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Florida State vs. Auburn: Do you want the great team or the great story?

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If Florida State wins tonight, then we ask, "is this one of the best teams in recent college football history?" And if Auburn wins, then we ask, "is this one of the best stories in ... all of sports?" So if you're not a fan of either team, do you prefer the titan or the fairy tale?

Kevork Djansezian

Florida State, the great team

Florida State is playing Monday night for a spot in college football Valhalla.

The Seminoles are not just playing to win a national championship, although for a fan base that hasn't tasted a title in 14 years or a trip to the title game in 12, any old title will do. A Seminole victory will immediately start the pantheon debate. Alabama started the season with the possibility of a historically significant accomplishment, but four months later, it's the Tide's recruiting rival to the Southeast that has that opportunity.

Let's first compare the Noles to the last few years. Florida State is first in Football Outsiders' offensive F/+ and second in defensive F/+. The FO database for offensive and defensive F/+ goes back to 2007, and the only team to be in the top two in both categories is last year's Alabama team. The overall F/+ database goes back to 2005, and the only team to have an overall number higher than Florida State's current 49.7 is also last year's Bama team, which finished at 50.6. With a good performance tomorrow night, Florida State could go past Bama as the best team of the F/+ era and also become the first team to finish first in both offense and defense.

So FSU is, at very least, on the cusp of having the best season for nearly the last decade.

To go back further, we can use the Simple Rating System at College Football Reference. One of the nice things about this measure is that it is scoring-based and accounts for schedule strength, so it allows us to compare teams across eras using a consistent yardstick. SRS is cruder than F/+ (hence the "Simple" that is the first part of the acronym), but that simplicity allows for the system to rank teams for eras when play-based and drive-based data are not available.

So where do the '13 Noles currently stack up against the national champions for the last two decades, according to one metric? (A dominant win over Auburn would surely vault FSU up this list as well, since Auburn currently rates as better than a couple of these national champions already.)



SRS rating


'95 Nebraska



'91 Washington



'01 Miami



'04 Southern California



'08 Florida



'05 Texas



'93 Florida State



'12 Alabama



'11 Alabama



'91 Miami



'09 Alabama



'96 Florida



'99 Florida State



'13 Florida State



'03 Southern California



'97 Nebraska



'00 Oklahoma



'03 LSU



'10 Auburn



'94 Nebraska



'97 Michigan



'98 Tennessee



'06 Florida



’92 Alabama



’07 LSU



’02 Ohio State


There's more to figuring out the best teams in history than just numbers, but numbers give us a place to start.

One of the ways to validate a sports stat is to determine whether it comports with our general sense of reality. A stat that tell us that 1995 Nebraska is the best national champion of the last 22 years and 2002 Ohio State is the worst is off to a good start.

Florida State getting to No. 1 on this list seems highly unlikely.  2013 Florida State will never have the strength of schedule of 1995 Nebraska, and therefore it's inconceivable that it would pass a Husker team that put up dominating scores just like this FSU team's.* However, Florida State can go up the list into the stratosphere occupied by the best teams of recent vintage.

* - If you sort all Florida State teams by strength of schedule, it's worth noting that the '12 and '13 Noles have played the weakest schedules of any FSU team since 1960.

Of course, there's more to figuring out the best teams in college football history than just numbers, but numbers give us a place to start.

And while the advanced stats are unlikely to consider the Seminoles the best team ever, due in large part to their weak schedule, the Noles could hoist themselves into the discussion of the best team in the history of their state.

Right now, that title is battled for by the 1988 and 2001 Miami Hurricanes, the 1996 and 2008 Florida Gators, and the 1993 and 1999 Seminoles. If Florida State shuts down the Auburn offense, piles up the points as it has all season (and, to be fair, the Auburn defense has allowed plenty of scoring this year, so this isn't the biggest challenge in the world), then the Noles give their fans more ammunition around the water coolers of Ocala and Fort Myers.

Auburn, the great story

No matter what happens, this Auburn team isn't going to go on anyone's list of all-time great teams.

All but the most irrational of Auburn fans will acknowledge that the 2013 Tigers don't have a chance of being the best team in the school's or state's history. No team that sits at 95th nationally in yards per play allowed is going to be discussed as awe-inspiring in years to come.

However, Americans love a good underdog story. We read The Little Engine that Could to our kids. We remember the Alamo. We watch schlock like Rudy. In basketball, we lionize 1983 NC State and 1985 Villanova, not to mention the runs of George Mason and Butler to the Final Four.

College football lacks stories like those that are remembered every March by hoops fans. By its nature, the structure of the college football season tends to reward the elite teams, because the champion is crowned (at least theoretically) based on who had the best season from start to finish. College basketball hands out its top prize to the team that wins six in a row in March, which is sometimes one of the best teams and sometimes a team that finished tied for ninth in the Big East.

It's hard for Auburn to be Cinderella.

Auburn isn't a natural underdog. The Tigers come from a conference that has won seven straight national titles, which has inspired resentment on the part of many fans in other regions and overstated claims of complete superiority in the South. Auburn contributed to that streak with its own title just three years ago. The Tigers are a historical power with multiple periods in which they have had a great program. It's the school of Punt Bama Punt, of Bo and of Cam. It's hard for Auburn to be Cinderella.

And yet, this Auburn team is one game away from wearing that glass slipper. The Tigers are one year removed from going winless in the SEC and firing their head coach. They struggled past Washington State at home in the opener. A few weeks later, they were well-beaten by LSU in Baton Rouge. And then came November, when the Tigers strung together a pair of wins so improbable that the writers of Friday Night Lights would have rejected the endings as too far-fetched.

If Auburn wins the national title, then the sequence will be: (1) 74-yard tipped Hail Mary to beat one rival; (2) 109-yard field goal return following a last-minute tying touchdown to beat the arch-rival; (3) shootout victory in conference championship game; and (4) upset over a team gunning for the title of best team ever.

When ESPN does 60 for 60 in 2039, the 2013 Auburn Tigers would be a worthy subject for an episode. But that all depends on ending the story with one more unexpected result.

So which do we want more?

Does the neutral viewer more want to see a team finish its run at the all-time title, or do you want to see one of the most unbelievable championship seasons ever?

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