What: VIZIO BCS National Championship
When: Monday, Jan. 6, 8:20 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Rose Bowl (89,105), Pasadena, Calif.
Opening Line: Florida State -8.5
What matters: Through which lens should we view the Seminoles: as impressive-but-untested bullies whose series of easy wins over overmatched competition leaves them ripe for the upset against an Auburn team forged in the fire of the SEC gauntlet? Or as one of the most unstoppable juggernauts in college football history, one whose week-after-week bludgeonings of their ACC (and SEC) opponents heralds a victory that will prove as inevitable as it is decisive?
The truth may be somewhere in the middle, but this much we know for certain: between Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman, Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, arguably the nation's best offensive line and another dozen certain future NFL draftees besides, none of the eight victims* in the SEC's perfect reign of BCS Championship Game terror have boasted the array of weapons-grade talent Florida State does. Simply by coaxing the Tigers to this point, Gus Malzahn has proven himself one of the elite coaches in college football, but it will take every ounce of his ingenuity and then some to give his team's fairy-tale season the happiest ending of all.
Who matters: Since the day former Georgia cornerback Nick Marshall was named Auburn's starting QB, it's been repeated like a mantra by fans of every team the Tigers have faced: Have to make them throw. Have to make them throw. Have to make them throw. By season's end, Marshall and the Tiger ground game had made that less a sensible approach to strategy and more a wish made while tossing a penny in a fountain. But the Seminoles might be on the very short list of teams for which Have to make them throw isn't vastly easier said than done; FSU ranked ninth in the country in yards per-carry allowed, and in Smith, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, linebacker Terrance Smith and others, the 'Noles have the personnel in the front seven to make Auburn sweat far more passing downs than they've had to of late.
That's not to say that the Tigers won't get their yards. (When you've collected four yards shy of 300 yards rushing on 5.7 per-carry against Alabama, it's safe to say you're going to do some damage against anyone.) But to win the game, Auburn will need Marshall to come up with the handful of big throws he made to save the day vs. the Tide, Texas A&M, even Mississippi State. Will he be up to it against Joyner and the terrifying 'Noles secondary?
Matchup question: Given Auburn's frailties in defending the pass -- the Tigers rank 102nd in pass defense, 63rd in opponent's QB rating -- it's safe to assume Winston, Benjamin, and Rashad Greene will get theirs. But what Auburn would really like to do defensively is slow down Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams and prevent the long, clock-killing drives that would keep their offense off the field. Can a defensive front giving up 4.6 yards per-carry (also 86th in the FBS) make any headway against an offensive line featuring center Bryan Stork, guards Josue Matias and Tre Jackson and tackles Cameron Erving and Bobby Hart -- all of them among the better players for their position in the country?
Prediction: It's too easy to discount the immense strength of the Auburn running game, the SEC's track record in the BCS championship, the enormous step up in difficulty for the 'Noles -- even if you buy that playing at Clemson is in the same ballpark, that game was back on Oct. 19 -- and Malzahn's ability to gameplan. Auburn will make a game of this. But in the end, Winston and the rest of the Seminole offense against the Tiger defense is too complete a mismatch to expect the miracle ride to continue. Florida State 38, Auburn 31
*Not counting LSU, which lost to Alabama for the conference's only loss in a BCS title game. SEC teams are 8-0 against teams from any other conference.