When Jameis Winston sauntered across the stage Saturday night – bathed in the bright beams only New York City could provide – we watched, as a 19-year-old became the 79th member of the most illustrious club in college football. It was emotive, it was humbling, and it was prolonged – as many of these events are nowadays – and the world observed, rapt as the cloud surrounding Winston began to dissipate.
Settled in the front row, mere feet from the stage, was Auburn Tigers running back Tre Mason. The workhorse from Palm Beach who carried War Eagle to the best rushing attack in Division 1 College Football this year, has already broken Bo Jackson’s Auburn record for most all-purpose yardage in a season. He’s physical, decisive, and will plant defenders on their spines if approached with any semblance of hesitation. For one night, Mason traded in his aptitude for weaving between blockers on hairpin turns for a sartorial experiment an opportunity he described as, “an honor and a blessing.” For Mason, humility has always been the vehicle, never the veil.
The backbone of the Tigers’ offense watched Winston accept an award in a moment everyone knew would inevitably transpire. It was the fifth-largest margin of victory in the modern era. Mason finished last in voting amongst the finalists, you’d never know by watching his exterior. Behind the guise of a manicured smile was a wolf hiding clenched teeth in anticipation of an opportunity to win something greater. In three weeks time Mason and Winston will meet again, this time at midfield for the coin toss moments before they will battle for the privilege to call themselves National Champions.
Jimbo Fisher has led the Florida State Seminoles to a flawless 13-0 record in 2013, an outright ACC Championship, and the top passing efficiency offense in the nation. Their offensive attack averages 53.7-points-per-game and when they aren’t shattering scoreboards they’re holding opponents to the fewest points per game in the country. Supplementing Winston is arguably the best receiving core in the nation and their freshman kicker Roberto Aguayo recently received the Lou Groza award after connecting on 19 of 20 field goals and successfully burying all 90 PAT attempts. They are the embodiment of wood-chippers, athletic firecrackers, predicated by Fisher’s method of high volume scoring. Florida State’s closest game this year came in September against Boston College, a contest they won by 14 points. They’re unsullied in every facet of the game and their roster has possibly the most potential at the next level.
Auburn’s road has been more turbulent-rollercoaster than swing-set, posting debatably the most improbable three-week stretch in college football’s antiquity. For those contending Auburn is more trick than brawn, consider last month’s palpitating stretch where they loped past two consecutive Top 5 programs to the tune of 841 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per carry en route to an SEC Championship. They’re 5-1 against Top 25 teams and are the hottest team – outside of their forthcoming opponent – in college football.
In the waning weeks before last year’s National Championship Game, most recognized that Notre Dame was heading for goliath, and by night’s end the grass was painted crimson just as those had predicted. This matchup though, somehow appears to be painted on the same canvas.
The Nevada State Gaming Control Board lists Auburn as an 8.5-point underdog in the National Championship Game. Few are surprised. Chief Operating Office Kenny White of Don Best Sports went as far as to say, “You would think in a game between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, [the spread] wouldn’t be that big of a gap, but this isn’t the No. 1 versus No. 2, this is our No. 1 team versus our No. 13 team.”
And White isn’t an outlier. Few in the media are willing to acknowledge Auburn’s chances on Jan. 6, 2014. Some don’t believe they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Seminoles. Five out of six writers at SB Nation have the Seminoles winning and Grantland’s Andrew Sharp argues that the Tigers are merely passing by with “gimmicks,” poised to meet a comparable savagery that befell Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish a calendar year prior.
Perhaps it’s a result of their lone blemish – a hard-fought contest in the bayou against No. 6 LSU, a haunting habitat that has eaten a top-five program each of the last four years. Maybe it’s because six of their games this season have been decided by 10 points or less. What’s becoming increasingly ostensible though, is the reoccurring conviction that the media may be unwilling to accept lightning could strike three times in one season.
Conceivably, the media could be engrossed by the prospect of this team’s narrative crumbling at every plausible juncture. Precisely why this team deserves to be accredited in this moment, for this game. This team finished 3-9 last season and canned four-year head coach Gene Chizik and all of his assistant coaches. Athletic Director Jay Jacobs rinsed his palette, affixed dynamite to the team’s infrastructure, and ignited a bonfire that scorched the city of Auburn for nine days. And on the ninth day, Gus Malzahn was appointed architect, tasked with reconstructing a program that ranks 15th in all time wins. Rebuilding within the cloth of the program, the 2013 Home Depot Coach of the Year chose his staff – three of which who are alumni – and the Tigers achieved their second 10+ win season in the last decade. Malzahn has worked all year to clear the ash and sift through the rubble, and still adversity continues to be ascribed.
It’s one approach to rationalize a prediction on orthodox analysis, but to negate the outright SEC Champion – the best conference in college football – any credentials is another. Auburn is 13-4-1 all time against Florida State, clawing their way out of a conference that has won a national championship each of the past seven years. It’s unknown know how the Seminoles will adapt in a tight situation, a position where the next drive will definitively resolve the outcome. Florida State has only been juggernauts this season, never having arm-wrestled a comeback or recoiled from a punch. National Championships may as well be played on a bed of razor wire. Auburn has thrived in marginal games; games when a 60-yard prayer is your only option; games when you’re pinned against the chalk in the hindmost slice of your endzone; games when all of you can do is hold your breath, mind, and body, and pray for rapture. Those omitting this from Auburn’s advantage omit the power of privilege.
Disclaimer: this will not be the most exciting game of the season. This might even become Auburn’s third-most climactic 60 minutes on a field this year. Come Jan. 6 predictions will prove entirely inconsequential. This article will prove frivolous. All preceding numbers, accolades, and understandings will liquefy, and left will be a puddle of two teams. The 2014 BCS National Championship is on the line Jan. 6, and we’d be foolish to believe that it won’t involve teams of the same caliber.