Both teams could have done without the wait. In fact, Auburn and Florida State would have gladly suited up a week later, touched gloves and got right back to work.
Each had momentum entering the long layoff before the national championship, one of the most valuable commodities in the sport. Over the course of a month—with banquets, the award show circuit and the holidays taking over—such momentum can be lost.
Yes, the long break before the BCS National Championship can take its toll, although this time off can also serve as a positive. For Auburn and its most dynamic playmaker, quarterback Nick Marshall, this month could serve as a time for further growth.
For that reason, Auburn stands to benefit most from the long wait, although the process remains utterly unpredictable.
Full disclosure: I said the same thing about Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson at this time last year. Given his incredible skill set and development over the course of the season—a path not nearly as defined by Marshall—I thought Golson would take advantage of the extra time with Brian Kelly and deliver a monster performance against Alabama.
That…didn’t exactly happen. In fact, we basically got the opposite result.
Golson, of course, isn’t the first player to fall flat following the long break. He also won’t be the last.
Potent offenses have come out sluggish, struggling with the unique scenario and unfamiliar routine. Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar gap in the action, allowing rust to settle in. Maybe it’s the bright lights and the enormity of the moment that creates predictable sloppy play. Or perhaps it’s simply an upgrade in competition—the simplest of excuses—resetting expectations because the team on the other side is better.
Regardless of why, the four-week break between games can be both a positive and a negative.
For Alabama, it made the most of this extra time in recent years, coming out firing in the past two BCS National Championships. For LSU and Notre Dame—the last two title game losers— it was a different story.
Each team came out flat and overmatched, unable to do much of anything against Nick Saban’s squad. Blaming these lackluster performances solely on the layoff would be impossible and unfair. Saying either team was unable to capitalize on the extra time off is simply stating facts.
Auburn and Florida State will each try to avoid these types of slow starts, looking to play the role of the Crimson Tide. That’s a big task, of course, although there’s reason to believe each could get better with more time.
The Seminoles have showcased machine-like production this year, a ceiling-less display of talent that could be developed further with more practice and prep.
The defense will certainly benefit from the extra time to prepare for Auburn's dynamic running attack. It will attempt to stop what Alabama struggled against, what Missouri really had trouble dealing with and what every team in the SEC struggled to figure out.
On offense, Jameis Winston—still just a redshirt freshman, which is easy to forget—could also benefit from more time, snaps and film study. As easy as he has made it look at times, he’s still learning the position.
Florida State could take full advantage of this break, and yet it’s Auburn that could benefit more from this time. The Tigers probably lost more momentum than the Seminoles, putting the offensive boom, miraculous finishes and exponential development on ice. Still, they also have plenty of room to grow.
"This group has really, each game, improved,” Malzahn said to Joel A. Erickson of Al.com. "It is hard to improve each game, especially in college football, but our guys have done it, and that's a tribute to them."
It may not matter in the end, with the depth and overall team talent propelling the favored Seminoles to a win, but Marshall’s progression serves as the wild card entering the matchup.
His development throughout the season was one of the biggest storylines in all of college football, and he can and will get better. Giving him extra snaps and film-room sessions with Gus Malzahn is an enormous luxury at a time when his game is taking off.
He can run; we know that much. He can also throw the ball, but given the success of the ground game, he hasn’t been tasked to do it much. Earlier in the year, however, it was Marshall's arm that kept his team undefeated against Mississippi State.
In the last six games, Marshall threw more than 20 passes only once. Against Florida State, he will be put in more 3rd-and-long situations, testing that rare passing threshold for the Auburn offense.
How much did Marshall grow in a few extra weeks of work? Will his rapid path of development continue, or will it finally hit a wall? Will the incredible stage affect how he plays?
These are the unanswerable questions that come with the national championship, and thankfully, the long wait is almost over.
"We're a quarterback-oriented offense," Malzahn said to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com. "If he plays well, we play well. If he doesn't, we don't.”
It’s that simple, really.
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