College bowl games are far too fleeting and superfluous to serve as the basis for any lasting conclusions, even about the teams playing in them. In fact, if the 2013-14 bowl season has taught us anything–and I'd really prefer that it hasn't, but if it has, in spite of itself–it is that attempting to predict these events is an exercise in futility.
In 31 games, the Vegas underdog has claimed a straight-up victory in a dozen of them, including the dog in all four BCS games. In the Fiesta Bowl, 16.5-point favorite Baylor was ambushed by Central Florida, 52-42, in the largest point-spread upset in BCS history. That title stood for exactly 24 hours before it was broken by a 17-point underdog, Oklahoma, in a 45-31 stunner over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, in which the Sooners scored as many touchdowns in the first half alone (four) as they had scored in the regular season against West Virginia, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State combined. The conventional wisdom was not just wrong about these games, but colossally, 180-degrees wrong. These teams haven't seen the field in a month, and we think there is some rhyme or reason to their fate in a single game?
Which brings us to the big one, the BCS championship game to end all BCS championship games, between Florida State and Auburn, where every possible shred of rational, systematic analysis points toward an FSU victory. That's polite, actually: Most of it points toward another anticlimactic blowout on the sport's biggest stage, enshrining the Seminoles as one of the most dominant college champs in recent memory. As of Sunday night, Vegas listed the Noles as a 10-point favorite, a new record for the title game, and that number is probably depressed by the money that inevitably follows the logic of SEC superiority. Objectively speaking, it's an easy call; the more I look at the tale of the tape, the more obvious it is that FSU is the better team. But it should be equally obvious by now–especially where Auburn is concerned–that these matters are not dictated by the rational.
Make no mistake: Florida State is a juggernaut. Offensively, the Seminoles led the nation in scoring, putting them within 28 points of the single-season FBS record. Defensively, they led the nation in points, yielding an average margin of victory (42.3 points per game) that has not been matched since World War II. Their narrowest win of the season came by 14 points, putting them alongside the 2004 Utah Utes as the only team in the BCS era to win every game by at least two touchdowns. Of the other 18 teams that have qualified for the championship game without a loss, every single one had at least one close call decided by a touchdown or less, and all but the 2001 Miami Hurricanes had to rally at some point from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. By contrast, no opponent has remained within single digits of Florida State beyond the opening minutes of the third quarter. In five games against teams that appeared in the Associated Press poll at any point this season (Maryland, Clemson, Miami, Florida, and Duke), FSU won by a combined score of 237 to 42.
This is the point where some readers begin talking shit about the Seminoles' schedule. All right, fine: According to Jeff Sagarin, FSU's strength of schedule ranked 63rd, and it came in 66th according to Football Outsiders' Brian Fremeau, hardly a gantlet. (Auburn's SOS ranked 20th and 10th, respectively.) But you won't find a modern team that's handled any schedule with greater ease. Even adjusting for the opposition, Florida State emerged not only as the No. 1 team in FO's comprehensive F/+ ratings, but with both the No. 1 overall offense and No. 1 overall defense. Against the best team they faced, Clemson–the same Clemson that just polished off Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, locking up a top-10 finish in the polls for the second year in a row–the Noles annihilated the Tigers on their own field, 51–14, in a game that wasn't even that close. Even the kicker, Roberto Aguayo, is widely considered the best in the nation after hitting 19 of 20 attempts as a redshirt freshman. Right now, the worst that can be said about Florida State on the field is that it's untested against "adversity," for the simple reason that it's been too consistently good to have faced any.
Auburn, on the other hand, is defined by adversity. From a remove, the hard road begins to look less like a burden than a raison d'être. The Tigers began the season unranked, universally projected to finish at or near the bottom of the SEC West for the second year in a row, and didn't appear in the AP poll until mid-October. (They debuted at No. 24 following a win over Western Carolina.) In addition to a 35-21 loss at LSU in September, their résumé includes fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama, the latter two in preposterous fashion. Other games, against Washington State, Ole Miss, and Missouri, remained very much in doubt in the fourth quarter.
At the center of the drama was the most generous defense ever to appear in a championship game, one that easily surpassed the 2010 Tigers for the honor in terms of both yards and points allowed against SEC opponents. In its last three games–the wins over Georgia, Alabama and Missouri–Auburn yielded 500 yards of total offense on upwards of seven yards per play in all three, as it did in its breakthrough win at Texas A&M in October. Six of nine SEC opponents went over 200 yards rushing (including negative yardage on sacks), and eight of nine scored at least 20 points. At last glance, the defense was being torched by Mizzou for 42 points on 534 yards of total offense in the SEC championship game, dropping it to 12th (out of 14 teams) in the conference in total defense and eighth in scoring. While the offense hit its stride around midseason, statistically speaking, Auburn is indistinguishable from the kind of shootout-friendly outfit from the Big 12 or Pac-12 that SEC fans have spent the last seven years trolling with abandon.
Still, the fact that Auburn cannot check off every box on the championship checklist is part of its irrational appeal–not in the sense of rooting for the little guy, but in that there is some hard-to-define strength in thriving as such an outlier. Here is an outfit that has not only shocked the world against top-shelf competition, but has managed to sustain that success despite very obvious, persistent liabilities. Yes, extraordinary luck in the wins over Georgia and Alabama is an obvious factor, as it is for a lot of teams that make it this far, but it's not the only factor, or even the most important one. The Tigers only do one thing really well–run the option–but maybe they do it so well that everything else is an afterthought. Beginning with a 282-romp against Ole Miss on Oct. 5, the offense averaged a staggering 382 yards per game rushing over their last nine, racking up season highs for an opposing rushing attack in eight of them. Their net against Missouri (545 yards on 74 carries) marked the first 500-yard rushing game against an SEC defense since the turn of the century and made Tre Mason a late-blooming finalist for the Heisman. At maximum tempo, this offense can run on anyone, and so far has.
Beyond that, any argument for Auburn is circumstantial. Before the famous "Kick Six," for example, the defense denied Alabama crucial points in the fourth quarter by blocking a field goal attempt and stopping the Tide cold on a 4th-and-1 attempt in the red zone. After being torched by Missouri for three quarters, the defense held Mizzou scoreless in the fourth. A&M and Georgia both had the ball last with chances to win, and both succumbed to pressure from the Auburn pass rush. You know, "they're just winners" kind of stuff. Frankly, though, sheer randomness is more compelling. If an overmatched afterthought like Trevor Knight can play the game of his life against the Crimson Tide, why not the Auburn defense tonight? The fundamental uncertainty is why we watch sports.
None of which should be construed as a prediction that Auburn is going to win. (Elsewhere, I risked going with my head and predicted a final score of Florida State 41, Auburn 23.) But perceived long shots have claimed the championship against formidable odds before, notably Ohio State over Miami in 2003, Texas over USC in 2006, and especially Florida over Ohio State in 2007–the Gators that beat the undefeated Buckeyes to pulp in the title game bore no resemblance to the team that had to squeak past the likes of Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina in the regular season–leaving the general impression that anyone good enough to make it this far is good enough to win. That may not be the case if you break it down by, say, simulating the game 50,000 times, in which case FSU wins 75 percent of them. Play it once, though, after a full month on ice, and suddenly anything is possible.