The Matchup: #1 Florida State (13-0) vs. #2 Auburn (12-1)
Current Line: FSU (-10)
Game Time: 8:30 PM ET
When FSU has the ball: Quite simply, FSU’s offense has been the most balanced and most explosive in the country. Behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston, the offense has clicked in a near perfect and flawless balance the entire season. Florida State’s offense didn’t play great defenses, but can we even Auburn consider a great defense? The Tigers will have the best defense the Seminoles have faced this season, but will it make a difference or even be enough to throw the offense off schedule?
Good defensive coordinators – and Ellis Johnson fits that bill – take away something from the offense. Will he try to limit the running game or take his chances with the passing game? The problem is Winston is so dynamic in the passing game, but what makes the passing game so much better is that the Seminole running backs average 6.9 yards per carry. Stopping one aspect of either the run or pass game will be top priority.
When teams allow the running game to be productive on early downs, that’s when WRs Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw and TE Nick O’Leary are deadly. Combine a talented slate of WRs with a passing defense that finished 13th in the SEC, giving up over 259 yards per game, and you have a mismatch. The Tigers’ defense is giving up 5.96 yards per game, the highest ever for a BCS team. Think about it.
Auburn will have to get to and put Winston on the ground early in the game to make him uncomfortable. They’ll have to be physical, rough him up and make him think twice. So far, teams have not been successful doing so. Dee Ford and the Tigers’ pass rush will have to play their best game tonight, and when they get their hands on Winston, they have to bring him down. Too often Winston, who’s great against pressure, escapes the pocket and makes a big play.
The key for Auburn defensively will be maintaining great play in the red zone. They’ve done it the entire year, and they finished second in the SEC in red zone defense. They bend a lot in the open field, but they haven’t broken when it mattered most. A couple plays in the red zone could be the difference.
When Auburn has the ball: Auburn is college football’s hottest offense, and I like to compare them to 2012 Texas A&M, which I thought was the hottest team in the country and could have beaten any team in the country in any bowl game last season. Sure, the offense isn’t balanced, but it hasn’t had to be.
They didn’t just progressively improve throughout the season; they became progressively dominant. The Tigers rushed for 296 yards against Alabama and over 500 against Missouri. QB Nick Marshall didn’t just progressively get better throughout the season, either; he became arguably the best dual-threat quarterback running his system in the country. The same can be said for Tre Mason, who looked like an adequate back during the first half of the season before transforming into a Heisman finalist.
Auburn’s O-line pushed around Alabama and dominated Missouri, but FSU’s front seven matches up man-for-man. They are very similar to Alabama’s defense, but they’re more talented in the front seven, leaner and faster at defensive end and outside linebacker. The defensive ends can set the edge, and the outside linebackers can run with Tre Mason and Corey Grant sideline to sideline.
Credit Nick Marshall for making big plays when he has had to, and he’ll need to make a few tonight. He won’t have to throw for 200 yards, but he’ll have to hit a couple big throws when they’re there. He can’t be lackadaisical with the ball like he has been throughout the season, like he was against Missouri.
Gus Malzahn will have to be dialed in and call a great game. Does it have to be perfect? It wasn’t perfect against Alabama or Missouri, and the success was obvious. But the offense has to stay on schedule in the running game.
The offense may have to score nearly every time it touches the football. That’s pressure, but they’ve handled it well over the latter portion of the season; that’s why they’re in the position they are now.
Special teams: Auburn wants to make special teams a factor. Punt returner Chris Davis has been a difference maker the entire season, and Tre Mason has excelled as a kick returner. Place-kicker Cody Parkey enters the game behind FSU’s Roberto Aguayo in field goal percentage, 73.7 percent compared to Aguayo’s 95 percent. Still, special teams has to be a priority for Auburn.
Final word: Through all the smoke and pregame talk, the most important aspect for Auburn is they get off to a quick start. Playing with a lead on defense is energizing and motivating, and it will continue to put FSU in a position they haven’t faced throughout the season. Auburn wants to play a close, shootout-style game, and the longer Auburn hangs around, the worse it will get for FSU.
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