Jan. 6, 2014
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - There's nothing in college football quite like BCS Championship Week. The anticipation builds as days go by. Reporters from across the country show up to ask questions. Every move players and coaches make is recorded on somebody's video camera.
So it has been for the past six days in Newport Beach, Calif., where No. 2 Auburn and No. 1 Florida State and most of the media are staying. And, finally, today brings us to the reason for it all: The coronation of the national champion and, with a four-team playoff coming next year, the last BCS champion.
Auburn, at 12-1, and Florida State, at 13-0, will play at the venerable Rose Bowl at 7:30 p.m. CST. One will emerge as the national champion.
Nobody "has" to win tonight to call this an outstanding season. It's already been an outstanding season for both teams, regardless of the outcome. But a wise friend who was once a coach told me this: "The further you go, the more it hurts when you lose."
For tonight's winner, the joy will be so great as to last for a lifetime. For the loser, the disappointment will be numbing.
Clearly, the game couldn't be any bigger. The national championship is at stake. And for Auburn and Auburn people, this game presents a very real opportunity to change some perceptions.
If Auburn wins tonight, nobody can legitimately continue to talk about Alabama and LSU dominating the SEC West. You can't ignore a team that has won more SEC championships than anybody the past 10 years and, if it wins tonight, two national championships in four seasons.
Auburn has been on equal footing or better with Alabama for a long time, but with a Tiger win tonight, the rest of the nation would have no choice but to recognize that.
A win tonight could provide some early momentum for another championship run next season. It would get the attention of recruits.
Truthfully, just being in the game is a huge step. Auburn, with a win or a loss, need take a back seat to no program in the game. With a win tonight, the Tigers would complete the grandest turnaround in all the history of college football.
Breaking down the game
SEC versus ACC
Coaches and players say this game is about Auburn and Florida State and not the two conferences. To a great extent, that is true. But Auburn has been tested in the shark-infested waters of the toughest division in the game's toughest conference. Florida State really hasn't been tested at all.
Maybe Florida State is just that good. And maybe the grind of winning the SEC championship will pay off for Auburn. We'll know around 9 o'clock tonight.
Florida State redshirt freshman Jameis Winston has been crowned the game's best player and has a Heisman Trophy to show for it. Is he more valuable to his team than Auburn's Nick Marshall is to his? In my opinion, that's an open question.
Neither quarterback has been in a game as big as this one, but Marshall has been in some that are close. Is there any more pressure for an Auburn quarterback than to be trailing Alabama 28-21 with less than a minute left? Marshall faced that pressure and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates.. Winston has not been in a fourth-quarter game. How will he react if he is in one tonight?
Florida State's defense
Florida State players and coaches are convinced they can contain Auburn's running game. Can Florida State find the secret to slowing Heisman finalist Tre Mason and the rest of Auburn runners? Alabama couldn't. Missouri couldn't. Georgia couldn't. LSU couldn't. If the Seminoles can't, they'll probably lose.
Florida State is 28 points away from setting a college football record for points scored in a season. Nobody would call Auburn's defense dominant, but the Tigers have grown teeth with games on the line. They've been one of the nation's best in the red zone. Can they at least make things difficult for Winston and friends. If they can't, they'll probably lose.
The Malzahn factor
In guiding Auburn to the BCS Championship Game, coach Gus Malzahn has done what would have seemed impossible just a few months ago. In his last 20 games, dating back to last season at Arkansas State, he has won 19.
And the winner will be ...
Almost no one questions that the two most deserving teams are the last two standing. Who will celebrate tonight at the Rose Bowl? I haven't tried to pick a winner in any game this season, and I'm not going to start now. But I will make this prediction:
If it's a fourth-quarter game, Auburn will win.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: