of being the best by a country mile, Pruitt's unit is merely excellent. The Seminoles allowed 116.5 rushing yards per game, ranking 13th in the nation. Just ahead of them? Alabama, which allowed Mason to go for 164 yards in the Tigers' upset victory.

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 30:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers runs the ball in the second quarter against Jarrick Williams #20 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Oh, and Missouri? It was a top-15 run defense before Mason and Malzahn's rushing attack came barreling through Atlanta. Anyone who can thrash such elite front sevens in back-to-back games deserves all the adoration he can get.

One could say the month layoff will allow Auburn to figure out how to stop the read-option handoffs, but that seems nonsensical. Everyone knew what was coming. No one in the state of Alabama would even lie and pretend the Tigers have an interest in passing. What makes Auburn and Mason special is that they can scamper all over elite defenses by keeping things simple. The play calls are the same, the formations are just different.

Sometimes, when you're at a talent disparity, just keeping it simple is for the best.


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