The day after Alabama's dominant win over Notre Dame in last year's BCS National Championship, Bovada released 2013 national title odds. Alabama was an obvious favorite at 5/1, and Oregon, Ohio State, LSU, Texas A&M, and Florida rounded out the top five.
Tied with Florida at 14/1: Florida State. And tied with Georgia Tech and Iowa at 200/1: Auburn.
College football always plays out just like we expect, doesn't it?
How they got here
Auburn's season to date
Now, Iowa and Georgia Tech each had decent regular seasons. The Hawkeyes bounced back from an awful 2012 season to finish 8-4, a solid 28th in the F/+ rankings. Georgia Tech came in at 7-5 and 31st, with two tough, tight losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia preventing something even better.
The way Auburn's season started out, it seemed an Iowa- or Tech-esque year was in the works.
The Tigers held off Washington State, 31-24, in the opener and needed a late, clutch touchdown to beat Mississippi State at home. They fell to LSU on September 21, and even though they showed spunk in battling back to only lose by two touchdowns, they still lost by two touchdowns. A 30-22 home win over Ole Miss was seen a sign that 8-4 or 9-3 was within reach, nothing greater.
But the Tigers just kept winning. They upset Texas A&M, 45-41, in College Station. They fended off potential letdown games, beating Arkansas and Tennessee by a combined 50 points.
And then a season of massive improvement began to take on a team-of-destiny feel. Auburn beat Georgia with a miracle catch of a batted pass, then beat Alabama with a miracle return of a missed field goal. The Tigers destroyed Missouri's defense for 59 points in the SEC Championship. And then they watched as Ohio State fell to Michigan State, opening the door for the Tigers to return to the national championship for the second time in four seasons.
College football's money-printing postseason will soon have a new name and a new format. But let's pretend the last official week of the Bowl Championship Series is also the birth of something new.
Florida State's season to date
To say the least, we caught on to Florida State a lot earlier. At least, the stats did.
What the Seminoles were doing to early opponents wasn't the normal beating-up of bad opponents. The Noles started slowly at times, but otherwise overwhelmed a bunch of decent teams. Maryland and Pitt aren't amazing, but FSU beat them by a combined 104-13. They spotted Boston College an early 17-3 lead, then cruised, 45-17, the rest of the way.
When the Seminoles traveled to Clemson and took out the third-ranked Tigers, 51-14, the world started to figure out what the numbers were trying to tell them: this team was pretty ridiculous. And while we waited for FSU to randomly struggle on the road, as the Noles have been known to do in previous years, it just never happened. They beat an undefeated Miami team by 27. They beat Wake Forest and Syracuse by a combined 118-6. They beat Florida by 30 in the Swamp. They started slowly against Duke in the ACC title game and still won by 38.
Even though we weren't all willing to see it early on, Florida State has looked like a championship team from basically the first quarter of the first game of the year. Jameis Winston provided an instant upgrade over E.J. Manuel (a first-round Draft pick, by the way), the offensive line got older and meaner, and -- thanks to absurdly good recruiting and development -- the defense absorbed losses up front and on the coaching staff with ease. Former Nick Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt installed a Saban-esque boa constrictor defense, and FSU has more than taken advantage of its talent.
The Seminoles produced the No. 1 offense and the No. 2 defense in the country, according to the F/+ ratings. Auburn might be a team of destiny -- we'll find out soon enough -- but the most difficult test still remains.
Florida State's biggest advantages
Florida State simply has the best offense in the country. First things first: Auburn's defense is pretty solid. The Tigers close out drives well, they make stops in the red zone (just ask Alabama), and if they can leverage you into uncomfortable down-and-distance scenarios, they fare perfectly well. That Missouri was able to put a lot of yards and points up in the SEC title game created an Auburn's-defense-stinks meme, but it really doesn't.
The problem for Auburn's defense isn't that it is particularly good or bad. The problem is that Florida State's offense is absurdly good. And it's not like we didn't know this -- the Seminoles' quarterback ran away with the Heisman just a few weeks ago.
But we still might not appreciate FSU's offense enough, and that's because of pace. Most of the top offenses attempt to maximize advantages by playing fast. Ohio State (No. 2 in Off. F/+) averaged 71.6 plays per game in 2013, Texas A&M (No. 3) averaged 73.8, Oregon (No. 6) averaged 75.4, and Baylor (No. 5) averaged 82.5. FSU, meanwhile, cruised along at 67.8. If the Seminoles ran as many plays as Baylor, they would have averaged about 644 yards and upwards of 64 points per game.
No, the Seminoles didn't play many incredible defenses, but they won't play one in the BCS National Championship, either.
Florida State passes slightly more frequently than the national average on both standard and passing downs. At first glance, this might seem to play to Auburn's strengths, since the Tigers pin their ears back well. But Auburn's pass rush is limited; the Tigers' pass-rushers are passing-downs specialists, which seems like a weird distinction. Let me explain. On standard downs, Auburn focuses its resources toward the run, attempting to stand up to run-blocking and not leave itself open to counter-punches. The Tigers don't bring in effective pass-rush personnel until the opponent falls behind schedule.
This is a long way of saying that Winston should have time to find open receivers on first-and-10, especially if the Seminoles are getting production from a running game that we almost forget to mention despite its strong productivity. In 25 carries per game, Devonta Freeman and backups Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. plow away at 6.9 yards per carry.
FSU tends to remain quite vanilla on offense until you force it to take risks, but a consistent run game allows the Seminoles to continue moving the chains and winning field position even if the passing game is taking its time finding a groove. It's almost frustrating to watch. FSU's offense is so good with the uppercuts -- the top five receivers (Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw, tight end Nick O'Leary, and Freeman, all of them unique threats) all average at least 9.9 yards per target with at least a 63 percent catch rate -- that you wish you could see more of them, but the Seminoles stick with the jab for a couple of rounds at a time.
Regardless, when it's time to throw the haymaker, the haymaker tends to connect.
Florida State has tons of muscle, and Auburn has plenty of quickness. But at a couple key spots on the field, the Tigers' strength will have to contend with FSU's world-class athletes.
Auburn's biggest defensive weaknesses are some of Florida State's biggest strengths. It's not just that FSU has a multitude of strengths. It's that it is fully equipped to exploit Auburn's deficiencies.
The Tigers are okay down-for-down but fall victim to big plays. FSU's the best big-play offense in the country.
The Tigers make stuffs against the run behind the line of scrimmage, but you can create plenty of opportunities with your ground game. FSU has one of the best lines in the country in terms of creating opportunities.
Auburn's not very resistant in short-yardage situations. FSU's got an awesome short-yardage offense.
Auburn bends a little too much and allows you to get a first down or two before making stops. FSU almost always generates first downs, even in unsuccessful drives.
It is really, really difficult to imagine Auburn making too many stops here, especially once FSU settles in. The Tigers might need to score on nearly every possession to win, and even though their offense was ridiculously impressive in the regular season's stretch run, that's a lot to ask.
Man for man, the Seminole front seven will hold up. And it has had a month to prepare.
During the run-up to the SEC title game, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel mentioned that he'd have preferred to play a team like Auburn in a bowl game, when his squad would have had a few weeks to prepare for the nuances of an option game that was quickly finding its groove. And in Atlanta, if Missouri's defense proved anything, it's that it needed at least a few more weeks to prepare.
All the preparation time in the world won't guarantee success when it's actually time to go against this Auburn offense, which takes advantage of a wicked combination of misdirection and power. Down the stretch, the Tigers rushed for 323 yards against Georgia (No. 23 in Rushing S&P+), 296 against Alabama (third), and 545 against Missouri (24th). Gus Malzahn will figure out where you are deficient and pick at the scab ruthlessly.
But while Auburn is effective with its option game, the Tigers found perhaps their biggest advantages man-on-man. The offensive line was almost as good as Nick Marshall and Tre Mason down the stretch, but it might not find much of an advantage against FSU's burly front four.
And without a strong push from Greg Robinson and the line, the Tigers will have to rely more on fooling FSU. That's not necessarily likely to work for a full 60 minutes, especially with a month of prep for Jeremy Pruitt's defense.
Auburn's biggest advantages
Facing Auburn is not like facing anything else. Everything I said above is true. Auburn really could struggle to get a push on FSU's line, and relying on confusing FSU and repeatedly calling the perfect play might be too much to ask for.
But it still might not be too much to ask for. The effortlessness with which Malzahn waved his magic wand in late-November and early-December was staggering. Not everything he called worked, at least against Alabama (and Georgia in the fourth quarter), but he was constantly three steps ahead of opposing coordinators. And in the red zone, his play-calling became even more effective.
More important than schemes and play-calling, however? His personnel got more and more dialed in. In September, we referred to Marshall as a converted defensive back playing quarterback. By the end of the regular season, he was the best option quarterback in college football.
In the first five weeks of the season, Mason was a grinder, averaging just 4.8 yards per carry for an option offense that wasn't particularly scary. And then he rushed for 468 yards (6.2 per carry) against perhaps the best two run defenses in the SEC.
In the first five games, Auburn plugged away with 242 rushing yards and 29 points per game. In its final four games, the Tigers averaged 402 rushing yards and 48 points per game. This offense reached a special place late in the year, gashing good defenses with an ease I hadn't seen in a long time.
FSU's defense is big and mean and will have been well-drilled in stopping what Auburn wants to do. And hell, maybe this long break between games will be detrimental to Auburn's overall rhythm. But it's impossible to count this offense out after what we saw late in the year. It was too impressive.
What's it take to build a college football program that can compete for national titles? Above all else, it takes talent. Let's look into what this year's BCS National Championship teams are made of.
If anybody can stop FSU on passing downs, it's Auburn. Auburn might struggle to leverage you into passing downs sometimes, but when it does, it finishes off the drive. The Tigers' pass rush comes at you with Dee Ford from one side (8.5 sacks, 17 hurries) and some combination of LaDarius Owens, Carl Lawson, and Elijah Daniel from the other (combined: 8.5 sacks, 29 hurries), and even if they don't bring you down -- and it's certainly difficult to bring Winston down -- they rush your decision-making process and force mistakes.
Winston's maturity and patience backfire on him sometimes when it comes to waiting too long in the pocket, and Auburn will absolutely take advantage of that.
Auburn gets more aggressive the further you move down the field, and while there's no guarantee those risks will pay off against such a brutal, deep offense, the Tigers will still have a chance to make plays. They did so when it counted against Alabama, and when Missouri got a little desperate in trying to keep up with Auburn's offensive output, Auburn shut Mizzou down more, too.
If Auburn can score enough points early and stay either ahead or really close in this game, the risks may find more reward as Florida State gets a little bit tight. FSU is methodical in pace only -- when the Seminoles score, it doesn't take them many plays to do it -- and the longer Auburn forces FSU to take risks of its own and make plays when it needs to, the more the Tigers can generate an advantage.
If special teams matters, that's probably good news for the Tigers. Florida State has one of the best kickers in the country in Roberto Aguayo, who was a perfect 11-for-11 on kicks under 40 yards and a nearly-perfect eight-for-nine on longer ones.
But Auburn can match Aguayo with Cody Parkey. Punter Steven Clark almost never allows returns (five all year), and AU return men Chris Davis (punts -- and field goals, apparently) and Mason and Quan Bray (kickoffs) are frequently devastating.
Special teams is a small-sample thing -- it's not guaranteed to make an impact on a given game. But if it does in this one, odds are good that it's helping Auburn immensely.
Overreactions for 2014
We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?
This was supposed to be a transition year of sorts for Florida State. The Seminoles were moving from the E.J. Manuel era to the Winston era, and while expectations were pretty high, this was still a team with minimal senior starters (Kenny Shaw and center Bryan Stork on offense, and tackle Jacobbi McDaniel, two linebackers, and two safeties on defense) that could expect to get better in 2014.
With Winston still a year away from Draft eligibility, FSU will automatically be a top-three team or so next season. Whether the 'Noles are No. 1 could depend both on their title game performance and on which Draft-eligible juniors -- and there are lots of them -- elect to return to Tallahassee in 2014.
Auburn, meanwhile, is also a year ahead of schedule. Even though Malzahn was inheriting a team full of former star recruits, it was difficult to imagine him turning around a 3-9 team too terribly much in Year 1. But he did.
And while there will certainly be losses to account for in Year 2 -- H-back Jay Prosch is a senior, as are Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae on the defensive line; Mason's a junior and would be crazy not to go pro, and left tackle Greg Robinson's star has risen so quickly that he could be a first-rounder as a redshirt sophomore -- Malzahn will still have Marshall, a load of capable running backs (not to mention receivers Sammie Coates, Bray, and Ricardo Louis), and an infinitely more experienced defense.
Auburn's going to be in the top 10 to start next season, win or lose.
F/+ Projection: FSU 30, Auburn 19
Win Probability: FSU 79%
It probably goes without saying that Auburn wants a high-scoring game. If the Tigers can generate some easy early scores and force FSU to keep up with its high-octane, high-energy attack, then not only will AU be defining the game, but it will force the Seminoles to do something they haven't had to do all year: win a close game.
Quite a few people seem to be leaning toward Auburn because the Noles haven't been tested. (Insert Lou Holtz's "steel is forged through fire" line here.) But that only matters if Auburn can actually test them. While the Seminoles' schedule hasn't been difficult, the stats still favor them by double digits for a reason: they've been dominant. They haven't been tested in part because they've aced potential tests by halftime.
The longer this game stays close, the more it favors Auburn, but Auburn still faces burden of proof. If Missouri scored on seven of its first 11 drives against Auburn in the SEC title game, an in-rhythm FSU offense could score on nine. Auburn's defense is good but hasn't proven it can stop an offense of this caliber, and while we are defining this game as the battle of FSU's defense and Auburn's offense, for that to matter, Auburn has to come up with answers on defense, too.
We can hope for a great game here, and we might get it, but the odds of that are about as good as the odds of FSU winning handily. Malzahn's magic could take hold, but this has felt like FSU's year for a long time now.