This time it's Buster Douglas against Mike Tyson—as though being as dominant as Mike Tyson in his prime has somehow become a negative and scraping by in numerous close games a positive. Apparently if Florida State had only allowed a team to stay close into the fourth quarter it would have been better for them in this circumstance. If only they had known!
Although there's no doubt Auburn has played a more difficult slate so far this year, it's not as though Florida State has not played anyone. The Clemson demolition looked all the more impressive after Clemson made Ohio State look slow and unathletic in the Orange Bowl earlier this week. And it's not that Florida State was never challenged. Boston College, Miami, Florida, and even Duke challenged the Seminoles, but they responded so well and with such dominance that those challenges were met in the first half.
On the other side, Auburn's prize conquests of Georgia and Alabama look less impressive after bowl losses, and Missouri didn't exactly set the world on fire in a close win against Oklahoma State either. But that's enough discussion of soft factors. This game won't be decided by conference affiliation, experience in close games, or anything else along those lines. It's going to be decided by the players who have to execute their coaches' plans.
There's little doubt that Florida State will put more talent on the field. I cannot think of the last team in which all 22 of the starters on offense and defense were drafted, but it appears likely that this Florida State team will achieve that distinction. Whether they manage to achieve a national championship will largely depend on the following factors.
Keys to the Game
The Matchups on the Interior
This is true in pretty much every game, and it is no different here. Auburn has a big, physical, nasty offensive line and is sure to test the Noles' interior early and often with the #3 rated rushing offense in the S&P+ (trailing Ohio State—who Clemson was able to limit—and Oregon), probing to see if they can take advantage of FSU's undersized linebackers on the interior.
How well Timmy Jernigan, Mario Edwards, Jr., and Eddie Goldman are able to get penetration or hold up at the point of attack (depending on their assignment on that particular play) will say a lot about whether Florida State will be able to limit the Auburn offense. If the Noles' defensive interior does hold up and is able to force Auburn to run wide not because they want to but because they have to, it will be a long day for the Tigers.
Keep an eye on the defensive interior on the first two or three drives and you'll have a good sense of how the game will go on that side of the ball. Can Florida State take away Auburn's inside running game and defend from inside-out or will Tre Mason—who reminds me a bit of Emmitt Smith with how patient and balanced he is between the tackles—be able to get consistent yardage on the inside?
On the other side of the ball, if Auburn's defensive tackles cannot compress the pocket or get pressure up the middle on Winston, the Tigers' defense is in serious trouble. In interviews on Saturday, Tigers' defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson pointed out that that Winston had the least success against a four-man rush with man-under coverage behind it during the regular season but emphasized that you have to be able to get pressure with those four rushers or it won't matter. Johnson is right, and if Auburn regularly has to bring more than four rushers in this game, it favors the Seminoles. Pay close attention to how much pressure Winston has in his face early.
Auburn's biggest advantage in this game is in the punting game. Auburn stands to gain over six yards per punt exchange in this game, their punt returner Chris Davis is a big-play threat, and they have had success blocking punts on the year. Florida State's biggest weakness is their punting game (114th in net punting average at 34.1 yds).
Both teams have outstanding placekickers and very good kick return units, but Auburn's kick coverage has benefited from a very high touchback rate on the year (over 75%), which could take away the threat of FSU kick returners Karlos Williams and Kermit Whitfield. Florida State, on the other hand, tends to kick high in the effort to pin the opposition, a riskier strategy against Auburn's speedy returners.
Florida State should also be ready for onside kicks throughout the game, as Malzahn has shown a propensity to take those gambles—with success.
As long as FSU doesn't give up a huge special teams play like a return for a touchdown or a punt block, consider this category a win for the Seminoles.
Assignment Football: Trust Your Teammates
All the misdirection and option action puts a great deal of pressure on each defender to fulfill his assignment. Alabama, for example, limited the Auburn offense through most of the game but gave up two big-play touchdowns on missed assignments in which one player lost eye discipline and tried to help with another's assignment.
That is by design. Malzahn's offense uses all that action in the backfield to eventually wear down the defense's mental discipline and open a gap or a receiver downfield. Florida State defenders on Saturday repeatedly emphasized the importance of trusting their teammates to do their job and not getting pulled away from their own keys in the effort to help on something else.
As Alabama showed, it only takes one or two blown assignments to completely change the game when playing Malzahn's offense, and Florida State's gap integrity and eye discipline will be tested throughout this game. If they are able to stay disciplined, the Noles' speed and length in the back seven should be better able to limit the Tigers' rushing attack than any team they have played this year.
Tackling in Space
Tackling is one of the things that often suffers after a month off, and Auburn's offense is designed to force defenses to tackle in space with lots of buck and speed sweeps and all sorts of screen passes on the perimeter. Florida State has been a very good tackling team all year, and that will have to continue if they are to limit the Tigers' offense.
A big part of tackling well involves taking good angles and forcing ball carriers into help. FSU will need to keep the Auburn ball carriers "in the triangle," especially on the perimeter.
Standard Down Success Rate
Florida State loves to throw the football on first down, when defenses have to honor the run threat. Auburn, on the other hand, has struggled on neutral downs most of the season, but their defense is outstanding when it comes to closing out drives on passing downs and in the red zone, largely because those situations minimize their weaknesses in the back seven and allow their outstanding defensive line to pin its ears back and rush the passer.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn's run-heavy offense depends on maintaining leverage, forcing defenses to honor both the inside and outside run along with their play action passing game. Florida State will aim to hold the Tigers to four yards or less on first down, forcing the Tigers into longer-yardage situations that favor the defense and make it more difficult to keep the ball on the ground.
If Auburn doesn't average 5+ yards per play on first down, they'll likely get blown out in this game.
Red Zone Efficiency
Auburn's defense has given up lots of yardage on the year, but they have been just good enough when it counts, on long yardage situations and in the red zone, where they are 9th in the country in red zone conversions allowed against AQ opponents and a healthy 23rd in the (more important) TD percentage allowed (53%). Alabama, for example, came up empty on three trips inside the 25, allowing the Tigers to stay in the game far longer than the Tide's offensive yardage totals might have suggested.
Florida State, however, leads the nation in red zone percentage against AQ competition (100%), including a staggering 80% TD rate (40 TDs in 50 red zone trips). For the Tigers to win this game, the Seminoles' red zone efficiency will have to take a hit.
This one goes without saying. If one team has a significant turnover advantage, that team will likely win the game.
Analysis and Expectations
Auburn Offense vs. Florida State Defense
Leaving the soft factors aside, Florida State is simply the better team in this game. They've got the better quarterback (though Nick Marshall is outstanding in his own right) and the better defense by a large margin.
If nothing shows just how big the gap between these teams has been so far this year, consider that (excluding garbage time) Florida State has averaged a staggering 4.25 points per drive and given up only 0.85 points per drive for a net of 3.39 yards per drive.
That's 1.4 net points per drive better than the next-best team (Alabama)—eleven times as big of a gap between first and second as between second and third and as big a difference as between Alabama and South Alabama (34th). By comparison, Auburn averages 0.92 net points per drive (2.94 and 2.02).
Yes, strength of schedule is a factor here. But Florida State's number is the best since at least 2007 by 0.55 (2010 Boise State) and the best of any BCS AQ team by 0.85 (2008 Florida). That is an unprecedented level of dominance, regardless of schedule.
Auburn will be a stiff test. They're a physical football team that will hit FSU in the mouth and challenge the Seminoles' manhood in the trenches. But if you designed a defense in a lab specifically to stop what Auburn does, that defense would look an awful lot like this Florida State group: a big, athletic defensive line backed by a long, fast back seven that tackles well in space and can play man coverage across the board.
Is Florida State's defense that much better than Alabama's, though? In a word, yes. As Texas A&M showed and Oklahoma again demonstrated, Alabama had significant problems in its secondary this year. In contrast, Florida State brings the nation's best secondary into the game and will simply ask its corners to take away the Tigers' receivers in single coverage, thereby freeing up an extra player to stop the run on the perimeter.
Yes, that will likely lead to two or three big gains down the field for the Tigers, but Florida State will be happy to make that exchange, as Auburn cannot get in rhythm and turn up the tempo on a diet of deep throws.
The Tide have also struggled holding the edge against spread attacks over the past two years. In my opinion, that is the result of Alabama too big and lacking the necessary quickness on the edge. That is not a problem for Florida State, which has perhaps the nation's fastest set of linebackers, while ends Edwards and Christian Jones are outstanding when challenged on the edge.
I expect to see Florida State do a good bit of blitzing from the field on first down in the effort to get a few tackles for a loss and get Auburn behind schedule—and also force Auburn to run towards the boundary, where the sideline serves as an additional defender.
After looking at all these factors, I think Florida State will limit the Auburn offense well below its season averages, despite the fact that these went way up over the last quarter of the season as Auburn hit its stride. I think Auburn will average somewhere between 4.5 and 5 yards per play (70 plays = 315–350 yards; 80 plays = 360–400 yards) and—absent big special teams plays or a rash of FSU turnovers—will struggle to score more than 20 points in this game, with a floor around 10 and a ceiling of about 28.
Florida State Offense vs. Auburn Defense
Florida State's offense is the best Auburn will have faced by a large margin. Auburn's defense is one of the three best the Seminoles will have seen (18th F/+), right around the same quality as those of Clemson (13th) and Florida (14th), each of which the Seminoles torched for over seven yards per play.
Auburn's secondary—while underrated after a month of picking nits—has struggled with pretty much everything Florida State does well in the passing game, and there is little reason to believe Auburn's excellent defensive line could win its matchup against the Noles offensive line by enough to change the outcome of the game.
I expect to see Auburn apply the same defensive formula Miami did early in the year: rush four and play lots of man-under coverage with deep help to force Winston to beat them with precision in the intermediate area. Winston initially struggled with this look in the first half against Miami but ultimately found his stride and picked the Hurricanes apart. I expect him to make that adjustment much more quickly in this game, with Nick O'Leary and Kenny Shaw the primary beneficiaries.
I also expect Winston's legs to be a bigger factor in this game than they have been most of the year, both on scrambles when the secondary has its back to him in man coverage and on designed run calls. Georgia had great success with the QB Power in the second half against Auburn, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Fisher use some of that early in the game while Winston gets settled.
I also expect to see even more of explosive RB Karlos Williams in the running game on Monday night, taking advantage of Auburn's concern with the passing game. Devonta Freeman will remain the primary back, but don't be surprised if Williams winds up a major X-factor as Florida State runs away with this game. At the end of the day, I expect the FSU offense to average somewhere around 8 yards per play (70 plays = 560 yards) and score around 45 points, with a floor of about 38 and a ceiling in the mid-50s.
Auburn will need to be +3 in turnover margin or +2 along with a big special teams play in order to win this game close. Aside from that kind of sloppy performance from the Seminoles, I think this one winds up in yet another knockout from the Seminole juggernaut. I've got Florida State 45–20 (90% win probability).