I originally posted this on ESPN.
Breakdown of the two big components of the game; FSU O vs. Auburn D, Auburn O vs. FSU D and how it shaped the game.
Auburn played out of its mind and helped give this nation one of the best NCG's in the past couple of decades. There's a lot that can be written on all the positives Auburn exhibited in this game, I've listed a few in other comments. But I'm going to talk Florida St. here.
Auburn fans might not like this, but the game can be summed up as follows; Florida St. played their C game, Auburn played their A+ game, and Florida St. still won. The Nole offense only seemed to click about three times all night. But those few times they weren't shooting themselves in the foot, Auburn's D looked completely outmatched. On the three Seminole offensive TD's, they seemed utterly unstoppable. Obviously, FSU beat Auburn 31-10 after the fake punt.
Winston was visibly flustered early in the game, the entire Nole offense had a case of the dropsies and false starts...all signs of 'trying to win everything on one big play' and nerves being too tightly wound. Once they got into a rhythm though, the Tiger D didn't seem to have much of an answer. I feel this part of the game can be summed up like this;
FSU stopped itself more on offense than Auburn's D dictated to FSU
(The one area I really feel Auburn won consistently, was the ability to get quality pressure using just their front four. Other than that, I felt the Noles just didn't execute, even though it was a gargantuan effort by the entire Tiger D and their fans should be proud of the effort)
On the other side of the ball, FSU DC Jeremy Pruitt mentioned uncharacteristic mistakes. He said that you have to credit Auburn as well, but there were some plays where Auburn WR's were simply not covered. This was touted as the best secondary in the country and Pruitt said the Seminoles secondary did not pattern match correctly a few times. But as far as run defense, FSU forced Auburn to play so differently it almost didn't look like their normal scheme. In fact, right out of the gate, Malzahn elected to go with more of a balanced approach and I think it's what he saw on film that dictated that decision to him.
Tre Mason still had 195 yds rushing (and a sweet 5.7 yd avg), but the Florida St. defense succeeded in changing the complexion of the game by holding the awesome Tiger run game to one of the fewest totals in its season (232...UA had 323 against UGA, 296 against Bama, 545 against Mizzou) while also forcing them out of their comfort zone (27 passes). After gaining 323 yds on the ground against UGA, 296 against Bama's 2nd rated run defense nationally, and a jaw dropping 545 yd against a pretty good Mizzou defense...Florida St.'s D only allowed 232 for the game. Nick Marshall was held to just 45 as the feared Tiger option game all but disappeared.
Mason's 39 yd TD burst was the only truly big time run Auburn made all night that I can recall. Most importantly, FSU's sideline to sideline speed and agility were far beyond anything Auburn had seen to date, and it showed. Runs that would normally go for 8 yds a pop seemed to get corralled after 4. What Auburn would normally rip off for 25 yd momentum builders became 12 yd first downs instead. And, most importantly, runs that previously turned into 50 to 75 yard, game-changing, demoralizing, Touchdowns and Malzahn "Boom!!!'s", were reigned in as 15 to 25 yard gains...all this b/c of the FSU speed and ability to stay disciplined and read keys. So I would sum up this part of the game as follows;
FSU's defense dictated a fundamental shift in how Auburn played football on offense, forcing them into a gameplan they were not as well practiced in and probably didn't 'feel like home' to their players.
So, together like a math problem, we have...
FSU O vs. UA D = FSU's fault
+ UA O vs. FSU D = FSU's fault
Florida St. was in the driver's seat the whole game, in a game that looked the opposite.
The biggest thing to get in FSU's way was FSU themselves. When FSU played their A game, Auburn couldn't stay on the field with them. Once FSU was able to cobble something together, even though it wasn't full throttle for them and barely served as forward momentum, the Seminoles outscored Auburn 31-10. Great game by both teams, terrific efforts, lots to appreciate about both teams, and the right teams were playing for all the marbles. But Florida St. was the monster in this particular game and season...everyone else was just playing for second place.
Here are 3 specific examples I'll give to support my conclusions.
1. End of first half after FSU fake punt: Winston calms down and Nole offense starts to run smoothly. TD on a drive Auburn couldn't seem to stop no matter how good the coverage was or how great the pass rush was. Nole receivers were winning one on one and Winston was so fast through his progressions that UA had no chance to get to him before he found an open target.
2. First FSU TD drive of second half, swing pass to FB: Again, FSU ran very smoothly on this drive. I picked this one over the final drive b/c too many X Factors exist for both sides on the final drive. Emotions are up, psyches are dialed in, the huge play that Greene had could be argued to death that it should've been stopped early. But the first TD drive of the 2nd half was methodical in my recollection. Again, when FSU was on point, Auburn, even with a valiant effort, simply had no answer.
3. UA FG in 4th Qtr: If there's any one specific play I can point to that I think would illustrate my belief that FSU FORCED Auburn out of its own scheme, it is this one. Inside the 15 yd line (at least), UA elected to run a naked bootleg pass rather than stick to the run. Nick marshall had Sammy Coates sprinting with him across the front of the endzone. Coates had two FSU defenders trailing him closely, but the pass was there. It would've taken a herculean effort and supreme athleticism for the CB to deflect the pass were it on target...it wasn't. Nick Marshall was at a dead sprint when he threw this pass and he misfired. I believe he misfired because he was not well practiced at this sort of play, that Auburn was outside its comfort zone. This was not an option play. Though there may have been a play fake, there wasn't the usual window dressing b/c Auburn didn't use that offense a whole lot that night. I think that has everything to do with the Nole defense and I think that's the difference in the game.