Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s running backs and Florida State’s linebackers.
Auburn’s running backs: Gus Malzahn has always been one to tailor his offense around his team’s skill set. In this case, it’s safe to say that Auburn’s strength is running the football. The Tigers have run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. They lead the nation in rushing yards per game and are one of five schools this season to have two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards.
The star is running back Tre Mason. He leads the SEC in rushing (1,621 yards) and rushing touchdowns (22), rushing for a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in the SEC championship game. That performance, along with his 164-yard outing against No. 1 Alabama, earned him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
But as impressive as Mason has been all year, it’s quarterback Nick Marshall who makes this offense go. Technically, Marshall isn’t a running back, but how can you not include him in this category when he has over 1,000 yards rushing? The junior college transfer seems to get better every game as he gets more and more comfortable with the zone-read. Florida State has the athletes to defend Auburn’s offense, but Marshall’s ability to run turns a great offense into a nearly unstoppable offense.
The wild card of the group is Corey Grant, a former Alabama transfer. If Mason is the thunder, Grant is the lightning. The junior has been used sparingly, but he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He has 650 yards and six touchdowns on the season and is among the nation’s best in yards per carry (10.0).
Statistically speaking, Florida State has been strong against the run, but the Seminoles haven’t faced a rushing attack quite like Auburn’s “four-headed monster.” When they faced Boston College’s Andre Williams, they gave up 149 yards to the Heisman finalist. Mason is every bit the player that Williams is, and that’s just one of the multiple weapons Auburn has in its arsenal.
Florida State’s linebackers: It’s hard to know quite what to make of this matchup. On the one hand, FSU has been exceptional against the run for most of the season. The Seminoles are eighth nationally, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry (and just 2.9 in the first halves of games), and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Throw out the second half against NC State (when the backups played the entirety), and FSU is allowing just 2.6 yards per rush since the start of October, when Christian Jones moved up to the defensive line and Terrance Smith stepped in as the starting middle linebacker.
The problem, of course, is that Maryland and Wake Forest and Duke didn’t provide anything close to the challenge Auburn will on Jan. 6. The best rushing offense Florida State faced this year was Boston College, and not coincidentally, no team had more success on the ground (200 yards) or overall (34 points) against FSU this season.
Still, the Seminoles defense has evolved immensely since that BC game. Terrance and Telvin Smith have both developed into reliable defenders against the run. Jones provides an athletic defender on the edge. Jalen Ramsey (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) moved to safety and can play sideline to sideline against the run. Both Jones and Ramsey will be vital against an Auburn team that runs outside the tackles routinely with great success (averaging 6.3 yards before contact outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Info, best among AQ schools). FSU is allowing just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles this year, but 5.1 outside.
The Seminoles have the athleticism on defense to make life tough for an Auburn running game that hasn’t struggled often, but what the Tigers do well is also the one place where some questions remain for Florida State.
Ostendorf: Edge Auburn
Hale: Slight edge for Auburn