No. 1 Florida State Seminoles (13-0) vs. No. 2 Auburn Tigers (12-1)
Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET, Pasadena, Calif. (ESPN)
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES BREAKDOWN
For months, Florida State was happy to downplay its own talent. In each of the past two seasons, the Seminoles bore the burden of lofty expectations and eventually collapsed under the weight. This time, they were happy to fly beneath the radar. But make no mistake -- they knew this season would be special.
“The turning point was the spring, spring football when we started, and we knew we were going to have a special year,” quarterback Jameis Winston said.
Winston has been the catalyst. The redshirt freshman was a revelation from the moment he stepped onto the field during Florida State’s spring game, launching a long touchdown throw on his first pass attempt. In his debut against Pitt, he was nearly flawless, accounting for five touchdowns in the win. He delivered the pregame inspiration in Death Valley, then delivered Florida State’s biggest win of the season, thumping Clemson 51-14. By season’s end, he had rewritten the record books at Florida State.
But if Winston was the man in the spotlight, he was pushed there by an immensely talented supporting cast. Three receivers and his top tailback are all within reach of 1,000 yards for the season. Nick O’Leary and Kelvin Benjamin provide two of the biggest matchup advantages in the country, and Winston has exploited their talents to the tune of 21 touchdowns. His offensive line employs five players who figure to land NFL jobs within the next two years. For the season, Florida State led the nation, averaging 7.8 yards per play.
The offense garnered headlines, but the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. Florida State lost seven starters and three assistant coaches from last season’s No. 2-ranked unit, and during the spring, new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt revamped the scheme. The adjustments didn’t take long to master. The Seminoles lead the nation in pass defense for the second straight year, but this season they added a penchant for takeaways, racking up 25 interceptions. The rushing defense was nearly as stout, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. The first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown all season. In the final nine games of the season, FSU’s first-team defense allowed just 42 points total.
Florida State wrapped up its berth in the Vizio BCS National Championship with one final dominant performance against Duke in the ACC title game. Winston accounted for four touchdowns. The defense forced three turnovers and nine punts. It was Florida State’s fourth win over a ranked foe by a combined score of 200-35. -- David M. Hale
AUBURN TIGERS BREAKDOWN
All around the Auburn football offices there are signs that read, "It's a New Day." Coach Gus Malzahn promised the return of championships to The Plains when he came back to the school after the 2012 season, and against all reason, he's put the previously inept Tigers back in contention to claim college football's coveted crystal football trophy less than one year later.
Auburn's date with Florida State in the BCS championship is the culmination of a turnaround few believed was possible.
Even before Michigan State beat Ohio State to open the door for Auburn's trip west, it felt like the start of something new on The Plains.
Auburn's resurgence from winless in the SEC to conference champs can be traced back to Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall. First, Malzahn had to rebuild the fragile psyche of a program that went through one of the worst slides in the history of college football. Second, he had to find a quarterback to execute his complex zone-read option offense. Lastly, he had to make it all work.
Marshall, who transferred to Auburn late in August, knew only a quarter of the offense when he started at quarterback for the Tigers in Week 1. He accounted for only 126 total yards in the season opener against Washington State. But with the help of Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he started piecing things together. He led four game-winning or game-tying drives, and the offense has scored 30 points or more in each game since the team’s lone loss to LSU in September.
Auburn’s magical run hasn’t come without its share of drama, though. The Tigers needed a 73-yard Hail Mary in the final minute to knock off Georgia, and the town is still buzzing after the field goal return by Chris Davis to upset No. 1 Alabama. Auburn is being tabbed a team of destiny, and with what’s happened in the final month of the season, how can you pick against it? It’s been as unlikely a comeback story as you’ll ever see, and it’s not over yet. There’s still one game left to be played. -- Greg Ostendorf