The game was obviously closer than we had expected, and it's worth looking back at the keys to the game to see why.
The Matchups on the Interior
We expected Auburn to try to run the Power play at Florida State repeatedly, testing the Florida State interior line and trying to win the game with a downhill rushing attack. That is precisely what Auburn did, rushing Tre Mason 34 times, nearly all of which were between the tackles.
And although Auburn rushed for a total of 232 yards, this matchup was effectively a draw, as FSU was able to limit the Tigers to 4.4 yards per rush, significantly below their season average of 5.83 yards per rush against AQ competition.
Auburn did have some early success, but Florida State's defensive front quietly took over the middle portion of the game, as the five drives after Auburn went up 21–3 amounted to 50 yards, four punts, and an interception, with the longest drive five plays for 17 yards. Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards, Jr. were the key components of that shift in momentum. Jernigan in particular dominated the interior— it was no coincidence that Auburn's final two scores came only after Jernigan was on the sideline, having succumbed to exhaustion (and illness) in the fourth quarter. For his part, Edwards managed to win the matchup against sure-fire first round OT Greg Robinson and somehow managed to contain the inside run while also corralling quarterback Nick Marshall on several runs to the outside.
On the other side of the ball, it was another draw, perhaps slightly tilting in favor of Florida State. Auburn end Dee Ford largely dominated FSU tackle Bobby Hart in the passing game, particularly on inside stunts, but Hart and the FSU offensive line dominated when they needed to in the running game. (If anything, Jimbo Fisher got too far away from the run in the early going, as FSU had success on the ground all night.)
In our preview, we had emphasized the importance of Auburn being able to rush the passer and compress the pocket from inside with only four rushers. They were largely able to do this in the first half, using a variety of stunts matched with tight coverage (the latter surely benefiting from knowing some of the calls) to make Winston uncomfortable.
Expectations vs. Reality
Our preview of FSU's offensive line vs. Auburn's defensive line had stated the following: "Florida State should have a small edge here in the running game, while the matchup should be about even in the passing game." That does seem to have largely held up, though FSU did not stick as much with the run as we had anticipated early in the game.
We had expected Auburn to wind up with between 225–250 yards rushing on about four yards per rush. They wound up with 232 yards on 4.4 yards per rush, slightly more efficient but right around our expectation. The difference in scoring (31 points vs. 20 expected) was largely the result of short fields, as two of Auburn's scores came on drives starting inside the FSU 27 yard line.
Florida State was actually more effective in the running game than Auburn, averaging 4.8 yards per carry even before accounting for four sacks of Winston. All in all, the line matchups were essentially a draw, which was no surprise based on our expectations.
Looking forward to 2014, that's good news on the offensive side for FSU, as four of the five line starters return and will be joined by senior center Austin Barron, who has started his share of games as well.
The importance of Jernigan to this game, however, only serves to highlight how big a void his departure to the NFL will leave. Auburn got the better of the FSU defensive line when Jernigan was out of the game, and the Seminoles will need to find an answer in the middle if they aim to have success at this level next year, especially against teams that run it like an Auburn or Alabama or Stanford.
The performance of Edwards and Eddie Goldman, however, bodes especially well for 2014, as they were major contributors to bottling up Auburn's running game better than anyone else had since the Tigers made significant changes in their bye week after the LSU game.
FSU will have to find a way to fill at least some of the void left by Jernigan, but as long as Edwards and Goldman are healthy, the Seminole defensive line will be among the best in the country in 2014.