BCS National Championship Game Preview: Auburn-Florida State

We come to the end of the line in the 2013 college football season, as Florida State and Auburn meet in the BCS National Championship Game on Monday night in Pasadena (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). Will the SEC win its eighth straight national title, or does a new era of conference parity begin as move into next year’s four-team playoff format? Let’s look at our nine key focal points, the Notebook Nine, drawn from the matchup, history and the view from Vegas…

*For all the talk of SEC dominance over the years, let’s not forget how much Florida State has marked this era of college football. The sport moved to a guaranteed 1 vs. 2 postseason matchup in 1998 and the Seminoles promptly played in the first three championship games, winning one. FSU can only hope the era doesn’t end the way it began—when they lost to the SEC champ, Tennessee in 1998.

college football bowl history*Fans can only hope that this game plays out as tense as the schools’ previous bowl meeting. That was 1988 in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn brought the nation’s best defense, including Outland Trophy winner Tracy Rocker. Florida State was loaded with speed and led by Deion Sanders. The Seminoles led 13-7 late and the Tigers were driving. Deion came up with an interception in the end zone to preserve the W.

*Florida State is a decisive favorite in this game, giving up nine points in Las Vegas. The Over/Under is high, at 67, so combine those two betting numbers and get to a projected result of 37-28 for the ‘Noles.

*Jameis Winston’s numbers are nothing short of dazzling and he spreads the ball around extremely well. Three receivers, Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all have 900-plus yards receiving and Devonta Freeman has the same on the ground. My issues with Winston are a little more nitpicky—in two big games against Miami and Duke, he threw a combined four interceptions. Though his team won big, the interceptions against Miami kept the Hurricanes in the game much longer than was necessary. Winston needs to avoid that on Monday night.

*It’s no secret that Auburn wants to run the football. Quarterback Nick Marshall only threw more than 30 passes two times during the SEC schedule. One of those was the team’s only loss, against LSU, and the other was a shaky win over Mississippi State. Auburn was behind in those games, thus explaining the pass volume. What’s more revealing that in the key wins over Alabama and Missouri, Marshall threw only a combined 20 passes, and had more times running the ball. Auburn scored 93 points in the two games.

*To look over the Florida State depth chart is to look over that of an NFL farm team. This number alone tells the story—the Seminoles have three players on their second string that the pro scouts love. Auburn has five on their entire first string. FSU’s talent is equally distributed throughout the defense and into the skill positions, so there is no obvious area to avoid or attack.

*To make matters worse for Auburn, they’ve had some defensive issues. They did not stop the run against LSU. Johnny Manziel and Aaron Murray both had huge days, for Texas A&M and Georgia respectively, while A.J. McCarron had a good one for Alabama. The Tigers are winning games in spite of their defense, rather than because of it.

*While I was critical of Winston’s play against Miami and Duke, let’s not overlook his showing against Clemson. With a 444-yard passing night against a team that we now know has won a major bowl game, Winston staked his early claim to the Heisman in leading a 51-14 road victory. On the Auburn side, Tre Mason was obscenely good in the 59-42 win over Missouri. Mason ran for over 300 yards by himself, and the team went over the 500-yard mark. They did this against a team that we now know has won the Cotton Bowl.

*The ACC is 4-6 in bowl play, losing both times against the SEC, who is 6-2. On the flip side, does Clemson winning the Orange Bowl, while Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl, suggest that maybe the difference doesn’t apply to the top tier?

I’m picking Auburn. In last year’s title game I picked Notre Dame to cover the spread against Alabama and said I considered an Irish victory more likely than a ‘Bama cover. Two possessions into the game I decided I wasn’t going against the SEC until someone had proven it on the field. I don’t have reason to change that.

Furthermore, even if you throw that out, I’m genuinely torn on which way to go for the win, meaning that taking the dog plus the nine is the obvious answer. I also see the game going Under 67.

Someday an SEC team will lose a national championship. That day might be January 6, 2014. But I won’t be the one to predict it when that happens. The good news for FSU fans is that’s the exact rationale I used to pick against the New Orleans Saints in the NFL playoffs last night in Philadelphia, and the Saints won 26-24. But I have no regrets, and I’m riding the SEC on Monday night.

Bowl Handicapping Record (through January 4)
ATS: 15-18
Over/Under: 19-14