In the BCS Championship Game last night, Auburn ran out of miracles. The Tigers put up a valiant effort, but in the end defense was indeed the difference and AU couldn’t get the one stop it needed to secure the school’s second national championship in four seasons and the SEC’s eighth national title in a row.
So how’d we do in our preview of the game yesterday? Let’s see…
Keep An Eye On: “Auburn QB Nick Marshall.” We stated that Marshall would “need to play like he did versus Mizzou and Bama” if the Tigers were to match points with Florida State. He was 20-of-27 (74%) for 229 yards, three TDs and no picks in those games. Indeed, Florida State got their points. So how did Marshall do? Not as well as he did against Alabama and Missouri. He finished 14-of-27 for 217 yards, two TDs and one interception. One of the incompletions was a deep ball on the game’s first series that could have gone for a touchdown had a wide open Ricardo Louis not had to stop and turn around for the football. Louis should have caught the ball for a big gain anyway, but if thrown properly the Tigers would have jumped out to a 7-zip lead straight out of the chute. Marshall the passer had a quarterback rating was just 51.4. Marshall the runner had a tough night, too. His per carry average of 2.8 (16 rushes for just 45 yards) was his worst number since September 21st against LSU (also a loss).
Hidden Tidbit 1: “AU fans need to hope that playing on such a big stage will coax some jitters out of (Jameis) Winston, who is still just a freshman. But that’s a hard thing to have to hang your hopes on.” We wrote that Winston was a top-notch passer — not a dual-threat guy — and he would be throwing against an Auburn secondary that ranked 13th in the SEC. The combination of the big stage and a tremendous first half performance by the Tigers’ DBs and front four did indeed made Winston look uncomfortable and jittery. But a fake punt by Jimbo Fisher’s crew changed the momentum of the game, calming FSU’s quarterback. In the fourth quarter he looked like a Heisman-winner, connecting on nine-of-10 passes for 117 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, including the game-winning two-yard touchdown with just 13 seconds to play. At the outset, Winston was jittery, but Auburn couldn’t hang their hopes on him remaining flustered for four quarters.
Hidden Tidbit 2: ”FSU’s defense is dominant. The Seminoles rank first nationally in scoring defense, 13th in rush defense, first in pass defense, third in total defense, first in interceptions and fourth in long plays from scrimmage (10+ yards) allowed. But here’s the thing — Alabama ranks just above or just below Florida State in nearly every one of those categories. And Auburn beat Alabama with a special teams play.” We then pointed out that Seminole kicker Roberto Aguayo had been so good he’d outscored FSU’s opponents by his lonesome. Well, special teams were huge last night and in the end, State’s were better. To wit: Auburn punter Steven Clark had a great night averaging 43 yards on six boots. Two of his punts were downed inside the five including a first quarter job that flipped the field and momentum, leading to a 21-0 Tiger run. But AU left three more points on the field when Cody Parkey missed a 33-yard field goal attempt (if you’re keeping count, that’s 10 points AU coulda/shoulda scored). FSU, trailing 21-3 and in danger of putting its gassed defense back on the field before halftime, executed a perfect fake punt, kept its drive alive and scored a touchdown to make the game 21-10 going to the break. State outscored Auburn 31-10 after that fake punt. In the fourth quarter, Levonte Whitfield returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown after a Parkey field goal to once again rev FSU’s motor and give the Noles a 27-24 lead. (Flukishly, the man assigned to Whitfield’s lane on the kick return fell to the ground with a hamstring pull, opening up enough of a gap to send the Seminole speedster on his way.) Finally, trailing 34-31 with 13 seconds to play, AU’s chances were razor thin. But Chris Davis — the man who ran a missed field goal back 109 yards for the game-winner versus Bama — brought an FSU kickoff out of the end zone, burning four precious seconds off the clock and getting the ball only to the 17. The Tigers were out of miracles by that point anyway, but better to have the ball at the 25 with 13 seconds than at the 17 with nine seconds. Special teams were indeed huge… and special teams went in favor of the Noles.
Hidden Tidbit 3: ”Turnovers… If AU is to spring the upset, the Tigers will need to do a much better job of forcing turnovers tonight.” Going into the game, FSU was plus-17 in turnover margin while Auburn was dead even in that area (18 takeaways, 18 giveaways). On the night, Auburn was even again — one takeaway, one giveaway. And their one giveaway — a fourth quarter INT by Marshall — set up Florida State for the first of its three last-stanza touchdowns. The underdog needed turnovers. The underdog didn’t get nearly enough of them.
Hidden Tidbit 4: ”If tonight’s ballgame starts slow or turns sloppy, it won’t be the first title game to go in that direction. Both squads have been off for more than a month. Even with practice, it’s hard to believe their won’t be some amount of rust that will have to be knocked off early. The advantage goes to the team that can rev its engine and get rolling first.” Right on the first point; wrong on the second. The two squads scored just 10 points combined in Quarter One. They then went on to score 55 more over the last three quarters. Clearly, there was some rust early. But Auburn jetted to a 21-3 lead (and left 10 more aforementioned points on the field), getting into a rhythm well before FSU. Didn’t matter. FSU found its footing in the second half, slowing Auburn’s offense and lighting up the Tigers’ defense and special teams late.
Hidden Tidbit 5: ”Has Florida State been too goo, too dominant? … after 13 blowouts in a row, FSU might get spooked if it looks up and sees it’s in a real, honest-to-goodness football game in the final period. So the trick for Auburn? Get to the fourth quarter within 10 points of Florida State.” Wrong. AU actually reached the fourth quarter with a 21-13 lead. But FSU won the final quarter 21-10 behind Whitfield’s long return and Winston’s passing (much of it patiently taking what the Tigers were offering up underneath). Credit the Seminoles. They were tested just once all season and they passed that test with just 13 seconds to go and a freshman QB at the controls. They are a very worthy champion.
Hidden Tidbit 6: ”While Auburn hasn’t been great on overall defense, the team has excelled in the clutch. The Tigers rank seventh best in America in red zone defense. Opposing teams have scored on just 70.8% of red zone trips and only 44.4% of the time have they scored a touchdown… Auburn also ranks 21st in the country in third down defense allowing only 34.0% of thirds to be converted.” AU’s third-down defense was its usual stingy self, holding FSU to just two conversions on 12 tries. That’s good enough to win a lot of ballgames. But Florida State — the nation’s best red zone offense — went four-for-four in Auburn’s red zone last night with three TDs and a field goal. That wasn’t good enough to win last night.
Our Thinking: ”Before the SEC Championship Game, we picked Missouri because the Tigers had the better defense. A week earlier we picked Alabama because they also had a better defense than Auburn. Tonight, Florida State will have the much better defense. Defense has won championships for the SEC in the pass so we’re going to stick with the same logic that Auburn has ignored in those two games mentioned above. We’ll take Florida State, but we would not be the least bit surprised to see Malzahn doused in Gatorade following yet another miracle win tonight.” In the end, defenses in the Southeastern Conference just weren’t as good this year. Did you watch the SEC Championship Game? The league champion was an offense-first team, the very kind of team the SEC has typically bested in BCS title games. It caught up with both Auburn and the SEC last night. AU put up a helluva fight but with 1:19 to go and Florida State 80 yards and a touchdown from victory, the Tiger defense couldn’t get a stop. Winston marched his team right down the field for the game-winning score. Gus Malzahn’s crew blew an 18-point lead, the largest ever blown in a BCS title game. The SEC had won the previous seven BCS title games with defenses stronger than opposing offenses (like AU’s 22-19 win over Oregon in 2010). Last night, the SEC’s shift to an offense-first league in 2013 came back to haunt it when it mattered most.
Prediction: ”Florida State 44, Auburn 31.” Actual score: Florida State 34, Auburn 31.