The 2014 BCS National Championship Game is a contest marked by great offensive superstars. From Jameis Winston and Florida State's uber-talented all-around offensive corps to Nick Marshall and Auburn's read-option excellence, the main storylines have surrounded the offensive talent of the two teams.
That's a shift from the recent SEC-dominated championship games, as the conference has mostly been notable for its dominant defenses. Though neither unit is a pushover—ask Alabama or Miami—the consensus is that both are at distinct disadvantages headed into tonight's championship showdown.
However, both defenses are certainly equipped to at least contain the opposing offense, even if shutdown domination might be asking a bit much.
Here's what the Auburn and Florida State defenses must accomplish to prevent Monday night's contest from turning into a slugfest for the crystal ball.
Keys for Auburn Defense
Avoid the Haymaker
The biggest fear of most Auburn fans revolves around the Seminoles' big-play ability. Florida State averaged 7.5 yards per play, the most in the country, and has hit the third-most plays of 20 or more yards this season. Every 'Noles receiver with double-digit receptions averages over 12 yards per catch.
Auburn's defense is solid on a down-to-down basis and should fare reasonably well against Florida State's offense for the majority of the game.
"The majority of the game" is not good enough, though, as a couple of big plays nearly cost Auburn a chance to play in this game (see: Bulldogs, Georgia).
If the Tigers adopt a relatively conservative zone defense as many expect, that will concede plenty of yardage to Florida State. But it will also test Winston's patience and make the freshman execute on a greater number of plays, thus increasing the probability of an eventual mistake.
As Bud Elliot of Tomahawk Nation notes, the Tigers' best bet might be to bait the Heisman winner rather than challenge him:
If Auburn keeps with its plan of staying patient and playing conservatively, FSU must match with similar patience. Auburn quite simply does not have the defensive personnel to outright stop Florida State -- it does have the personnel to set up situations in which Florida State is more likely to beat itself.
How many points will Auburn hold Florida State to?
Minimizing the big play will inevitably lead to some frustrating sequences where a wide-open checkdown picks up a first down, but it also leaves Florida State with less margin for error. When the Seminoles inevitably provide an opening on a drive, that's when the Tigers must pounce.
Get Home on 3rd Down
The cynic might say that it's just a media conspiracy to hype up the game, but there has been an outpouring of support for the Auburn defense. Much of that argument glances past the ugly yardage totals and focuses on critical situations:
BCS title game: Stats say Auburn's defense is historically bad. Advanced metrics say it's deceivingly strong. http://t.co/je34ovmxLW— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 4, 2014
Indeed, Auburn is 21st in the nation in third-down defense, a byproduct of its unusually skewed pass-rushing distribution.
That's mostly because the Tigers will stack their pass-rushing personnel on clear passing downs and safeguard against the run if the opposition's play call is in doubt.
The sheer quantity of pass-rushers usually ensures that Auburn can at least speed up the opposing quarterback's decision-making if they do not get home. Dee Ford has 8.5 sacks, but the trio of LaDarius Owens, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson are worthy complements.
If the Tigers can fluster Winston on a few early third downs, that is their best chance at rattling the freshman and destabilizing whatever rhythm he establishes. It's a difficult task, but Auburn has made a living off winning critical situations—a trend that must continue tonight.
Keys for Florida State Defense
The Florida State defense is extremely athletic and has had a month to prepare for the Auburn option attack that has terrorized SEC defenses. Stifling Nick Marshall and Tre Mason Jr. will not be simple, and it starts with winning in the front seven.
According to ESPN.com's Chris Low, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis believes Auburn's offensive line is the key to their success:
“You’ve got to be ready to play the tempo game and tackle well, but don’t let anybody kid you,” Chavis said. “They’ve got a lot of really good football players in the offensive line. We didn’t play against a better offensive line this year, and I don’t think people are giving that offensive line enough credit.”
LSU was the only team to beat Auburn this season after jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead and then holding on for a 35-21 rain-soaked win back in September.
“You have to be able to handle all their different looks on the perimeter,” Chavis said. “It will look like the same run, and they’ll end up throwing it. They’re not going to let you cheat and get an extra guy in there. They’re going to put you in a lot of one-on-one situations, and you have to be able to tackle. If not, you’re going to have a hard time with them.”
How many points will Florida State hold Auburn to?
Chavis' last quote about the perimeter is key, as Auburn runs outside as often as it does inside. That makes the Tigers unlike any run attack Florida State has seen in the relatively docile ACC, where only Boston College and Georgia Tech averaged more than five yards per carry.
Still, while the Auburn running game is the obvious focus for the Florida State defense, don't expect the underdog Tigers to prepare an inflexible offensive game plan.
Look for Play Action
As good as Auburn's rushing attack is, it's not difficult to imagine the speedy Seminoles defense containing the option with relative success. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn seems to realize the need for the Tigers to have a multifaceted offense on Monday night:
Malzahn has repeated the need for Auburn to keep Florida State "off-balance" on both offense and defense.— The Auburn Plainsman (@TheAUPlainsman) January 5, 2014
Nick Marshall may not be a renowned passer, but as his game-winning touchdown against Georgia demonstrated, his arm strength is an unquestioned asset. Thus, when Auburn does turn to the air, it seems likely that the Tigers will dial up a deep play-action pass.
If Auburn hits a play or two like that, it opens up dangerous avenues for the run game.
Defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks and James Ramsey all have at least 40 tackles and might be called upon in run support, but they cannot cheat into the box if they get burned early.
Snuffing out those deep passes represents Florida State's best chance to make Auburn one-dimensional. If the Tigers can only rely upon Marshall's legs and not his arm, the Seminoles' odds of winning shoot through the roof.