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BCS Championship preview: Can Auburn slow FSU?

[airesizeimg src=”http://ngscsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/bcsturf.jpg” alt=”bcsturf” class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-2928″ ]Since 2000, only two teams have risen from outside the consensus Top 15 to win a BCS championship.

One of those teams was Oklahoma, which climbed from No. 19 in the Associated Press preseason poll to defeat Florida State 13-2 in the 2000 title game.

The other team? Auburn.

You remember that team. Cam Newton, a D-I washout who revived his career in junior college, came out of nowhere to lead the 2010 Tigers from a preseason rank of No. 22 to a 22-19 title game victory against Oregon.

History seemingly has repeated itself with similar players on stage. Auburn, a team that finished dead last in its division of the SEC a year ago, is playing for a national title with another juco quarterback at the helm and a Heisman finalist running back who thought he was going to be a basketball player just three scant years ago.

Auburn’s opponent? Florida State.

There’s a reason why teams often don’t come from out of the blue to win national titles – there typically is a team (or teams) everyone identified at the beginning of the season to be a juggernaut. Florida State is one such team.

The only true question mark facing the Seminoles entering the 2013 season was whether freshman quarterback Jameis Winston was ready to lead. Turns out he was. When your team’s lone question mark winds up winning the Heisman Trophy, your crew is probably pretty doggone good.

Monday’s national championship is generally considered to be a matchup of contrasting styles. The Seminoles feature a high-octane passing attack while Auburn boasts one of the nation’s very best running games.

As is often the case, the victor will have taken advantage of precisely the opposite. If the Seminoles win, expect it to be due to the team’s underrated running game. If Auburn wins, Nick Marshall’s arm – not Tre Mason’s legs – likely will have been the deciding factor.

This happens because teams have a month to prepare. By game time, strengths have been identified and counter attacks appropriately planned. In Monday’s first half, expect Auburn’s run game to be stifled and expect Winston to be struggling.

It’s when teams resort to Plan B or Plan C that one begins to separate from the other. Also, if it is a close game, expect the team with an advantage on the line to pull away.* Let’s take a closer look at these possibilities.

*–Turnovers are an X-factor. There often is no rhyme or reason to who commits them and when, so when it comes to breaking down any game, turnovers cannot be taken into account. That a team wins on a turnover isn’t really an indicator the winning team is better than the losing team.

SEMINOLES PLAN A: Attack downfield, stymie Auburn run game

Winston passed for 3,810 yards with 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. If all goes as anticipated, he should be expected to put together a game very similar to the one he played against Duke in the ACC championship game.

Winston began that game looking every bit like the freshman he was. Clearly over-eager and hyped up, Winston overthrew receivers and made hasty decisions as Florida State failed to score in the first quarter for the first time all season.

End result: While he threw two interceptions, Winston completed 19 of 32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-7 rout.

Florida State’s script on Monday likely will feature a couple of safe reads on the opening drive to settle Winston’s nerves before opening him up to take shots downfield at speedster Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, who at 6-5 is a matchup nightmare for the Auburn defense.

Defensively, while Florida State has proven capable of overcoming a strong rushing attack, it hasn’t lined up against one quite as effective as Auburn.

“Overcoming” is the key word there and it is a huge issue for the Seminoles. While they did defeat Boston College, they did so mostly due to outscoring the Eagles (48-34) rather than significantly slowing Heisman candidate Andre Williams, who rushed for 149 yards on 28 carries.

What makes Auburn so very deadly running the ball is the fact Marshall often doesn’t know if he’s handing off until he has stuck the ball in a running back’s gut. Many of Marshall’s best running plays have come on plays designed to go to Mason.

“We know each other’s tendencies,” Mason said Thursday. “Sometimes when he’s not supposed to pull it, he pulls it because he feels he can get around the edge. It’s just a great chemistry we have going on. It works out.”

The key for Marshall is reading the opponent’s defensive ends. If he can read the defense and know where the end will be in regard to the blocking scheme, he’ll take the ball himself on the fake and he’ll do it with without calling an audible.

That unpredictability forces defenses into accounting for all the potential rush options and has the effect of spreading a defense thin even when it’s loading the box.

Nonetheless, expect the Seminoles to load the box and man-up on the receivers, daring Marshall to beat them with his arm.

SEMINOLES PLAN B: Run the ball, control the clock

Would you be surprised to hear Florida State ran for more touchdowns (41) than it passed for (40)?

Devonta Freeman ran for more than 900 yards and 13 touchdowns. Karlos Williams rushed for more than 700 yards and 11 touchdowns and James Wilder Jr. proved to be an occasional home run threat with more than 500 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.

If Florida State gets out to an early lead, don’t be surprised if it turtles on offense and relies on its trio of running backs and Winston’s legs to run out the clock.

AUBURN PLAN A: Wear out the Seminoles D

This really is the only way to go for Auburn and the Seminoles know it.

That said, every team that has faced Auburn since the Texas A&M game on Oct. 19, has known it as well, to no avail.

The key? Knowing what Auburn is going to do is one thing, but keeping up with the quick-snap offense is another. No team has featured the necessary personnel on defense to maintain appropriate pressure on every snap. That is what Auburn relies on most – you may stop them on two consecutive plays, but it will burn you on the third. Or ninth. Or 12th.

Here’s a statistic you might not have heard of: Auburn leads the nation in most yards gained BEFORE contact. That is a tribute to its massive offensive line, its play-calling unpredictability and its rapid pace. The offensive line – which includes the tight ends as seal blockers – lines up exactly the same way on every play in order to give away nothing. That, in itself, is very confusing to a defense.

“We’re trying to get lined up as fast as possible, first and foremost, so Coach Malzahn doesn’t get pissed at us,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said Thursday. “There may be a little misdirection, but we’re trying to get lined up, whether or not we’re part of the read option, we are trying to make a hole for (the running back or Marshall), and we know he’s going to make a big play. If we sustain our block he’s gonna make a big play.

“Once we’re pacing, I don’t think it matters as much, because we’re just trying to wear them out, but we when we have a little check, we’re conscious about, let’s make sure we are two inches inside the hash. Let’s make sure we aren’t giving them any key indicators away.”

If Auburn has kept the game close – even if the Tigers trail by two touchdowns entering the fourth quarter – expect more ground and pound behind that rapid pace.

“The first quarter they will be affected by it, but fourth quarter you can tell people aren’t used to that pace, and we have been training for that all year,” Uzomah said. “I have been saying our offensive line is one of the best in the nation if not the best in the nation, and they pride themselves on being physical and helping Tre make big runs, and (we) will fare well against Florida State’s D-linemen. They have a lot of athletes and they’re physical and they fly around, but I think the offensive line is, again, one of the best in the nation, and they will do well.”

AUBURN PLAN B: Air Marshall.

There was one specific drive during Auburn’s win against Alabama that stood out. With 2:41 to go and trailing 28-21, Auburn stubbornly clung to its rushing attack. Six consecutive handoffs to Mason steadily moved the chains but suddenly on 1st-and-10 at the Alabama 39, Marshall went over the top to Sammie Coates for a game-tying 39-yard touchdown pass.

“It was a close situation, and we knew that we were going to get it done,” Uzomah said. “We were moving with urgency, we were running the ball and getting five yards here and five yards there, a chunk at a time, but there was no question in our minds that we weren’t going to score.”

This came just after Auburn’s previous drive – a three-and-out that featured Marshall throwing two incompletions after being sacked.

Auburn is not the kind of team that subscribes to the new-age college football approach of using the pass to set up the run. The Tigers are old school to the core – run to set up the pass – even though they do old school in new and surprising ways.

If Auburn is unable to keep Florida State out of the end zone, expect the Tigers to compensate the very same way it did against Alabama. They will go to extremes to stay out of obvious passing situations, but they will throw the ball knowing they can use all four downs and power their way to a first down on the ground.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Will the streak continue?

Marshall came to Auburn this past summer after reviving his football career at Garden City in the powerful Jayhawk Community College Conference. His only other significant offer came from Kansas State. He is one Cinderella story for Auburn. The other, of course, is Mason, who quit football during his freshman year in high school thinking he would have a better shot playing basketball. That lasted until he realized he would “never be 6-8”, as he puts it.

Worst-to-first stories are a lot of fun and when it happens in the mighty SEC, it truly is a special thing.

Reality has a way of quashing Cinderellas. The SEC’s streak of seven consecutive national championships is on the line Monday because Auburn, on paper, is the biggest underdog the SEC has trotted into the game.

Despite their offensive prowess, the Tigers arrived at the title game on the strength of a Hail-Mary victory against Georgia and a fluke-play overtime win against Alabama. By the way, those two teams had their pants pulled down by supposedly inferior competition in their respective bowl games.

The Seminoles’ strength attacks Auburn’s weakness and that’s probably what this game distills down to – Can Auburn outscore Florida State?

National championship games are funny creatures. When Auburn met Oregon for the 2010 title, everyone was anticipating a track meet. What they got was hardly that. If history repeats itself in that fashion, it likely adds up to an Auburn victory.

But what it comes down to is this: There is no reason to believe Auburn’s defense can stop Florida State’s offense from hitting its average of 53 points per game. Can Auburn score 54?

Can they? Yes. Will they?

We’ll see.

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