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BCS preview: Florida State vs. Auburn

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Sometime tonight in the pleasant, picturesque setting of Pasadena, Calif., the final BCS champion will be crowned.

It’s been 15 years and two days since Tennessee triumphed over Florida State to win the inaugural BCS national championship. The system has taken loads of criticism since its inception, deserved or not. But today is its last day, and either Auburn or Florida State will hold the final BCS-assigned crystal ball.

Florida State brings the nation’s most potent offense to Southern California, averaging 53 points per game — tops among FBS teams. No team averages more yards per play than Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles (7.81). And if Florida State gets in the red zone, they’re almost guaranteed to score: The ‘Noles have scored 67 times on 69 red zone attempts, a 97.1 percent success rate. And 55 of those scores were touchdowns.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston is the driving force behind Florida State’s impeccable offensive success. While he may not lead FBS quarterbacks in yards per game or touchdowns (the blowout nature of most of FSU’s games meant he rarely had much work to do in the fourth quarter), it’s telling that he’s averaged 10.9 yards per attempt, best in the nation.

But for all the gaudy point totals its offense puts up, Florida State possesses much more than elite attack. The Seminoles have the best scoring defense (10.7 points per game) among FBS teams, are third in total defense (268.5 yards per game) and second in turnover margin (+17). No team has intercepted more passes than Florida State (25).

Florida State’s defense is among the elite in not giving up big-chunk plays, too. In 13 games, FSU has allowed 128 plays of 10 or more yards (third among teams that have played 13 games to date) and only 30 plays of 20 or more yards (fewest among FBS teams). Opponents have only converted 29.7 percent of third down chances and have only had 26 red zone attempts — an average of two per game.

But wait, Florida State’s done this all in the ACC. Auburn made it through the rough-and-tumble SEC with only one loss. Shouldn’t we take Florida State’s success with a grain of salt?

The answer: No, not really. Football Outsiders‘ S&P+ statistic adjusts for opponent quality, and Florida State still ranks No. 1 in offensive and defensive efficiency.

There’s a lot that would seem to go in Florida State’s favor tonight, to be sure. But here’s what Auburn has two distinct factors going for it.

The first: An elite rushing offense averaging the most yards per game (335.69) among FBS teams and powering the nation’s eighth-best scoring offense (40.2 points per game). And the second: The sort of nebulous, unquantifiable “team of destiny” stuff.

Without an incredible miracle one-upped by an even more incredible miracle, Auburn isn’t here right now. Without rushing for 545 yards against what was one of the SEC’s top rushing defenses in the conference title game, Auburn isn’t here right now.

Destiny or not, this is a team that got much, much better as the season progressed. The sloppy seven-point win over Washington State on Aug. 31 seems like ages ago. Momentum is overrated, especially in bowl games. But this is a team that shouldn’t lack confidence tonight — after all, that 109-yard field goal return was set up by playing Alabama, college football’s two-time defending champion, tougher than anyone this calendar year.

If you believe in the numbers, then it’s tough — almost illogical — to pick against Florida State. But if you believe in the magic of Auburn, the magic of the SEC or any other unmeasurable force, then hey, War Eagle.

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