The Bowl Championship Series is headed for a big finish in the final title game before the new playoff format begins next year. No. 1 Florida State, undefeated and rarely challenged this season, takes on Auburn, which went from unranked to unreal. Fresh off the miracle plays that shocked Georgia and Alabama, the second-ranked Tigers (12-1) amassed 545 rushing yards against Missouri to win the Southeastern Conference Championship game, with Tre Mason accounting for 304 yards.
"The way the Auburn offense has finished the year, it's almost like a 5-yard carry is a bad play — that's how well they're running the ball," says ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, who will call the national championship game from Pasadena (Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30/7:30c). "They're going to go up against a defense that's the most athletic that they've faced all year. As much as [Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback] Jameis Winston gets talked about, I think Florida State's defense is the backbone of the team because of the senior leadership on that side of the ball."
And, Herbstreit points out, the Seminoles (13-0) have had four weeks to prepare for Auburn's option-oriented attack led by quarterback Nick Marshall. "But if Auburn can run the ball and stay away from third-and-long, then they've got a chance to have some success," he said.
Florida State counters with a balanced offense averaging 529 yards a game. "What they try to do is test you physically to see how you can hold up in the trenches," Herbstreit says, "and if they can get their running game going, that's what sets up the big plays in their pass game."
He says Auburn will have to "to load up on stopping the run," but cautions "that's when you become a little bit vulnerable in trying to defend the pass. When you do that you're one-on-one in coverage and all year long Jameis Winston has been able to take advantage of that."
While Auburn plays in the powerful SEC, Florida State has romped through the weaker Atlantic Coast Conference, running up huge early leads. "So one team's been battle-tested, one team has not, and we'll see if that becomes a factor in the game," Herbstreit says.
The Tigers have also pulled out those last-minute victories, with a tipped ball leading to a touchdown against Georgia and a 109-yard return on a missed field goal shocking Alabama. "They are a charmed team," Herbstreit says. "It's one of those years for them where it seems like they've always been able to come up with an answer. The more they can compete and hang in there early, the more they'll be able to get themselves to buy in to thinking that they're ready to win the game."
The SEC, which has won the last seven BCS title games, also won the first in 1999 when Tennessee defeated, yes, Florida State, 23-16. "We'll see," Herbstreit says, "if they have better luck this time."