If you're looking for a reason to denounce preseason college football rankings an arbitrary, nonsensical process, look no further than Monday night's BCS National Championship Game.
No. 1 Florida State, perhaps the most dominant regular-season team of the BCS era, was ranked No. 11 by the Associated Press and No. 12 by the coaches. Florida—yes, the team so talented and well-coached that its linemen once decided to block one another rather than an opponent—was ranked ahead of the Seminoles in both polls. The coaches thought Notre Dame was better.
The skepticism regarding No. 2 Auburn in the preseason was more understandable but no less amusing in retrospect. The Tigers, coming off a horrifying 3-9 season, did not receive a single preseason vote in either poll. I'm not going to list the teams that were included on some preseason Top 25 lists, but suffice it to say going here is an amusing exercise.
But despite the best efforts, the final year of the BCS should come to a proper end. Though they weren't included in the preseason national championship picture, the Seminoles and Tigers are unquestionably the best teams in the nation. Among major-conference teams, only Rose Bowl winner Michigan State has any true stake in the crown.
Nevertheless, with the national championship game mere hours from mercifully ending the 2013 college football season, it's important to look back on how these teams got here. With that in mind, let's check in with a retrospective on both programs.
You would have to parse college football history and individually study each situation, but Gus Malzahn's one-year rebuilding effort ranks among the best ever. At this time a year ago, Auburn was watching on as Alabama won a third national championship in four seasons and had ended its season with a demoralizing loss to the Crimson Tide. What once was a rivalry had regressed to a big brother-little brother relationship, with Nick Saban maniacally laughing at the thought of losing to the Tigers.
One Gene Chizik extraction and a controversial hiring later, and Auburn is back atop the college football landscape. It seems almost quaint now that Malzahn was seen as a controversial hire by the school. With Malzahn being Chizik's offensive coordinator until he took a one-year detour as the Arkansas State head coach, some wondered what could possibly change from the previous regime.
It turns out a ton. Rebuilding the program in his image, Malzahn stripped down the complexities, installed a world-beating running game and developed one of the most unstoppable offenses in the nation. Although there were some notable struggles early in the season—like, you know, nearly losing to Washington State and Mississippi State and actually losing to LSU—the Tigers got better as the campaign went along.
Auburn is averaging 40.2 points per game, ninth-best in the nation, but that almost understates its recent excellence. Since another close call against Ole Miss on Oct. 5, that average has increased by more than a touchdown, with the Tigers never scoring fewer than 34 points.
With each improvement came wins more improbable than the next. First, there was outdueling Johnny Manziel in College Station with a three-touchdown fourth quarter. Then, a 73-yard touchdown heave from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis answered the Prayer at Jordan–Hare against Georgia. Then, Chris Davis provided college football with the play of the year. And, finally, there was Tre Mason's record-setting rushing effort against Missouri.
The latter three efforts came in consecutive weeks. Each was seemingly more improbable than the next. Heading into the national championship game, the Tigers are at a distinct talent disadvantage on both sides of the ball—and yet it feels short-sighted to count them out. The seemingly impossible has brought out the best in Auburn all season long. We'll have to see if it can happen one more time.
Speaking of rebuilding a program in a coach's image, suffice it to say Jimbo Fisher had an even more difficult time than Malzahn. Not necessarily because of any talent problems, of course; Florida State will never have trouble in that regard. But replacing a legend in Bobby Bowden is arguably the most difficult thing in all of sport—and Fisher has established his own reputation in a mere four years.
Grantland's Chris B. Brown did an excellent job of establishing how Fisher returned the Seminoles to national prominence. Taking an old-school SEC-type stance, Fisher recruited physical specimens, put athletes everywhere on the defensive side and held the belief that only the most elite should be held on the offensive side.
The strategy worked last season, with Florida State pulling off an Orange Bowl victory. Florida State's defense ranked among the best in the nation, but there was something keeping the team from true national title contention—a superstar at quarterback. Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel were first-round draft choices, but neither signal-caller spent their careers in Tallahassee blowing anyone out of the water.
Jameis Winston tossed a grenade on all expectations. A highly touted freshman with superstar potential, Winston was viewed as a possible cornerstone sometime down the line. No one expected him to finish with the second-best quarterback rating in college football history, become the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the nation's highest-scoring offense.
That, of course, is exactly what Winston did. The Seminoles come into the national title game averaging an FBS-high 53 points per game, and that strategy of saving only the undeniably talented for offense has paid off. Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. give Florida State and elite running back trio that each averages at least 5.8 yards per carry, while Winston's stable of wide receivers is filled with NFL talent.
Then, there's the defense. The still-awesome, world-beating defense. The Seminoles have given up more than 17 points only once all season—their 48-34 win over Boston College...in September. In the nine games since, opponents have scored single-digits five times and double-digits four. Their last five opponents scored 34 points total.
You should be unsurprised that the Seminoles got to the national title game by pulverizing everyone. Stomping on throats. Kicking people while they were down. Backhanding opponents for even thinking they deserve to be in the same building. Florida State's 42.3-point average margin of victory is two touchdowns better than any other team.
Perhaps the only hole you can poke in Fisher's squad is its schedule strength. Clemson, Miami and Duke represented the high water marks on the slate—not exactly the toughest "big tests" other than the Tigers. Auburn represents a unique challenge unlike anything Jeremy Pruitt's defense has seen all season, and if there is any shortcoming on that unit, it's run defense.
But when capturing the Seminoles' journey to Monday night, there is only one word: dominant.
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