One season ago, Florida State fans fumed over a midseason loss to lowly North Carolina State that derailed all championship hopes, and they openly questioned whether third-year coach Jimbo Fisher was the man to lead the Seminoles long term.
One season ago, Gus Malzahn was slumming it -- by major college football standards -- in the Sun Belt Conference at Arkansas State, waiting for his first shot to coach an FBS contender.
What a difference a year makes.
On Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif., Fisher's No. 1-ranked, ACC champion Seminoles (13-0) will play for the BCS National Championship against No. 2 and SEC champion Auburn (12-1).
The Tigers, who hired Malzahn this past offseason to turn around a program coming off a 3-9 campaign -- including 0-6 in SEC play -- that was one of the worst in school history.
Florida State, which has had the help of emerging Heisman front runner Jameis Winston, wasn't even picked to win its own division in the ACC but won each game by at least 14 points and went 8-0 in conference play.
And Auburn, which has won nine straight to get this far -- including back-to-back thrillers against top-5 teams Alabama and Missouri -- began the season unranked.
It's the matchup no one saw coming, but everyone can't wait to see.
And in the final year of the often-controversial Bowl Championship Series before college football moves to a four-team playoff in 2014, it appears the BCS committee nailed this one.
College football's best team vs. its hottest.
"We all complained about the BCS and everything that goes on, but it's funny how many times they get it right," said Fisher, whose comments we're echoed by Malzahn during their Sunday evening conference call shortly after the BCS committee announced its final pairing.
"It ought to be a good one," Malzahn said.
It will also be nostalgic.
After 16 years, the final installment of the BCS will feature a school that played in the format's very first national title game in 1998 -- the Seminoles.
It will be the fourth BCS title game in school history for Florida State, which is 1-2 in championship, and second for the Tigers, who are 1-0 in their only appearance.
Florida State, which played in three straight BCS title games from 1998-2000, won its last in 1999 when the Seminoles beat Virginia Tech.
Fisher was a young, relatively inexperienced assistant coach at, of all places, Auburn around the time. And the nostalgia will only continue when he faces his former team.
"That was great years at Auburn," said the now 48-year old Fisher, who served as the quarterbacks coach for the Tigers from 1993-98. "I enjoyed my years at Auburn. I was 27 years old when I went there.
"It'll be a great opportunity (to face them). I know a lot of those folks. That was where I cut my teeth in Division 1 football."
Auburn, meanwhile, took home its only BCS crown by beating Oregon in 2010.
Malzahn was the offensive coordinator during the Tigers' championship run that year, and he said Sunday it felt great to officially restore respectability to the program that not many outside of their locker room had high expectations of when the season began.
"I don't know if I've ever had a team come as far as we have," Malzahn said. "The very first game, we were an average-at-best team. We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. We just gained confidence with every game, and I think after we won on the road at Arkansas, we really started to believe.
"It's been something to watch, it really has. To see them grow, see them come together, see them believe in each other, it's really been something to watch and be a part of."
Florida State ascended to No. 1 two weeks ago because of Auburn's upset victory over then-top-ranked Alabama in the Iron Bowl and secured its BCS position by crushing Duke, 45-7, in Saturday's ACC title game.
Behind their 19-year-old redshirt freshman quarterback Winston, who will turn 20 the day of the national title game, the Seminoles have crushed every opponent in their path en route to the school's first unbeaten season in 14 years.
Florida State began the season ranked 11th in the nation, but has slowly risen in the polls week after week, knocking off four Top 25 teams on its way.
"We're not done yet," said Winston, the former five-star No. 1 overall prep quarterback recruit in the nation from Hueytown, Ala., who was recruited by every major Division program, including the Tigers.
"Me being from Alabama, I'm excited to play in this game. We fear no one."
Auburn, meanwhile, smacked Missouri, 59-42, in the SEC finale in Atlanta on Saturday, then watched with elation as Michigan State handed previously unbeaten No. 2 Ohio State its first loss in two years, 34-24, in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday night.
Auburn's invitation also means the all-mighty SEC will have a chance after all to end the BCS' term with eight straight national titles by the conference.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Nick Marshall, an Auburn junior, is a 21-year-old former Wilcox County High School two-sport star went from being the top recruit in Georgia three years ago to being kicked off the team at Georgia for allegedly stealing from a teammate before his sophomore season. After a year of junior college ball at Garden City Community College, where he surpassed 3,000 yards passing and rushed for 1,000 more, he landed at Auburn for a second chance that he has made the most of. Marshall not only has led the Tigers to the SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship game, but he's mastered Malzahn's complicated offense in a very short amount of time and is also the Tigers' second-leading rusher with 1,023 yards. If Marshall needs to, he can also pass deceivingly well, passing for four touchdowns in his last three games while throwing only 53 passes in that span. Two of those touchdown passes either won or tied the game in the final seconds in crucial games against Georgia and Alabama.
--Sophomore LB Cassanova McKinzy and junior DB Jermaine Whitehead of Auburn are defensive monsters who rank second and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. McKinzy, who had a team-high 10 tackles vs. Missouri, and Whitehead, who had six tackles and an interception) are coming off huge performances in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn's defense has been gutted for 108 points in its last three games, possibly signs of fatigue by the starters. McKinzy and Whitehead, however, continue to be steady week-in and week-out and could be very disruptive when it comes to stopping Florida State, which is averaging 53 points per game and is on pace to finish as the most prolific offense in college football history.
--Senior LB Telvin Smith, like many of his teammates on Florida State's defense, was snubbed for the All-ACC First-Team. The Seminoles had only one selection, DB Lamarcus Joyner, even though Smith leads the Seminoles' third-ranked FBS defense with 75 tackles, 9.5 tackles for losses and three interceptions, two that he returned for touchdowns. He had eight tackles, including two for losses, and his third pick of the season last week against Duke, and he helped bottle up the middle of the field, forcing Duke to all but abandon the run. That's important going forward because if Smith can disrupt Auburn's top-ranked rushing attack, it will force the Tigers to pass, something QB Nick Marshall, the team's second-leading rusher, is far less comfortable doing.
--Junior RB James Wilder Jr. is somewhat the forgotten man on Florida State's offense this year, but he seems to be called on in huge games and could be poised for a big BCS title game. Wilder came into the season ready to be the Seminoles' feature back, but between a couple of nagging injuries and missing some time, Wilder has slipped to third in the rotation. Devonta Freeman has 943 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, and Karlos Williams added 705 yards and 11 scores, but Wilder has a respectable 542 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He has run strong in the biggest games, scoring twice vs. No. 7 Miami, and the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Wilder has more power than Williams or Freeman. That could be key against Auburn, which struggles against power backs, as evidence by the combined 472 yards the Tigers gave up this season to the two most powerful rushing teams they faced, LSU and Alabama.
BOWL HISTORY: Florida State is in a bowl for the 32nd straight season, which is the longest active streak in the nation. The Seminoles are 26-14-2 in postseason bowl games, including five straight wins. Auburn is 22-13-2 all-time in bowl games, and like Florida State, the Tigers have won five straight.
SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads, 13-4-1. The last meeting was 1990, a 20-17 Tigers victory. Before that, Florida State won three in a row from 1987-89.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They've just been blowing guys out of the water. They definitely smacked us tonight. I hope whoever they play in the national championship is ready to play them. The completeness of that team is pretty unbelievable." -- Duke TE Braxton Deaver, on the No. 1 Seminoles after the Blue Devils' 45-7 loss in the ACC title game Saturday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running games: Devonta Freeman, Florida State's leading rusher with 943 yards is 57 yards from becoming the first Seminole running back to hit 1,000 since Warrick Dunn's final season in 1996. The Seminoles are deep behind Freeman with Karlos Williams (705 yards) and James Wilder Jr. (542), and average 207.4 yards a game (28th in the FBS). But the advantage here goes to Auburn, which has rushed for more than 2,500 yards between RB Tre Mason (1,621 yards) and QB Nick Marshall (1,023), and will bring the nation's No. 1 rushing attack into the BCS Championship Game, averaging 317.5 yards a game.
Scouting the passing games: Jameis Winston of Florida State, the ACC's Rookie and Offensive MVP of the Year, is the nation's most efficient passer (190.1) who has 3,820 passing yards and set new ACC and school records with 38 passing touchdowns. Winston's top targets are Rashad Greene (67 catches, 981 yards), Kenny Shaw (52, 929) and Kelvin Benjamin (50, 957), all of whom make up the nation's 14th-ranked passing offense that averages 322 yards per game. Auburn is on the other end of the spectrum with the country's 108th-ranked passing offense that averages only 169 yards per game, but the Tigers have big-play WR Sammie Coates, who leads the country with 23.3 yards per catch.
Scouting the run defenses: Florida State's first-team defense, which usually was resting by halftime during most of the Seminoles' blowout wins, has only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season, Andre Williams of Boston College. The run defense, which is ranked 14th in the country at 116 yards per game, has allowed the fewest number of rushing touchdowns of any team in the nation, five. As for Auburn, the Tigers might have the country's best rushing attack, but it's not so hot at stopping the run, especially of late. Auburn, which has the FBS' 64th-ranked rush defense and gives up an average of 161 yards a game, has surrendered almost 500 yards on the ground in its last two games against Alabama and Missouri.
Scouting the pass defense: The Seminoles have arguably the best secondary in the nation and lead FBS with 25 interceptions, only 152 passing yards allowed per game and in scoring defense at 10.7 points per game. The Tigers have the 104th-ranked passing defense at 260 yards per game allowed, and have shown a propensity for giving up the big play, including a 99-yard touchdown against Alabama and two long bombs against Missouri.
Scouting the special teams: Freshman K Roberto Aguayo of Florida State is the Seminoles' biggest special teams weapon. He hasn't missed an extra point this season (90-for-90, an NCAA record) and is 19-for-20 on field goals, leading the Seminoles in scoring. He's one of three finalists for the Lou Groza award. DB Chris Davis of Auburn has a punt return and a missed field goal return for touchdowns this season. Davis got a little banged up in the SEC title game but is expected to be fine by the time Auburn and Florida State play on Jan. 6.
Intangibles: Both teams are on fire, winning a combined 22 games in a row coming into the BCS title game, but Florida State almost saw its season derailed by an outside force. Auburn handled an off-the-field storm well in its last trip to the national championship in 2010 when QB Cam Newton was being investigated for being improperly recruited. The issue was put to bed before the game, Newton was cleared and Auburn won the title, but Florida State finds itself in a similar boat after Jameis Winston was cleared of sexual assault last week, allowing him to continue his football career and chase the Heisman and BCS title. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he was glad that after the last month in Tallahassee was focused on Winston's potential legal trouble, the chaos was behind the Seminoles and the next month would be all about football and preparing for Auburn. "I think it'll be very good," Fisher said. "I think our team did a tremendous job of handling that situation while it was going on, but it will be good. There's no worries behind us and all we have to do is look forward to the future and plan and preparing for a game."
--Neither team reports any significant injuries that won't be healed by the Jan. 6 BCS national title game.
--Florida State S Tyler Hunter (neck), who was thought to be lost for the season, could return for the title game.
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