The BCS No. 2 Auburn Tigers have had their fair share of dramatic finishes this season en route to a national championship matchup with the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles on Monday, Jan. 6.
As underdogs in this contest at Pasadena's Rose Bowl, the resurgent Tigers will need some more magic to hoist the Coaches' Trophy.
Florida State is a more talented and balanced team across the board, but head coach Gus Malzahn has found a way to get Auburn to this point with his outstanding game plans and gutsy players executing big plays down the stretch.
Many predict the nine-point favorites (h/t Bovada) to run away with this one, including former college football head coach Rick Neuheisel, per James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser:
Rick Neuheisel says the most likely outcome is a FSU blowout— James Crepea (@JamesCrepea) January 6, 2014
Having said that, at no point this season were the Seminoles in true danger of losing, which could be a big benefit for the Tigers if this becomes a close one down the stretch.
In order for Auburn to remain within striking distance, though, here are some keys that can position them to pull off the upset.
Apply Pressure to Jameis Winston
One of the big disadvantages for the Tigers is their inability to account for all of Florida State's weapons on the outside. Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene are both friendly targets for Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, but the big matchup problem is 6'5" sophomore Kelvin Benjamin.
Plus, there's gritty tight end Nick O'Leary and a strong running game backing Winston up.
As cool and calm as Winston has been in the pocket this season, Auburn must find a way to knock the freshman off his spot and force him to make difficult throws in the face of pressure.
The problem is that Winston is very athletic, even though he looks to run often as a last resort. That isn't discouraging Tigers defensive end Dee Ford from coming hard after him, per CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman:
Asked what makes him so confident he can get to Jameis Winston, #Auburn DE Dee Ford: "He's a quarterback. He drops back." Smiles, laughs— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) January 3, 2014
Ford leads Auburn with 8.5 sacks and will need to get at least a handful of hurries on Winston to knock him out of rhythm and give the Tigers a shot to win this one.
Win 3rd Down Battle
The play-calling head coaches in Malzahn and FSU's Jimbo Fisher have both had immense success this year. Both deploy complex systems that are multifaceted but in different ways.
Fisher has the luxury of balance with both the run and the pass and has a great feel for what to call in critical situations. He explained how he juggles both coaching and calling plays to the USA Today's Dan Wolken:
I always thought it would be easier to call plays as a head coach because you know exactly how you want the game to go, what you're anticipating, when to take chances, when not to. Sometimes when you're a coordinator, you may call something and the head coach says, "Oooh, I didn't really want that right now." Well, it's too late.
That's helped the Seminoles convert third downs at a 55.2 percent clip—third in the NCAA.
Malzahn's rather one-dimensional ground-and-pound style features a lot of different blocking schemes and formations to throw opponents off. Auburn's success rate of 45.6 percent is a respectable 27th but not quite as consistent.
Bringing pressure and stuffing the box in these scenarios may be the only option the Tigers have to contain the physical style Florida State sports from its backfield, which features Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr.
Leaving Auburn's secondary exposed on the outside against such a talented receiving corps is dangerous. However, that's the way it is with the Seminoles: Pick your poison.
Play Relentlessly to Strengths
Or: stick to the game plan—one that should feature minimal passing, plenty of possession time and ball protection.
Boston College came closest to beating Florida State this season, losing 48-34. What helped the Eagles stay close was a continual reliance on running the ball with Heisman finalist Andre Williams, and they totaled 45 carries for 200 yards for the game.
Which player will be the biggest difference-maker vs. Florida State?
The junior scampered for a whopping 304 yards in the SEC championship win over Missouri and has found pay dirt 22 times on the ground this season. Something will have to give when he faces a defense that has yielded a nation-low five rushing TDs.
Nick Marshall is a quarterback the likes of which the Seminoles haven't faced. He is still raw and is almost more of a threat with his feet than with his arm, but his accelerating improvement should strike fear into defenses when he does pull up to pass.
Though what makes Auburn tick is the read-option between Mason and Marshall—and Mason described the innate chemistry he and is QB have in terms of decision-making at the mesh point, per the team's official Twitter account:
Nick Marshall on Tre Mason: "He'll know when I'm going to give him the ball and he'll know when I keep it - we see the same things"— Auburn Football (@FootballAU) January 2, 2014
By sticking with Mason, his fellow back Corey Grant and Marshall, the Tigers should be able to produce substantial yardage, keep the ball away from Winston and Co. and wear FSU down by the fourth quarter.
From there, it comes down to making plays in the clutch—something Auburn has done in the face of adversity and amid this stunning turnaround from a 3-9 campaign a year ago.