Our final installment of the National Title Q&A series is all about the miscellany. Chris Fuhrmeister is back to talk about the month-long layoff and give us some predictions about how things will play out on Monday.
TN: Auburn played for a national championship just a couple of years ago. In a game that pundits expected to be high-scoring, not unlike this one, Auburn and Oregon played to a 22-19 Tigers victory. What effects do you believe that the month between the conference championship games and the national championship game had on that contest?
C&M: Maybe both defenses heard so much about how good the opposing offenses were, and they got a chip on their shoulders. Although, I think that game being defensive affair was more about in-game stuff and less about the layoff. Cam Newton was dinged up, and he didn't play a great game throwing or running, nothing like he had shown earlier in the season. At one point, he missed a wide-open receiver that would have been a long touchdown and put the game on ice in the third quarter.
As for Oregon's offense, the Ducks struggled mightily with a big, physical, fast defensive line, a trend that has continued ever since. Nick Fairley completely dominated inside, and he blew up the run game before it could ever get going.
TN: Do you believe that the layoff favors one side of the ball more than the other?
C&M: Normally, I would say it favors the defenses more, but I think if one particular unit is going to have an advantage, I think it could be Auburn's offense, and that's because Gus is drawing up the plays. He's an innovator, and Florida State is going to see a lot of looks and some plays that aren't on any game film. And if the Tigers need a trick play to get something going, they're in good shape since they didn't really break any out during the regular season.
TN: Gus Malzahn is obviously a fantastic coach and will certainly be ready for the game, but is Auburn's option-based offense more susceptible to being affected by a defense having more time to prepare for it than another style might be?
C&M: It definitely helps the Seminoles that they've had six weeks to get ready for this offense, as opposed to six days. But as I mentioned above, I think Malzahn is the best offensive mind in college football right now, and he will absolutely have some new wrinkles installed in an attempt to confuse FSU defenders and get them out of position. Auburn executes its option game as well as any team I've seen in recent years, and it's going to be hard to stop that, no matter how much time there has been for preparation. Even though the Tigers run a lot of option plays, their not like a Georgia Tech, which runs option on basically every play. They can stretch the field -- vertically and horizontally -- a little bit, too, which makes the read option that much more dangerous. If FSU gets aggressive in an attempt to defend it, the passing game will open up. If the 'Noles are hanging back, the Tigers will be getting positive yards before FSU defenders have a chance to stop them.
Basically, if Auburn's offense is having a good night and executing properly, Florida State will have to win the game by outscoring the Tigers in a shootout.
TN: If you had to distill this game down to one or two matchups that will determine the outcome, which would they be?
C&M: Florida State is going to score some points, but if Auburn's offense can keep up, I think the Tigers' defense can once again make a couple of late plays to put them in position to win. With that in mind, I think the biggest matchup in the game is Auburn's offensive line vs. FSU's defensive front. If the Tigers' big boys in the trenches are able to dominate like they have against other top teams, the Seminoles are going to have some problems. But if FSU is able to break through and consistently disrupt the Tigers' running game, it will be almost impossible for Auburn to win.
If there's a second-biggest matchup, it's a reversal of what I just mentioned. The Tigers' front four is talented, and Florida State's offensive line has given up some 29 this year, ranking 87th in the country. If Auburn's D-line can get pressure on its own, leaving more players to hang back in pass coverage, that would be a huge development for Malzahn's team and really increase its chances of winning. I don't know if that's doable, though.
TN: Where does this season rank among your favorite in Auburn history?
C&M: This is a question a lot of Auburn fans have been asking each other over the last several weeks. Coming into the year, I would have been happy with a 6-6 record, a bowl appearance and Auburn staying competitive in losses to LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. After the Tigers upset the Aggies on the road, it became clear Malzahn had this team far ahead of schedule, and because 2012 was so awful, a 9-3 2013 season, with a possible 10th win in a bowl game, would have to rank pretty high on my "Favorite Auburn Teams" list. I probably wouldn't have put this team above 2010 or 2004, but it would have been right behind those two.
Now that Auburn is the SEC champ and playing for a national title, I think I have to put it on top. I can't really express how awful it was to be an Auburn fan last year, especially since Alabama was on its way to a third title in four years. The Tigers are all the way back to the SEC mountaintop, knocked off their two biggest rivals in thrilling fashion and stunningly ended the Tide's championship hopes. That feels pretty amazing. And since this team could actually be better next year, knowing Gus is going to keep Auburn in title contention for the foreseeable future feels even better.
TN: Finally, let's get a prediction. Does Auburn cap an amazing season with a national title?
C&M: I know I'm going to get crucified by #FSUTwitter for having the audacity to suggest Auburn is in the same league with Florida State, but I think the Tigers are going to win. It's going to be a close game, and close games are when little details and intangibles affect the final result. The Seminoles have been incredibly impressive by blowing out everyone, but Auburn has been in a lot of tight contests, and that should play in its favor. The Tigers played the 20th-toughest schedule, according to Saragin's rankings, while FSU's schedule was ranked No. 63. So even though the 'Noles are the best team the Tigers have faced this year, they've also played a few other really good teams. Florida State hasn't had to run that kind of gauntlet, and the Seminoles haven't faced anything like Auburn's offense -- yes, I'm aware of the Clemson game.
Both offenses are led by their quarterbacks, and Nick Marshall has already proven he can keep cool and come up big when necessary. We just don't know how Jameis Winston, a redshirt freshman, will perform late in a one-possession contest. He's been great all year -- hello, Heisman -- but he's never had to make a big throw with a game on the line. No on in garnet and gold has had to make a play with a game on the line. When the pressure's on, Auburn is in a much better position to handle it.
I think Auburn will be able to pick up good yardage on the ground, get a couple of plays through the air and force a turnover or two and keep FSU out of the end zone on one red zone trip. When FSU needs to drive for a winning score, Auburn's fresh defensive line -- thanks to the eight-man rotation -- will be able to get in the backfield and shut down the Seminoles' offense one last time. I'll stay consistent with my earlier Q-and-A answers and pick a 40-38 win for the Tigers.
Thanks to Chris for his participation in this series! Our answers to C&M's questions are here.