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Final BCS title game offers intrigue, but will Florida State-Auburn live up to the hype?

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  • Nick Saban
    Nick Saban
    American football coach

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – The end of the BCS era is at hand. Years too late for most of us, but here we are at last.

Surprisingly, some in sports media are getting all wistful about it.

There are retrospectives being written, and rankings being made of the best championship games, and even a mock funeral for the BCS staged by my friends at Sports Illustrated. If anyone cries into a handkerchief at that, fine them.

Me? I’ll give it the BCS the two words it deserves: Good riddance.

But the game itself – Florida State vs. Auburn, Monday night at 8:30 p.m. ET – deserves a more thorough examination. Here are six key storylines and matchups to discuss and observe as we give away the final crystal football:

Domination vs. Destiny. Florida State is Team Blowout, winning every game by at least 14 points and all 13 by an average of 42.3 points per game. The Seminoles have not trailed, for even a second, since Sept. 28 at Boston College. They have destroyed everyone since that 48-34 victory.

Auburn is Team Divine Intervention, beating Georgia on a tipped-ball, 73-yard fluke play with 25 seconds left, and beating Alabama on a 109-yard field goal return with no time left. There were other close shaves as well: a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left to beat Mississippi State; fourth-quarter interceptions to stave off Washington State and Mississippi; and a late sack of Johnny Manziel to upset Texas A&M.

This has created the line of thought that Auburn is at a decided advantage in a close game, since Florida State has no idea what a close game even looks like, much less feels like. If this is a fourth-quarter game, the Tigers will like their chances.

“I know how our guys are going to react,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They’re not going to panic. They’re going to believe.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher certainly expects his team to respond the same way – even if the 'Noles haven’t been in that spot this season, and even with a freshman quarterback. That makes sense, because Jameis Winston has not played like a freshman.

“I don’t think it’ll make him blink one bit,” Fisher said.

Keep this in mind: Notre Dame was a Team of Destiny last year, and the Fighting Irish were blown out in a quarter. Last time a Team of Destiny won the title against the odds was probably Ohio State against Miami in January 2003.

ACC (and the rest of America) vs. SEC. You may have heard this: the Southeastern Conference has won the past seven national championships: Florida in 2006 and ’08; LSU in 2007; Alabama in 2009, ’11 and ’12; and Auburn in 2010. On Monday the Tigers try to make it a great eight straight.

But for the first time since 2006, the SEC team is the underdog. (Technically in 2011 as well, but that was an all-SEC matchup with LSU against Alabama). The belief in Las Vegas and most other precincts is that the Seminoles are the demonstrably better team, and they will probably have a lot of sentiment outside the South on their side from fans sick of the SEC hegemony and accompanying arrogance.

But truth be told, the Seminoles are built like an SEC team – a Nick Saban team, to be precise. Fisher was an assistant under Saban and has three other former Saban assistants on staff: defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, linebackers coach Sal Sunseri and offensive line coach Rick Trickett. Like Saban’s Alabama teams, they are balanced on offense, talent-stacked on defense and similarly obsessed with off-season strength and conditioning. Fisher has mimicked so much of what Saban does that one former SEC coach calls him “Nick Jr.” and says they have “The same offense, same defense, same special teams, same snap count.”

The question is whether Florida State has been sufficiently seasoned plowing through the middling ACC. Using the Sagarin Ratings, the Seminoles did not play anyone other than Clemson from the top 35. Average rank of the other 12 opponents outside of Clemson: 84th.

Auburn, on the other hand, played six SEC opponents in the Sagarin top 35. No wonder the Tigers had more close games.

Florida State nose guard Timmy Jernigan vs. Auburn center Reese Dismukes. With two Heisman Trophy finalists in the game, it will be tempting to follow the ball all night. But keep an eye on the interior of the line when the Tigers are on offense, because the Jernigan-Dukes matchup should be a pivotal toughman contest.

Dismukes was a Rimington Trophy finalist and all-SEC center. Jernigan was a second-team AP All-American.

“He’s smart,” Jernigan said of Dismukes. “I can really tell he knows what he’s doing. I’m a student of the game myself, and I can tell from film what the guy is doing across from me.”

Across from Dismukes’ brain is Jernigan’s brawn. His explosive strength and quickness makes him a threat to get in the backfield every play.

“He’s a strong, strong man,” teammate Telvin Smith said of Jernigan. “He ain’t a little boy. He can stand with the best of them.”

Rick Trickett-coached FSU offensive line vs. Dee Ford and the Auburn pass rush. Trickett is finishing his 41st season of coaching, which means there are thousands of former players out there telling stories about the Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran’s hardcore teaching approach. The current Seminoles say he has softened his approach in the last couple of years – a little bit.

“It was more of a drill instructor style,” said center Brian Stork, who won the Rimington Trophy. “If you missed one assignment, you were up early running.”

Trickett has five all-ACC linemen on this team, and they will be charged with containing all-SEC defensive end Ford. The piano-playing Ford had 8 ½ sacks and 12 ½ tackles for loss, and is the primary threat to Jameis Winston’s pocket serenity.

Given the secondary behind him, Ford’s ability to disrupt will be vital for Auburn. As long as he doesn’t do any singing pregame.

“I do sing, too,” Ford said. “But I try not to. It takes away from my aggressiveness.”

Florida State’s No. 1 scoring defense vs. Tre Mason’s wheels and Nick Marshall’s sleight of hand. In the last five games, Marshall has only thrown an average of 14 passes per game. That’s because Mason has been unstoppable running, and because Marshall’s ball fakes make even the most predictable running plays unpredictable -- defenses can’t figure out who has the pigskin. That’s how Auburn led the nation in rushing offense.

With the offense stripped down to 80 percent runs with a few surprise/desperation passes sprinkled in, Auburn still ended the year by scoring the most points of the regular season on Missouri (59), Alabama (34) and Georgia (43). That unit butts up against a Seminoles defense that has only allowed more than 17 points once, that has allowed just 34 points total in its last five games, and that leads the nation in fewest points allowed per game at 10.7.

If Florida State forces Auburn into a lot of third-and-long plays, can the Tigers throw effectively? Or will they serve up more interceptions to a Seminoles team that has 25 on the season?

“We do feel good about our passing game even though we have not passed the football a lot, probably the second half of the year, because we haven't had to,” Malzahn said. “But we do have a lot of confidence in Nick Marshall to throw it, and we feel like we've got some receivers that have gotten better. It just matters how the game unfolds.”

Jameis Winston vs. Auburn’s secondary. This is the major mismatch on paper. Winston leads the nation in pass efficiency and probably has the best receiving corps in the country in Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Nick O’Leary. Auburn ranks 61st in pass-efficiency defense and was beaten for big plays by Missouri in the SEC championship game and by Alabama for a 98-yard bomb. Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Florida State runs deeper routes than many teams – double moves and more intermediate routes – which necessitates Winston holding the ball a little longer. He said pass rush will be key to not letting him luxuriate, but even then, Winston is elusive and can make big throws on the run. Hence Auburn’s defenders must stick with their men during extended plays.

“(Winston) has the ability to throw every pass,” Johnson said. “And he can get out of trouble. He knows if it’s not completely clean, he’ll start moving.

“Sometimes, we’ll play unhooked. Our secondary is like our defense as a whole. They’ll give up some cheap plays. They’ve also made some unbelievable plays.

“When they make the plays they’ve made at key times, you’ve got to trust them.”

Or you can trust the Heisman winner and his NFL wideouts.

The pick: Florida State 41, Auburn 28. Now bring on the playoff.