50F Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
Much maligned throughout its 16 years of existence, the Bowl Championship Series is going out with a bang.
In its final year before yielding to the highly anticipated College Football Playoff, the BCS has delivered a title-game matchup that's evoking little debate about a pairing of teams that took very different roads to the Rose Bowl for Monday night's showdown.
Top-ranked and unbeaten Florida State will look to complete its romp through the 2013 season when it takes on No. 2 Auburn, which to many has looked like a team of destiny all year.
Though the BCS system sometimes resulted in a month of heated arguments over whether the right teams were playing for the national championship, it often came through with the consensus correct matchup. That wasn't enough to preserve the BCS, which makes its exit in favor of the four-team playoff that goes into effect next season.
By delivering Auburn-Florida State, the system that was put in place to end those championship debates is providing one last reminder that it was sometimes capable of doing just that.
" We all complain about the BCS, but isn't it funny how often they get it right," fourth-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Of course, there was little question that Fisher's team was going to fill one spot in the title game after establishing itself as the nation's most dominant. Led by runaway Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback and the nation's top defense in terms of points allowed, the Seminoles (13-0) outscored opponents by an average of 53.0-10.7 and won every game but one by at least 27 points.
Florida State pounded its four ranked opponents by a 200-35 margin, and it's now seeking its first BCS title since the 1999 season, when it beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Even a sexual assault investigation of Winston couldn't blunt the team's momentum. The freshman was cleared of allegations that he raped a fellow student in December 2012 when Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs announced Dec. 5 that there was not enough evidence to go forward with the case, one that has raised questions about the thoroughness of the investigation and the Tallahassee police's response to the allegations.
Winston, who also won the Walter Camp player of the year award and the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top quarterback, told reporters at a Heisman press conference that " I knew I did nothing wrong." Two days after being cleared, he passed for 330 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 59 yards and a score as Florida State defeated then-No. 20 Duke 45-7 in the ACC title game.
" We wanted to win this championship so bad," Winston said after the game. "We were looking forward to having an undefeated season."
For that to happen, Winston and his teammates will have to derail an Auburn team that took a thrilling path to Pasadena.
The Tigers (12-1) were the beneficiary of two remarkable plays this season that allowed them to reach this point. The first came Nov. 16 against Georgia when Ricardo Louis scored on a deflected 73-yard pass from Nick Marshall on fourth and 18 with 25 seconds left for a 43-38 victory. The spectacular play, during which the deflected ball sailed over Louis' shoulder and into his hands in the open field, appeared to be one for the ages.
Instead, it was only the second-best play of the season for Auburn.
In what will go down as one of the greatest moments in college football history, Chris Davis returned a missed field-goal attempt more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play to give the Tigers a 34-28 win over then-No. 1 and two-time defending national champion Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30.
" We're a team of destiny," Davis said then. " We won't take no for an answer."
It was difficult to take Davis' words with a grain of salt when Auburn went on to knock off Missouri 59-42 in the SEC championship game the following weekend. Hours later, unbeaten Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship, opening the door for Auburn to reach the title game.
The Tigers' amazing story has been developing since a disastrous 2012 season, during which they went 3-9 and didn't win a conference game. That led to the dismissal of Gene Chizik, who guided Auburn to the national title just two years before, and the hiring of Gus Malzahn, the Tigers' offensive coordinator from 2009-11 who served as Arkansas State's coach in 2012.
The result has been a remarkable turnaround due largely to Malzahn's dynamic offense.
" A lot of teams aren't getting better each week," said Malzahn, who agreed to a six-year, $26.85 million deal Dec. 5. " This team is."
Auburn's surge to Pasadena has also given the SEC an improbable opportunity to extend its run of seven consecutive BCS titles. The conference will certainly be sad to see the system go, having won all seven BCS championship games and two more BCS titles with victories by Tennessee after the 1998 season (Fiesta Bowl) and LSU after 2003 (Sugar).
" We feel we're the best team in college football," Tigers running back and Heisman finalist Tre Mason said. " We've got to continue to prove it."
Mason and the Tigers will be one of the rare SEC representatives to find themselves an underdog in a BCS championship. Florida State was established as an early touchdown favorite.
The challenge faced by Auburn is a daunting one, as a defense that ranks 88th nationally with 423.5 yards allowed per game will be tasked with containing a Seminoles offense that averages 529.4 yards.
Winston passed for 3,810 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 190.1 rating, while Devonta Freeman (13 TDs) and Karlos Williams (11) paced a rushing attack that scored 41 times. Receivers Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw each went over 900 yards, and they and tight end Nick O'Leary combined for 36 touchdowns.
"We're excited about playing Auburn. ... they're dynamic, they make plays on offense, defense, special teams," said Fisher, who has signed a three-year extension through the 2018 season. "(They have) won games a lot of different ways and (are) very well coached, and it will be a great opportunity and a great challenge for our team."
While Auburn could have a difficult time holding down Florida State, the Tigers might be able to keep up with the Seminoles on the scoreboard. Averaging 505.3 yards and 40.2 points, Auburn's triple read-option, hurry-up attack led by Marshall has proved mostly unsolvable for opponents all season.
Facing four top-10 teams, the Tigers won the last three such matchups while averaging 46.0 points.
Marshall has been at his best down the stretch, rushing for 503 yards and six TDs in the last four games and posting a 163.5 passer rating with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the past three.
All 11 of his rushing scores have come in the last eight contests.
" You just have to embrace the moment," Marshall said. " Just seize the moment of being in the championship game, period. It doesn't come too often, so when you're in it you just have to make the best of it."
Mason has been even more devastating to opposing defenses of late, totaling 868 yards with 13 touchdowns in Auburn's last five games. He was all but unstoppable against Missouri, running for 304 yards on 46 carries and scoring four times.
Auburn, though, will get perhaps its toughest test in the big, fast and opportunistic Florida State defense. With nose guard Timmy Jernigan anchoring the 3-4 scheme, the Seminoles lead the nation with 25 interceptions and have 33 sacks, among the most in the country.
The Seminoles are allowing 152.0 yards per game through the air, best in the FBS. Sixteen Florida State players have at least one INT.
The Seminoles are hardly vulnerable against the run either, allowing 93.0 yards per game for a mark that's among the best in the nation. The matchup of that powerful run defense against Auburn's complex ground attack seems likely to go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.
Defensive back Lamarcus Joyner has 64 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions, while linebacker Telvin Smith has recorded a team-high 75 tackles - 9 1/2 for loss - with three interceptions returned for 147 yards. Jernigan has recorded a team-best 10 1/2 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks despite facing frequent double teams.
"When you have those guys on defense, especially that can control that middle, it makes everyone around you so much better," Fisher said of Jernigan. "He makes two other guys great because he takes the double-team and the stuff you have to do to block him and account for him."
Auburn faced six ranked teams in 2013, with its only loss coming at then-No. 6 LSU by a 35-21 score Sept. 21.
The Tigers and Seminoles will be meeting for the second time in a bowl game, with Florida State winning 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl after the 1988 season.
The last matchup was a 20-17 Auburn home victory in 1990.