Auburn and Florida State are rightful foes in the BCS National Championship Game. There was no need for controversy or outrage about the polls; the Tigers and Seminoles earned their berths in the title game with their play on the field, as it should be.
Now, with the biggest game of the college football season right around the corner, the two sides have just about finished their preparation. It all comes down to execution in key moments in what should be a close contest throughout.
The multitude of positive factors for Auburn and Florida State are clear, but each side also has a key question it must answer in order to win the championship. So let's check out the biggest concern for both teams heading into the title game.
Auburn: Did the extended layoff cause the Tigers to lose their edge?
If Auburn had a vote on when it wanted to play the title game it likely would have chosen the week after beating Missouri for the SEC title. The Tigers were riding a wave of momentum after beating top-five opponents in consecutive weeks, including the memorable finish against Alabama.
Instead, they were forced to wait a month before getting a chance to continue that impressive run of success against Florida State. Of course, that leads to questions about whether Auburn will be able to match the level of play it showcased in those big wins.
The coaching staff can try to ramp up the level of intensity in practice, putting players in as realistic of a game simulation as possible. In the end, however, there's no real way to make those training sessions feel anything like playing in the Iron Bowl, SEC title game or BCS National Championship.
Mike Szvetitz of the Opelika-Auburn News passed along comments from Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who talked about the difficulty of keeping sharp during a layoff:
"I don't know if I can put my finger on it other than it makes sense maybe when you have – you get in a rhythm and you're playing well, and then all of a sudden you have 30 days off. Maybe it takes you a little bit of time to get going again," Lashlee said Thursday. "The thing about offense, it takes all 11 guys executing to perfection. You can have 10 guys do the right thing, and if one guy is off, the play won't work. The defense may stop you sometimes, but it may not be necessarily because they stopped you, you just mis-executed. You've got to execute at a high level on offense no matter who you're playing to be successful."
It's a unique situation, and while both teams have to endure the same long break, it would seemingly have a much greater impact on Auburn given the emotional wins it earned in the final weeks. And it's very difficult to maintain that edge for a month.
Pay close attention to the first couple drives for Auburn on both sides of the ball. If the Tigers come out sluggish, there's a very good chance the layoff will be to blame, and all they can hope at that point is that Florida State doesn't take advantage while they get back in rhythm.
Florida State: How will the Seminoles handle an increased level of competition?
It's impossible to deny Florida State's absolute dominance leading up to this point. The Seminoles ran the table and were rarely challenged even for a half, let alone for an entire game. Moreover, they rank first in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
The offense, led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, looked unstoppable at times en route to some downright remarkable numbers. ESPN's Numbers Never Lie notes Florida State is on track to set an FBS scoring record thanks to an offense that hasn't slowed down once throughout the season:
Florida State is 28 pts shy of the most in FBS history. The Seminoles season-low is 37 pts.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) January 3, 2014
Yet, there's also no doubt a favorable schedule played into those huge numbers. Aside from Clemson, which didn't play on a national title level but did have a very good season, Florida State was for the most part able to crush overmatched opponents.
Which team will win the national title?
Auburn represents the Seminoles' toughest foe of the season. And with a lack of competitive games during the regular season, the game's biggest unknown is how Florida State will handle the pressure if it's a close game in the fourth quarter.
This is a Tigers squad that scored an average of 46 points in wins over Alabama, Missouri and Texas A&M. It is more than capable of keeping pace with Florida State, which means it's unlikely the ACC powerhouse will be in complete control in the second half as was often the case this season.
In other words, the Seminoles will have to prove they can be just as effective if it's a tie game in the fourth quarter as they were during all of those blowouts. If Winston and Co. stand tall in the face of pressure, they will capture the title.