Auburn’s peerless offense makes it close until late

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Up until the final week of the college football schedule, all we heard was how utterly invincible the Alabama Crimson Tide had become, seemingly cruising to a third consecutive national championship.

Then came the Iron Bowl, a last-second loss to Auburn.  The Tide goes out, and in comes the next invincible, Florida State.  The Seminoles are 13-0 and 8 ½-point favorites against Auburn, 12-1, in Monday night’s BCS Championship Game (7:30 CST, ESPN) in the Rose Bowl of Pasadena.

The pro football scouts say the gamblers have it about right.  Florida State is loaded with high draft picks.  Auburn, being the Southeastern Conference champion, is a very strong and athletic team, but the Seminoles have still more size and speed.  Everyone who’s starting on FSU’s offensive line is projected for the NFL.

There’s a tone of confidence, bordering on cockiness, in the pregame hype of FSU’s coach, Jimbo Fisher.  No trash talk, just brash talk: “I know one thing at Florida State, we’re going to butt you in the mouth and we’re going to butt you right in the throat.  You’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to be nasty.”

Statistically, the Seminoles are overwhelming, ranking in the nation’s top five in both scoring offense and scoring defense.  Their defense, led by massive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Lamarcus Joyner, is No. 1 in interceptions (25), fewest points allowed (10.7 per game), fewest yards per pass (4.9) and fewest rushing touchdowns (4).

To which Auburn fans will say:  “But that’s playing in the ACC.”

Indeed, Florida State’s gaudy stats have been churned against a schedule that, with the exception of Clemson, which it pummeled by 37 points, is all creampuffs and eclairs.  At least compared to the SEC lineup Auburn conquered:  Mississippi, Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama, Missouri.

As splendid as Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston is (10.9 yards per pass), he he has not proved himself in the clutch because the freshman has never been in a close game.

Auburn, on the other hand, has been through fire again and again and emerged victorious – in all but one game, an early season loss at LSU before coach Gus Malzahn’s offense hit its lightning stride.

Dual-threat QB Nick Marshall makes long plays in the running and passing games.  No team covers as much ground vertically and horizontally as Malzahn’s speed-sweep spread offense.  Sammie Coates has caught 7 touchdowns, all for more than 35 yards.

As dangerous as the War Eagle is in the air, this is primarily a running team.  Only five NCAA teams have thrown less than Auburn.  Tre Mason is a durable power runner who thrives with 30-40 carries per game.  Auburn rushed for 545 yards against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.

And Auburn has enough strength on the defensive front to give the Seminoles a battle in the trenches.  Winston has proved vulnerable to sacks, as he stares down the field, and Auburn’s Dee Ford has 8.5 sacks and 17 hurries this season.

So there’s an avenue of victory for the underdogs:  demoralize the overconfident FSU defenders by running the ball down their throats and limiting the exposure of the fairly average Auburn safeties.

Auburn will make a fine game of it, but chances are the extraordinary talent of Florida State – especially in the secondary — will carry the evening.  Let’s say, Florida State, 44-31.

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