General view of the Florida State Seminoles (right) and Auburn Tigers helmets at the 2014 BCS National Championship press conference at Newport Beach Marriott.
(Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports) -- No. 1 Florida State faces No. 2 Auburn tonight in the 16th and final championship game of the Bowl Championship Series era.
How the teams compare, unit-by-unit:
Each of Florida State's starting five offensive linemen earned some degree of all-conference accolades in 2013, including left tackle Cam Erving, the Atlantic Coast Conference's pick as offensive lineman of the year. Perhaps no other position group has made such strides since Jimbo Fisher replaced Bobby Bowden in 2010: FSU's front went from young and questionable to experienced, mean and steady. Perhaps the only question is a lack of proven depth, but that was not an issue during the regular season.
Auburn's line is anchored by center Reese Dismukes, a team leader, and all-conference left tackle Greg Robinson. This group paves the way for a running game that averaged a national-best 335.7 yards a game in leading the Tigers to the Southeastern Conference crown. Auburn's line allowed 16 sacks, third fewest in the SEC, though the task of protecting the quarterback is made easier by Nick Marshall's ability to move inside and out of the pocket and avoid the rush.
Edge: Florida State
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Florida State's crop of receivers is the best in school history, says wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey, who starred as one cog in the Seminoles' "Fab Four" receiving corps of the late 1980s. It's a four-pronged attack led by receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, who combined for 169 receptions, and tight end Nick O'Leary, a second-team all-ACC selection. This could be the finest group of receiving options in college football.
Auburn's passing game excels at hitting the big play - with Ricardo Louis' game-winning grab in the miracle win against Georgia as evidence. But it's Sammie Coates the Seminoles need to worry about: Coates ranks third nationally in averaging 22.1 yards a catch. Targets like Coates, Louis and hybrid receiver-tight end C.J. Uzomah will demand FSU's attention, though the Seminoles will be focused more on stopping the Tigers' running game than defending the pass.
Edge: Florida State
Jameis Winston set school, conference and national freshman records in becoming the second redshirt freshman in as many years to claim the Heisman Trophy. What separates Winston from the rest of the pack isn't merely his physical gifts, though his steadiness and beyond-his-years intelligence make him the perfect weapon for Jimbo Fisher's offense. It's the little things that make this freshman special: Winston has the intangibles - leadership qualities, for example - to stand alone among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks.
Watching Auburn's offense attack the SEC, one would have thought quarterback Nick Marshall had been running coach Gus Malzahn's system for years - not that Marshall, a junior, opened his career at Georgia as a defensive back before joining the Tigers last winter after a year in junior college. While Marshall's throwing lags behind his gifts as a runner, he has thrown eight touchdown passes against one interception in Auburn's last seven games.
Edge: Florida State
As at wide receiver, FSU's backfield can throw a three-headed monster at opposing defenses. Three running backs have gained at least 542 yards: Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. Wilder, the most bruising of the three runners, could be a valuable weapon against Auburn's strong defensive line. But the most impressive back of the three could be Williams, who might be considered FSU's third option but would start for the overwhelming majority of teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision - but not Auburn, it should be said.
Tre Mason's increasing production during the course of the regular season mirrors Auburn's own charge from off the SEC's radar to the national championship game. After a slow start - he gained 100 or more yards in one his first four games - Mason has seven 100-yard outings in his last eight games. His crowning achievement was a 304-yard, four-touchdown performance against Missouri in the SEC championship game, a showing that earned Mason a spot as a Heisman finalist.
Like Alabama, Florida State's blueprint for building a dominant defense began with recruiting elite linemen. Of the nine listed on FSU's depth chart for the championship game, eight received at least a four-star ranking from the recruiting website Rivals.com. Across the board, these linemen have lived up their recruiting billing. As a result, the Seminoles are able to use a true eight-player rotation up front, substituting in former top-100 recruits such as tackle Jacobbi McDaniel, DeMarcus Walker and others in a wave of next-level talent.
Auburn's defensive line features a nice mix of veteran leadership and freshman talent. Among the elder statesmen, senior defensive end Dee Ford's play stands out: Ford has been productive since the season opener, giving this defense steady play and leadership at a vital position. While a senior and three juniors round out the starting lineup, three freshmen are used heavily as reserves. None has been as impressive as end Carl Lawson, a five-star talent who has matched every expectation heading into his rookie season.
Edge: Florida State
If lost behind the outstanding play up front and the sterling production of the secondary, FSU's linebackers were extremely successful in defending the run-first and up-tempo offenses of the ACC. It's a speedy, aggressive, dangerous bunch: FSU's top trio of Christian Jones, Terrance Smith and Telvin Smith can hunt and find the football from sideline to sideline, chasing down ball carriers regardless of angles or distance. Better yet, FSU's linebackers are adept at sticking with receiving targets in the intermediate passing game.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson uses a base formation of four defensive linemen, five defensive backs and two linebackers. One of the five defensive backs, Robenson Therezie, occupies a hybrid role between safety and linebacker - meaning he'll play closer to the line of scrimmage to apply run support in addition to his duties defending the pass. Auburn also can use its top three linebackers at the same time, meaning Kris Frost, Jake Holland and Cassanova McKinzy could be on the field simultaneously in an effort to slow FSU's ground attack.
Edge: Florida State
FSU has no positional weakness on offense or defense. It can be said, however, that the secondary is the strongest grouping on the roster - and, by extension, the best in college football. For the season, quarterbacks who dared to throw against the Seminoles group had 12 touchdown passes against 25 interceptions, and of the Seminoles' 13 opponents, five completed less than 50% of their attempts. With the likes of Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Terrence Brooks at safety, FSU can simply shut down opposing passing games.
Auburn ranked last in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game and 10th in yards allowed per attempt. To this point, starters like cornerback Chris Davis - who made the miracle return against Alabama - have earned far more praise for their exploits on special teams than the defensive side of the ball. One thing the Tigers secondary has done well, however, is make quarterbacks earn yards through the air. Entering Monday's game, Auburn ranks sixth in the SEC in opposing completion percentage and seventh in interceptions.
Edge: Florida State
Looking for a potential Achilles heel? Florida State's lone blemish on an otherwise perfect résumé has been the subpar performance at punter, which could be an issue if the Seminoles and Tigers play a game dictated by field position. Any question marks at punter are at offset substantially by the play of redshirt freshman kicker Roberto Aguayo, who has hit 19 of his 20 field goal attempts, and the presence of Kermit Whitfield, Joyner and Kenny Shaw in the return game.
With solid-to-superb play in all three phases - kicking, punting and returning - Auburn typically holds the advantage on special teams. At kicker, senior Cody Parkey made 14 of 19 field goal tries, including fix of his six between 40 and 49 yards, Senior punter Steven Clark has ranked among the best in the SEC throughout his college career. Davis led the SEC and ranked second nationally with 20.1 yards per punt return.
That Florida State has not played in any close games in 2013 testifies to the Seminoles' dominance. Yet there is a drawback to this dominance: FSU center Bryan Stork estimated last week that the first-team offense has played in the fourth quarter in only five or six of the Seminoles' 13 games. This suggests, perhaps, that Auburn will hold the edge if the teams are engaged in a nail-biting, back-and-forth affair. Why? Because the Tigers are as hardened and battle-tested as any team in football, thanks to the dramatic nature of several regular-season wins. Mentally, the Tigers won't wilt.
Both staffs were new heading into the season, to a degree. While Malzahn completely overhauled Auburn's staff after his hiring, Fisher lost six assistants to other positions after the 2012 season. While Fisher did a wonderful job filling those vacancies, that a good percentage of assistants are new negates FSU's advantage of having reached a BCS bowl a year ago. Though Malzahn is in his first season, he was on the Auburn staff that won the national championship in 2010. One thing is clear: Fisher and Malzahn are among the best coaches in college football.
Edge: Florida State.
Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports