Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
06 Jan 2014
by Matt Hinton
Not to spoil the suspense or anything, but there's no use beating around the bush: On paper, by any rational, systematic analysis, the only possible forecast for Monday night is a Florida State victory. Probably a decisive Florida State victory. Let's face it, odds are we're staring down the barrel of another anticlimactic blowout on the sport's biggest stage. As of Sunday night, Vegas listed FSU as a 10-point favorite over Auburn, the most lopsided point spread in any BCS title game, and that's accounting for lingering awe over the SEC's ongoing, seven-year reign with the championship at stake. Objectively speaking, this game could get really ugly, really fast.
Consider, for example, just how relentlessly dominant Florida State has been in its run to 13-0. The Seminoles not only lead the nation in scoring: They also lead the nation in scoring defense, yielding an average margin of victory (42.3 points per game) that has not been matched since World War II. Their narrowest win of the season came by 14 points, putting them alongside the 2004 Utah Utes as the only team in the BCS era to win every game by at least two touchdowns. In five games against teams that appeared in the Associated Press poll at any point this season (Maryland, Clemson, Miami, Florida and Duke), FSU obliterated the competition by a combined score of 237 to 42. With 28 points against Auburn, the offense will set a new FBS scoring record. Et cetera. Through 13 games, the worst that can be said about this team on the field is that it's untested against adversity, for the simple reason that it's been too good to have faced any.
And yet: Here's Auburn, whose mere presence in Pasadena is a testament to beating near-impossible odds. The Tigers began the season unranked, universally projected to finish at or near the bottom of the SEC West for the second year in a row, and didn't appear in the AP poll until mid-October. Besides a 35–21 loss at LSU, their resumé includes fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama, the latter two in preposterous fashion. Other games, against Washington State, Ole Miss, and Missouri, have remained very much in doubt in the fourth quarter. At last glance, the defense was being torched by Mizzou for 42 points on 534 yards of total offense in the SEC championship game, dropping it to 12th out of 14 SEC teams in total defense and eighth in scoring. Statistically, Auburn is indistinguishable from the kind of shootout-friendly outfit from the Big 12 or Pac-12 that SEC fans have spent the last seven years trolling with abandon.
At the same time, though, the Tigers seemed to embrace that reality, ending the regular season on an offensive tear against a string of blue-chip defenses –- Georgia, Alabama, Missouri -– and coming up with timely plays on defense and/or special teams that put them over the top in all three. (Before the famous "Kick Six," for example, Auburn denied Alabama crucial points in the fourth quarter by blocking a field goal attempt and stopping the Tide cold on a fourth-and-1 attempt in the red zone.) Florida State faced no such gauntlet, even at the end, when it dispatched a hapless, lame-duck edition of Florida and an overmatched Duke squad to close the regular season. Perceived long shots have taken the crystal ball against long odds before, most notably Ohio State in 2003, Texas in 2006, and Florida in 2007, leaving the general impression that anyone good enough to make it this far is good enough to win. That may not be the case if you break it down by, say, simulating the game 50,000 times, in which case FSU wins 75 percent of them. Play it once, though, after a full month on ice, and anything is possible.
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Full Statistics: F/+ Ratings • S&P+ Offense • S&P+ Defense
Fremeau Efficiency Index • FEI Special Teams • FEI Field Position
For individual rushing, receiving and offensive/defensive line statistics, see here.
At a distance, Auburn's offense looks very much like the Cam Newton-fueled attack that claimed the championship in 2010, which was also overseen by Gus Malzahn and also put up prolific numbers behind the threat of a run-first quarterback. But no one is about to mistake Nick Marshall for the next Newton –- Marshall gives up roughly six inches and 40 pounds to his predecessor, and is unlikely to be drafted as a quarterback at all, much less with the No. 1 pick –- and Malzahn has tweaked his system accordingly. Where the 2010 champs played to Newton's strength as an every-down, between-the-tackles workhorse, the 2013 edition has blazed an even more prolific trail by exploiting Marshall's speed on the perimeter. By midseason, every aspect of the offense hinged on forcing defenses to account for Marshall as a runner on virtually every snap, and making them pay if they didn't.
With that in mind, feel free to ignore Malzahn's reputation as one of the leading evangelists of the spread revolution: With this team, and this quarterback, he is all-in on the triple option. Nationally, the only offenses that ran more often than Auburn, or attempted fewer passes, were the service academies and similarly option-based attacks at Georgia Tech and New Mexico. Unlike those systems, Malzahn's version of the option operates exclusively from the shotgun, and often calls for a quick screen to a slot receiver as the third option instead of a traditional pitch man. But the basic blueprint is the same, beginning with Tre Mason shouldering the lion's share of the carries on dives and counters. Against Alabama, the Tigers' three biggest (offensive) plays of the game all began with the same initial read by Marshall –- give the ball to Mason on the dive, or pull it out? –- but were ultimately the result of three different decisions based on the defense's reaction:
Auburn closed that game with more yards on the ground (296) on more yards per carry (5.8) than any opposing FBS offense against Alabama since September 2007, in Nick Saban's second game as Bama's head coach. But that was par for the course: Beginning with a 282-romp against Ole Miss on October 5, the Tigers averaged a staggering 382 yards per game rushing over their last nine, racking up season highs for an opposing rushing attack in eight of them. Their net against Missouri (545 yards on 74 carries) marked the first 500-yard rushing game against an SEC defense since the turn of the century and made Mason a late-blooming finalist for the Heisman. At maximum tempo, this offense can run on anyone, and so far has run on everyone.
As with all option teams, the question is what happens if and when Auburn is forced to rely on Marshall's arm. Aside from a game-winning drive against Mississippi State in September and a Hail Mary to beat Georgia, no opposing defense has had enough success against the run to force the Tigers to throw to keep pace, even in shootouts, and Marshall is certainly efficient enough as a passer when the deck is stacked in his favor. For his part, Coates is a capable downfield threat, averaging 22.1 yards with seven touchdowns on just 38 catches, and tight end C.J. Uzoma is a matchup problem in the red zone.
But Florida State rivals Alabama as the best front seven Auburn has faced, boasting future pros at every position –- on the defensive line, even the backups project to the next level -– and the secondary has been every bit as domineering against the pass as the Tigers have been on the ground. Incredibly, FSU leads the nation in passing yards allowed despite forcing almost every offense it's faced into pass-or-die situations by the third quarter, at the latest. The Noles are also tied for the FBS lead with 25 interceptions, with just 12 passing touchdowns allowed. Florida State took the best quarterback it faced, Tajh Boyd, and picked him off twice. The Noles held Boyd to the lowest efficiency rating of his career in a 51–14 thrashing that was worse than the score indicates. If Marshall has the chops to make consistent throws from the pocket, without the benefit of effective play-action, this would be a hell of a night to have to prove it.
Key Matchup: Auburn FB Jay Prosch vs. Florida State Linebackers.
A former transfer from Illinois, Prosch is largely invisible on the stat sheet, having recorded a grand total of six touches (all receptions) for the entire season. But he is indispensable to the Tigers' fortunes as a blocker -– follow the fullback, and you'll usually find Marshall or Mason coming right behind him -– an unsung role that is likely to make him the first fullback off the board in April's NFL draft. He also outweighs Florida State's most active linebackers, seniors Christian Jones and Telvin Smith, by more than 25 pounds apiece. The more battles Prosch wins at the point of attack, the longer Auburn is able to remain in its comfort zone.
Jameis Winston was so good, so fast, that the superlatives could barely keep pace. As a team, FSU ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring offense, F/+ Offense, and S&P+ offense; under the latter heading, it's also No. 1 in Drive Efficiency, Passing, and on Passing Downs. Individually, Winston led the nation in pass efficiency, ending the regular season within two points of Russell Wilson's single-season record. Among the supporting cast, his top three receivers, Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, combined for 2,867 yards on 16.9 per catch, and are all within striking distance of a 1,000-yard season. (Benjamin, especially, has emerged as a highlight machine with nine touchdowns in the last five games.) When the Noles kept the ball on the ground, tailbacks Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. combined for 2,190 yards on 6.7 per carry. Junior Nick O'Leary is arguably the most complete tight end in the nation as a blocker and receiver. Left tackle Cameron Erving is a lock for the first round in April, and joined center Bryan Stork on multiple All-America teams. With a big finish, this group deserves to go down as one of the most unstoppable attacks of the modern era.
As for Auburn… well, Auburn is, let's say, opportunistic. That's putting it politely. In fact, the Tigers are the most generous defense ever to appear in a BCS championship game, easily surpassing the 2010 edition for the title in terms of both yards and points allowed against SEC opponents. In its last three games -– the wins over Georgia, Alabama and Missouri –- Auburn yielded 500 yards of total offense on upwards of seven yards per play in all three, as it did in its breakthrough win at Texas A&M in October. Six of nine SEC opponents went over 200 yards rushing (including negative yardage on sacks), and eight of nine scored at least 20 points. In bend-don't-break terms, the Tigers bent in every relevant game, and frankly broke in a couple, too.
Still, in shootout after shootout they could always depend on the pass rush to deliver in the clutch, which it reliably did in the fourth quarter of every game listed above. A&M and Georgia both had the ball last against Auburn with a chance to win, and wound up turning the ball over on downs under pressure. Alabama failed to score on three of its six trips into the red zone, including the aforementioned stop on fourth down. And Missouri, after trading blows with Marshall and Mason for three quarters, failed to score at all in the fourth, turning a three-point nail-biter into a 17-point coronation. Although the raw sack numbers are fairly ordinary, the huge gap between the Tigers' performance on Standard Downs (where they ranked 63rd) and Passing Downs (where they ranked ninth) speaks volumes; so does the fact that they effectively tied for the SEC lead on third-down conversions. As wildly productive as Winston has been, he hasn't faced many obvious passing situations, and hasn't broken a sweat in the fourth quarter. (In 13 games, he averaged less than two passes per game in the final frame, sitting out the fourth quarter entirely in six of them.) FSU is going to move the ball, but the longer the game is in doubt, the further its phenom wades into uncharted waters.
Key Matchup: Auburn DE Dee Ford vs. Florida State LT Cameron Erving.
When Auburn needed a key stop, it was often Ford who delivered it, wreaking havoc in the close wins over Ole Miss (two sacks), Texas A&M (two sacks), Georgia (six hurries, one sack, one forced fumble), Alabama (two hurries) and Missouri (one sack, one hurry). At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, he's not nearly the pro prospect that Erving is, and may be a liability against the run. If he's able to pin his ears back as a pass rusher, though, Ford can turn Winston's big night into a nightmare.
Attempting to predict big plays on special teams is like attempting to predict lightning strikes, as Auburn fans know well: Prior to the Iron Bowl, Alabama kicker Cade Foster had connected on eleven consecutive field goal attempts (he was 0-for-3 against the Tigers) and the infamous, game-winning return by Chris Davis was unprecedented in the history of the sport. To the extent that we can know the unknowable, however, we can say this: Florida State freshman Roberto Aguayo is one of most dependable kickers in the nation, having connected on 19 of 20 attempts with a long of 53 yards; and Davis is a perennial threat on punt returns, having finished second nationally with an average of 20.1 yards per return, including an 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee. (Note that that number does not include the "Kick Six" return, which came off a missed field goal.) Everything else is at the whim of a puckish god.
An underrated aspect of FSU's dominance this season is a plus-17 turnover margin, which tied for second in the nation; in addition to tying for the FBS lead in interceptions, the Seminoles lost just four fumbles all year and didn't finish in the red in a single game. Auburn, on the other hand, balanced the scales at 18 giveaways to 18 takeaways, and actually finished –1 in the wins over Alabama and Mizzou. Whether it's by turnovers or a timely return – or even an onside kick, which they successfully executed in the SEC championship game – it's hard to imagine the Tigers holding serve without finding a way to flip the field.
This is the moment Florida State has waited a decade to realize: The return of a program that had fallen into a rut of mediocrity at the end of the Bobby Bowden era to the national perch it had occupied on annual basis throughout the late eighties and nineties. Despite its underwhelming schedule and the controversy surrounding its star quarterback, this team has a chance at perfection on a scale very few others have ever achieved. Make a list of what a champion looks like, and the Seminoles can check off every box.
The same cannot be said of Auburn, which is part of what makes it such a compelling underdog: Here is an outfit that has not only shocked the world against top-shelf competition, but has managed to sustain that success despite very obvious, persistent liabilities. Yes, extraordinary luck down the stretch is a factor in that, but it's not the only factor, or even the most important one. The Tigers do one thing well – run the option – and they do it so well that everything else is almost irrelevant. Almost, but not quite: After the SEC championship game, any prognosticator worth his salt is obliged to pick Florida State out of sheer skepticism over the Auburn defense, which cannot be rationalized opposite the newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner. Malzahn may well have one last rabbit to pull out of his visor, but if the Tigers are going to go out as champions, it will have to be the same way they came in, against every rational odd.
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MATT: Florida State 41, Auburn 23
F/+: Florida State 30, Auburn 19
7 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2014, 7:30pm by Will Allen