Stats & Info: Auburn Tigers

Alabama wins record-setting Iron Bowl

November, 30, 2014
The ending wasn’t quite as memorable as the 2013 Iron Bowl, but it was certainly a record-setting Iron Bowl that will go down in history.

Top-ranked Alabama tied an Iron Bowl record by scoring 55 points. The Crimson Tide also scored 55 points in a 55-0 win over Auburn in 1948.

The two teams combined for 99 points, setting an Iron Bowl record for combined points. They also combined for an Iron Bowl-record 1,169 yards.

There were plenty of offensive stars in this game, but perhaps the star of stars was Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who set an Iron Bowl record with 224 receiving yards.

The 224 yards tied Cooper’s own school record for any game. He also set a school record with his 14th career 100-yard receiving game.

Cooper wasn’t the only stud receiver in this game. Auburn's Sammie Coates had 206 receiving yards, the second most in Iron Bowl history.

Alabama quarterback Blake Sims struggled early with three interceptions, but after his third interception, he completed 10 of 12 passes with three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.

In the loss, Nick Marshall set a school record with 456 passing yards.

The 44 points for Auburn are the most Alabama has ever allowed in a win.

The Tide will try to repeat the success of the past five Iron Bowl winners: Each of those five reached the national championship game, and four of the five won the title.

First, the Tide will face Missouri next Saturday in the SEC championship game.

Key Matchups: Auburn rushing vs. Ole Miss

October, 30, 2014

USA TODAY SportsAuburn always scores 20 points under Malzahn (left), while Freeze's Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 in 2014.
In its win last week against South Carolina, Auburn looked just like Auburn from last season. The Tigers had season highs in rushing yards (395), yards per rush (8.4) and runs of 30 yards or more (3). At the same time, they had a season-low 15 passing attempts.

It was a return to the formula that helped the Tigers win the 2013 SEC championship. Entering Saturday’s game, Auburn had passed on 37 percent of its plays, 7 percentage points higher than in 2013.

Against South Carolina, Auburn passed on a season-low 24 percent of its plays, one week after passing on a season-high 49 percent in the loss to Mississippi State. To be fair, Auburn was trailing most of the second half against the Bulldogs and needed to pass.

This week, the Tigers travel to Ole Miss, which leads the nation in per-game scoring defense (10.5) and defensive efficiency (19.6), which measures the points a defense contributes to the team’s scoring margin and adjusts for the offenses faced.

It is a classic something-has-to-give matchup. Consider:

-Ole Miss is the only FBS team that has not allowed more than 20 points in a game this season, whereas Auburn has never been held to fewer than 20 under Gus Malzahn.

-Since Malzahn took over as head coach, Auburn is 15-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-3 when it does not. Ole Miss is winless (0-7) in three seasons under Hugh Freeze when its opponent rushes for more than 200 yards, including last week’s loss to LSU.

-Ole Miss has allowed three rushing touchdowns this season, tied for third fewest in the FBS. Auburn scored five rushing touchdowns last week against South Carolina.

Auburn outside offense

Under Malzahn, Auburn has been one of the best perimeter rushing teams in the nation. Since the start of last season, it has more rushing yards outside the tackles (4,122) than 90 FBS teams have total rushing yards. On such runs, the Tigers have averaged 7.8 yards per carry, second best among Power 5 schools behind Wisconsin (8.7).

Last week against South Carolina, Auburn had its best perimeter running game of the season, gaining a season-high 228 yards outside the tackles, including five touchdowns. The Tigers had more rushing yards outside the tackles on Ricardo Louis’ 75-yard touchdown than they had the previous game in their loss at Mississippi State.

Speaking of that loss, the 2014 Bulldogs were the fifth team to hold Auburn to less than 6 yards per carry outside the tackles under Malzahn. The Tigers are 2-3 in those games, with both wins coming by six points or fewer.

Ole Miss can stop it

Until last week, Ole Miss had been stout against the run. But crazy things happen under the lights in Tiger Stadium. The Rebels allowed 264 rushing yards to LSU, 19 more than they allowed in their previous four games combined. LSU had four runs of 15 yards or more; Ole Miss had allowed eight such runs entering the game, including four in its previous five games.

Despite last week, Ole Miss ranks fourth in the FBS in defensive efficiency on rushing plays. It has held opponents out of the end zone (allowed 3 TDs), forced turnovers (4 fumble recoveries) and limited teams on third down (31 percent conversion rate, sixth in the FBS).

Ole Miss has excelled on defense in the same area in which Auburn excels on offense. The Rebels have allowed 4.0 yards per rush outside the tackles, third fewest in the SEC. On such runs, the Rebels have allowed one touchdown and the second-lowest percentage (12 percent) to gain 10 yards or more in the SEC behind Alabama (9 percent).

In last season’s matchup, an eight-point Auburn win, the “Landshark” defense looked more like a fish out of water. Auburn had 175 rushing yards outside the tackles on 23 carries, including six runs of 10 yards or more. It is the most yards, yards per carry and 10-yard rushes that Ole Miss has allowed on such plays the last two seasons. If Ole Miss can improve in this area Saturday, it might be able to “set the edge” on the scoreboard as well.

SEC West: Matchups to watch

September, 30, 2014

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper will match up against a stingy Ole Miss pass defense.
The SEC West has been dominant in the first month of the season. Consider these stats:
  • The SEC West is 25-0 against teams not in the SEC West and has won those games by an average of 34.1 points.
  • Six of the top 15 teams in The Associated Press poll hail from the SEC West -- more than the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC have in the top 15 combined.
  • All seven teams from the SEC West rank in the top 20 of the Football Power Index, including the top three teams in the rankings: Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn.
  • The SEC West has five undefeated teams, which is two more than any other conference in the FBS (the Pac-12 and Big 12 each has three).

Given the quality of the division, it’s no surprise that six of the 10 toughest remaining schedules belong to teams in the SEC West.

This week will be the first real conference test for many of the SEC West’s top teams. Three of the weekend's best games (and perhaps the three best, period) -- Alabama at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Mississippi State and LSU at Auburn -- all involve SEC West teams. Below is one matchup to watch in each of these games.

Alabama at Ole Miss
Matchup to Watch: WR Amari Cooper vs. Ole Miss pass defense
Amari Cooper is averaging an FBS-high 163.8 receiving yards per game and has the longest active streak of 100-yard receiving games in the nation (six). Ole Miss, on the other hand, is allowing 133.5 passing yards per game and has not allowed a receiver to crack the 100-yard mark this season.

Cooper has accounted for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards and has 41 more targets than any other Alabama receiver. He has more yards after the catch (320) and more receptions of 20 yards or longer (10) than Ole Miss has allowed this year.

The Rebels must limit Cooper downfield, after the catch and on third down. QB Blake Sims is 9-of-10 with seven first downs when targeting Cooper on third down, which is a big reason Sims leads the nation in third-down QBR.

Ole Miss leads the SEC in most major passing categories on defense and has eight more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed, the highest margin in the country. To continue this success, the Rebels must contain Cooper, who statistically has been the best wide receiver in the nation this season.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Matchup to Watch: Texas A&M receivers vs. Mississippi State secondary
Texas A&M is averaging more than 400 passing yards per game and has an FBS-high 27 completions of 20 yards or longer this season. It will face a Mississippi State defense that has allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC and has had trouble stopping big passing plays.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to limit Texas A&M's receivers after the catch. The Aggies have 340 more yards after the catch than any other SEC team and are averaging 8 yards after the catch per reception (fourth in SEC).

Determining which receiver to try to shut down may be a challenge. The Aggies have seven receivers with at least 100 receiving yards this season (tied for second-most in the FBS) and have an FBS-high nine players with a receiving touchdown.

LSU at Auburn
Matchup to Watch: Auburn’s run game vs. LSU run defense
Since Gus Malzahn took over as coach, Auburn has run on 69 percent of its plays and ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards per game, behind two triple-option offenses. Auburn is 13-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not.

One of those losses came at LSU last season, when Auburn was limited to 213 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per rush. LSU forced Auburn to pass on 40 percent of its plays, Auburn’s second-highest percentage in a game last season.

Without DT Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, however, LSU has not had the same rushing defense as the one the slowed Auburn in 2013. LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards. LSU did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation to opposing quarterbacks, which is not a good sign considering Auburn's Nick Marshall ranks third among active quarterbacks with 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season. Nonetheless, if LSU can follow the blueprint that it set in 2013 -- and that Kansas State followed in 2014 -- by limiting Auburn’s run game and forcing Marshall to pass, it might hand Auburn its first loss of the season for a second straight year.

Instant impact recruits for 2014

February, 5, 2014
National Signing Day has come and gone, and most ESPN 300 recruits have finalized their college decisions. Here are some notable recruits that could make an instant impact in their freshman seasons.

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (No. 4 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Defensive End)

Texas A&M’s defense last year ranked last in the SEC in most categories including points per game, yards per game and yards per play. The Aggies did not win a game in which it scored fewer than 40 points. Garrett, the top player in the state of Texas, could have an immediate impact to help shore up that defense. He’s the highest-ranked player Texas A&M has signed since the ESPN began recruiting rankings in 2006.

Leonard Fournette, LSU (No. 1 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Running Back)

Fournette is considered the best player in the Class of 2014 after rushing for over 1,800 yards as a senior. On paper, the Louisiana product is a perfect fit as a downhill back in LSU’s system. He also fills a need. The Tigers lost 64 percent of its rushing output from last season with the departures of several running backs including Jeremy Hill. If Fournette lives up to his ranking, you can pencil him into the 2017 NFL Draft after his junior season. Over the last two seasons, 18 LSU players have declared early for the NFL Draft, most among all schools.

Raekwon McMilllan, Ohio State (No. 13 in ESPN 300, No. 1 Inside Linebacker)

Ohio State’s defense struggled down the stretch in 2013 as the quality of opponent improved. The Buckeyes allowed at least 34 points in each of its final three games against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson. With the departure of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who led the Buckeyes in tackles and tackles for loss by a wide margin, there is an opening at linebacker. Five-star recruit McMillan is physically ready to play at the next level at just under 250 pounds, and as an early enrollee, he has extra time to get ready for a prominent role next season.

Racean Thomas, Auburn (No. 28 in ESPN 300; No. 5 Running Back)

Auburn broke its school rushing record last season, racking up 328.3 rush yards per game. Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason left for the NFL Draft, so Gus Malzahn’s run-first offense has a void at running back. Enter Thomas, a well-rounded running back recruit from Oxford, Alabama. The only other top-50 running back Auburn has signed since 2006, Michael Dyer, helped lead Auburn to a national title as a true freshman.

Chad Thomas, Miami (FL) (No. 65 in ESPN 300; No. 6 DE)

Over the last two seasons, Miami has struggled to stop the run. In that time frame the Hurricanes are last in the ACC in rushing yards allowed (196.4 per game), yards per rush (4.7) and 10-yard rushes (151). Miami also lost several defensive linemen to graduation. Thomas is an athletic product of nearby Booker T. Washington High School and may be counted on to play an early role.

Andrew Brown, Virginia (No. 5 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Defensive Tackle) and Quin Blanding (No. 10 in ESPN 300, No. 1 Safety)

Virginia surprised many by signing two five-star defensive players despite having just one winning season in the last six years. Virginia’s biggest issue on defense last season was allowing too many big plays. No ACC team allowed more 20-yard plays than the Cavaliers (69). Brown and Blanding are the two highest-ranked Virginia signees since ESPN began rankings in 2006 and are considered ready to contribute right away.

Top stats to know: FSU 34, Auburn 31

January, 7, 2014

Florida State overcame long odds to emerge on top in a roller-coaster finish.

The BCS Championship saved its best for last.

It took the biggest comeback in the history of the BCS Championship to end Auburn’s amazing season, as Florida State won the national title, 34-31.

The Seminoles overcame an 18-point deficit to win their third national championship, their first since 1999.

The three-point margin of victory tied for the smallest in BCS Championship history.

Only two past BCS champs rallied from double-digit deficits to win— Texas, which came back from 12 points down against USC to win the 2006 Rose Bowl, and LSU, which overcame a 10-point deficit against Ohio State in the 2008 BCS Championship Game.

The history
The Seminoles ended the streak of seven straight titles for the SEC and four straight titles for the state of Alabama.

The last time a team outside the SEC team won a national championship game against an SEC team was when Nebraska beat Florida in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 1995 season (’96 Fiesta Bowl).

Florida State joins LSU as the only other program to win a national championship with two different head coaches during the BCS era.

Jameis Winston became the the third QB since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season. The first two to do it were USC’s Matt Leinart in 2004 and Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010.

Winston is the first freshman starting quarterback to win a BCS national championship. In fact, Winston is the first quarterback to lead a team to a national championship within two years of finishing high school since Oklahoma true freshman Jamelle Holieway in the 1985 season.

Winston is only the fifth quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy for an undefeated title-winning team, along with Davey O’Brien (1938 TCU), John Lujack (1947 Notre Dame), Matt Leinart (2004 USC) and Cam Newton (2010 Auburn).

How they won
Winston won Game MVP honors on the strength of his fourth quarter. He was 11 for 24 passing in the first three quarters, but was 9 for 11 for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Seminoles receivers aided Winston by racking up 89 yards after the catch in the game's final 15 minutes.

Winston did not have any experience with close games in the fourth quarter, as the Seminoles plowed through the 2013 regular season with ease. He had thrown 25 fourth-quarter passes all season before Monday, a total that ranked 171st in FBS. In fact, 47 teams had two quarterbacks with more fourth-quarter pass attempts than Winston.

Kelvin Benjamin caught Winston's last pass of the game in the end zone with 21 seconds left. Benjamin finished the season with at least one touchdown reception in each of his last six games.

Benjamin did not catch a pass in the first half, the first time all season he went without a reception in the first two quarters. He had four catches on six targets in the second half.
Winston also had success throwing to Rashad Greene, who finished with nine receptions for 147 yards. Winston was 9 for 14 throwing to Greene and 11 for 21 throwing to everyone else.

Auburn oh-so-close
Auburn came closer than any other team to ending Florida State's unbeaten run.

The Tigers played seven games this season that were decided by one score and won six of them.

Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-2. The eight-game improvement is tied for the second-biggest in NCAA Major-College history, trailing only an 8.5 game improvement by Hawaii in 1999.

Stat of the Night
Florida State finished the season with 723 points, setting the FBS record for most points in a season (Oklahoma had the previous record with 716 points in 2008).

Defensive keys: Auburn vs. FSU

January, 6, 2014
The 2014 BCS National Championship Game between the Auburn Tigers and Florida State Seminoles features two of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Florida State leads the nation in points per game, points per drive and yards per play.

Conversely, Auburn, led by its efficient rushing attack, is averaging more than 40 points per game and leads the nation in rushing yards per game and rushes of 15 yards or longer.

What are the keys to slowing these offenses? Below are three areas of focus for each defense heading into Monday’s showdown:

For Auburn’s defense

1. Limit big plays -- Florida State gains at least 20 yards on one play once every 8.6 snaps, the best rate for any FBS team in the last seven seasons. On drives when the Seminoles break a 20-yard play, they score a touchdown 78 percent of the time and average an FBS-high six points per drive. In comparison, on drives when they do not have a 20-yard play, the Seminoles score a touchdown 20 percent of the time and average 1.6 points per drive.

2. Get pressure with front four -- When opponents send five or more pass rushers, Winston leads all players from automatic-qualifier (AQ) conferences in completion percentage (70.1 percent), touchdowns (20) and yards per attempt (12.4). Against standard pressure, Winston is completing 66 percent of his passes and has thrown seven of his 10 interceptions.

Auburn, led by defensive end Dee Ford, must generate pressure with its front four pass rushers so that more players can drop into coverage and protect against Winston’s deep ball (he ranks third among AQ quarterbacks in completion percentage and touchdowns on passes thrown 15 yards or longer).

3. Slow Florida State on first down -- Florida State is attempting the fewest third-down plays per game (11.2) in the FBS, largely because of its success on first down. The Seminoles are averaging an FBS-high 7.8 yards per play on first down, including 5.7 yards per rush. Led by a trio of backs who have each run for at least 500 yards and eight touchdowns, Florida State runs on 55 percent of its first-down plays and gains at least five yards on 43 percent of those rushes.

For Florida State’s defense

1. Force Auburn inside -- Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. The Tigers are averaging an AQ-high 222.1 rushing yards per game and 8.5 yards per rush on such carries. Florida State does not have many defensive weaknesses, but the Seminoles have struggled against runs outside the tackles. They have allowed 5.1 yards per outside rush compared with 3.1 yards per rush to the inside. Defensive ends Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman must set the edge and force Auburn inside in order to slow the Tigers’ dynamic zone-read rushing attack.

2. Get Auburn into third-and-long situations -- On third-and-three-or-fewer to go, Auburn has converted 76 percent of plays for a first down, fourth best in the FBS. When the distance to go is more than three yards, Auburn’s conversion percentage falls to 86th in the FBS. The main reason is Auburn’s ability to run to pick up the short yardage. On third-and-three, Auburn runs on 79 percent of its plays; when the distance needed for a first down jumps to four yards, its rushing percentage falls to 37 percent. Florida State must make Nick Marshall throw the ball, so slowing Auburn’s run game on first and second down is imperative.

3. Maintain gap discipline -- Entering bowl season, Auburn had 190 designed rushes on which the ball carrier was not touched until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage, 19 more rushes than any other AQ team. Many analysts have pointed to opposing defenses getting fooled by “eye candy,” which results in the defenders running out of their gaps before the blockers even get there. Florida State must maintain both eye and gap discipline in order to limit Auburn from breaking big plays with its zone-read rushes.

Top stats to know: BCS Championship

January, 5, 2014
What are the top stats to know heading into Monday’s BCS National Championship Game?

Auburn looking to continue a streak
Auburn can secure the SEC’s eighth consecutive national title and give the conference 10 of the 16 BCS championships. It can also win the fifth straight national title for the state of Alabama.

Having beaten No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri in its previous two games, Auburn has a chance to become the first team in college football history to win three consecutive games against top-5 teams.

The past two teams to play three games in a row against top-5 opponents, Oklahoma in 1984 and Colorado in 2001, both won two straight to end the regular season and then lost a January bowl game.

Auburn can also become the first team since BYU in 1984 to win the AP national title after being unranked in the preseason poll. The Tigers appeared on no preseason ballots in either the AP or the coaches' poll.

Auburn is the first BCS title game participant to have had a losing record the previous season.

The Tigers were 3-9 a year ago, and if they win this game, they will complete the greatest improvement from one season to the next in NCAA major-college history. Hawaii holds the record at 8.5 games, improving from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999 (the calculation is the same as determining games back in the standings for MLB or NBA). Auburn’s improvement from last season is currently 8.5 games (3-9 to 12-1).

Auburn has won this season with a dominant ground game, as the image below shows.

Illustration by Trevor Ebaugh

Running the table in dominant fashion
Florida State can become only the third team since 1950 to win all of its games by at least 14 points. The last to do it was Utah in 2004. The other was national champion Nebraska in 1995.

Not only has Florida State not had an opponent get within single digits in the final 20 minutes of a game all season, but the Seminoles also haven’t trailed at any point in a game since September. The last FSU deficit came more than three months ago: Sept. 28 at Boston College.

The Seminoles trailed that game up until 1:49 left in the second quarter, when Chad Abram caught a 10-yard TD pass to tie the game. Since then, Florida State has played 571:49 of football and has been tied or had a lead the entire time.

Illustration by Trevor Ebaugh

Winston and the historic combo
Florida State’s Jameis Winston can become just the third quarterback since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season.

The two to do it were USC’s Matt Leinart in 2004 and Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010.

Only one sophomore or freshman starting quarterback has ever won the BCS National Championship Game, and that was AJ McCarron as a sophomore for Alabama in the 2011 season.

Winston can become the first freshman to win it.

Auburn likes to keep it close
If the game is close in the fourth quarter, that would not only be uncharted territory for Florida State this season, but it also would be right in Auburn’s comfort zone. The Tigers are 6-0 this season in one-possession games (decided by 8 or fewer points) and are 17-3 in those games over the past four seasons. Both of those marks are best in the FBS.

Auburn’s weakness
By yards allowed per play, the Tigers (5.96) have the worst defense of the 144 teams that have ever participated in a BCS game (next worst was the 1999 Stanford team that entered the Rose Bowl allowing 5.81 yards per play).

FSU’s question
If there’s one question about Florida State, it’s whether the Seminoles’ lofty numbers are the product of a weak schedule. FSU’s regular-season schedule strength ranking is the worst for any team in the BCS title game in the past 10 seasons.

Defense key in SEC wins
Defense has been the one constant throughout the SEC’s success in national championship games, especially defense in the first half. The 10 SEC teams that have played in the BCS National Championship Game have allowed a total of seven first-half touchdowns (one came on a kickoff return, and another on a 2-yard drive after a blocked punt) and given up an average of 7.3 points over the first two quarters.

The coaches
This is only the third BCS National Championship Game with both coaches seeking their first national title. It also happened to end the 2001 season with Larry Coker (Miami) against Frank Solich (Nebraska) and to end the 2010 season with Gene Chizik (Auburn) against Chip Kelly (Oregon).

The winner of this game will join LSU as the only other program to win a national championship with two different head coaches during the BCS era.

If Auburn wins, it will be just the second team in the poll era (since 1936) to win national titles in a four-year span with different head coaches. Miami did it in 1987 (Jimmy Johnson) and ’89 (Dennis Erickson).

Tigers coach Gus Malzahn could become just the fourth coach in the poll era (since 1936) to win a national championship in his first season at a school. The last was Coker in 2001.

More reading
For our coverage of Auburn's unstoppable running game, click here.

For our breakdown of Florida State's dominant season, check out last week's article here.

Did You Know: No. 2 often turns out to be No. 1
The No. 2 team in the final BCS standings has won eight of the past 11 national championship games.

Inside Auburn's unstoppable running game

January, 3, 2014

Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTre Mason has been a workhorse in Gus Malzahn's run-heavy offense.
If Auburn is going to knock off Florida State in the BCS National Championship, the Tigers will have to lean on their dominant running game.

Auburn rushed for 545 yards in the SEC championship, the most ever in a game between two SEC teams and the most overall by an SEC team since Auburn had 565 against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985.

Bo Jackson led the way for that Auburn team with 290 yards and four touchdowns. In the SEC championship on Dec. 7, it was Tre Mason, who had 304 yards and four touchdowns.

The week before the SEC title game, Auburn rushed for 296 yards in the Iron Bowl, the most Alabama had allowed in an SEC game since Nick Saban’s first season (2007), when the Tide allowed 301 to an Arkansas team led by Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.

Origins of the running game
Auburn’s success can be traced to its hiring of Gus Malzahn. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11. He left to become the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, when he led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference championship.

As a coordinator and coach, Malzahn is known for his run-first offense, which has led its conference in rushing in three of the past four seasons.

With Malzahn as its head coach, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. Entering the bowl games, the Tigers led the nation in rushing yards per game, rushing touchdowns and runs of 25 yards or more. They were one of five schools that had two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards each.

Heisman finalist Mason has been one of the main beneficiaries of Malzahn’s offense. His 283 carries were the fifth-most in FBS entering the bowls and 112 more than he had last season. As a result, he led the SEC in almost every major rushing category, and his seven 100-yard rushing games against SEC defenses are the most in a season for any player in the past 10.

Running quarterback is key
During the two seasons that Auburn has made the BCS National Championship, Malzahn has had the luxury of calling plays for a dynamic running quarterback. In 2010, it was Cam Newton. This season, it is Nick Marshall.

In both seasons, the Tigers ranked in the top five of the FBS in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. In the two seasons between Newton and Marshall, Auburn had a combined 59 rushing yards by its quarterbacks and an 11-14 record.

Marshall has rushed for 1,023 yards, fifth-most by an FBS quarterback entering the bowl games. He has been outstanding making decisions in Auburn’s zone-read scheme. Zone reads have accounted for 46 percent of the Tigers’ carries.

On such plays, they average 7.3 yards per rush, including 9.0 when Marshall keeps the ball. Marshall’s 882 yards on zone reads ranks second among players from BCS automatic-qualifying (AQ) conferences entering the bowls behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (1,278).

Running outside tackles
Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. On such runs, the Tigers lead all AQ schools in rushing yards (2,887) and rank second in yards per carry (8.5) behind Wisconsin.

In fact, they had more rushing yards outside the tackles than 106 FBS teams had total rushing yards entering the bowl games.

The Tigers do an excellent job of sealing the edge. They average an AQ-high 6.3 yards before contact on runs outside the tackles and have 77 such runs in which first contact was not made until at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, 27 more than any other AQ school.

Can Florida State stop them?
Auburn will try to keep its ground game going against the nation’s leader in scoring defense, Florida State. The Seminoles have allowed five rushing touchdowns all season, tied with Iowa for the fewest in the FBS before bowls began.

Boston College is the only team to score more than 17 points against Florida State this season. Led by Heisman finalist Andre Williams, the Eagles rushed for 200 yards and scored 34 points.

Boston College had success running outside the tackles, gaining 160 yards on 26 carries.

The Seminoles struggled against such runs all season, allowing 107 more yards outside the tackles than inside, despite 84 fewer rushes. The three runs of 30 yards or more that they allowed this season were all outside the tackles.

After the SEC championship, Malzahn said, "Right now, we can run the football on anybody. So why change?” The question is whether or not Florida State can make Auburn change come Monday.

The bowl winners will be ...

December, 19, 2013
With bowl season upon us, we can project the winners of the 35 Football Bowl Subdivision bowl games using the Football Power Index.

FPI is a predictive measure of team strength that uses the elements of team offensive, defensive and special-teams performance (adjusted for opponent) that correlate most with future results.

We can use each team’s FPI and the site of the game (all bowl games are treated as neutral) to calculate the expected point differential in a matchup and the percentage chance of each team winning.

In prior years, FPI has done reasonably well in projecting bowl winners (taking the team with the higher chance as the “winner”), getting about 65 percent of games right since 2004.

There have been some lean years in the past, but FPI has been quite good in the three most recent bowl seasons, accurately projecting 70 percent of winners in those games.

FPI takes into account only a team’s on-field performance to date in the given season. It doesn’t explicitly take into account players who are out with injuries or for other reasons, coaching movement before the bowls or differing levels of motivation that are sometimes thought to exist in bowl games.

In the 2013 regular season, starting with games on Sept. 26, FPI accurately projected 74 percent of winners.

FPI believes there to be a very clear favorite (80 percent or more to win) in four of the five BCS matchups, with Ohio State and Clemson as the most evenly matched BCS opponents.

The projections for all 35 bowl games this season are below. A couple of things that stand out:

The two most-lopsided matchups, according to FPI, involve a Pac-12 team facing a Big 12 opponent from Texas. FPI has Oregon as 91 percent likely to defeat Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl and Arizona State as 91 percent likely to beat Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl.

The most-even matchup, according to FPI, is Kansas State versus Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, with the teams separated by a little more than a point in FPI (the Wildcats are 53 percent favorites). The closest “high-profile” bowl game is the AT&T Cotton Bowl between Oklahoma State and Missouri, with the Cowboys 54 percent likely to win, according to FPI.

The Vizio BCS National Championship is the only bowl game with both teams ranked in the top 10 in FPI. Three other games involve two FPI top-20 teams: Wisconsin-South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl; Oklahoma State-Missouri in the Cotton Bowl and Ohio State-Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

All six finalists have made Heisman case

December, 13, 2013

Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State fans have made their pick, but Jameis Winston is just one of six Heisman finalists.
Six Heisman Trophy finalists will head to New York for Saturday’s ceremony, the most that have received invites to the ceremony since 1994, when there were also six. The last time there were more was in 1988, with eight.

Although the favorite entering the ceremony is Florida State QB Jameis Winston, all six have made a solid case for why they are the best player in the country this season.

QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
Although Northern Illinois' bid to be a BCS buster was ended in the MAC championship game, Lynch’s dual-threat ability kept the Huskies in it all season. He had 321 rushing yards against Western Michigan, the most by a quarterback in FBS history, breaking his own record of 316 set earlier in the year against Central Michigan.

Lynch ended the season with 1,881 rushing yards, also an FBS record for a quarterback.

QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Manziel’s bid to join Archie Griffin as the only other multiple Heisman winner saw a transformation of his game. While his 2012 season was built more on his legs, his 2013 campaign saw him develop as a passer.

Manziel added a yard to his yards per attempt (from 8.5 in 2012 to 9.5 in 2013). His touchdown percentage also increased from 6.0 percent in 2012 to 8.4 percent this year. Also in 2013, 63 percent of his completions this season have gone for a first down or a touchdown, compared to 57.6 percent last year.

RB Tre Mason, Auburn
Even after a 1,000-yard rushing season last year, Mason wasn't on the short list of Heisman contenders until he finished the season with five straight 100-yard rushing games, including 304 against Missouri in the SEC championship game, the fifth-highest total all-time in an SEC game.

Mason’s 2,137 all-purpose yards this season broke the Auburn school record, previously held by Bo Jackson. Mason’s 22 rushing TDs this season also set a school record.

QB AJ McCarron, Alabama
This is McCarron’s third season as Alabama’s starting quarterback, and he’s improved every season. His opponent-adjusted QBR was 76.7 in 2011, 81.5 in 2012 and 83.5 this season.

He was even better against SEC competition. In conference games, McCarron had an 86.4 opponent-adjusted QBR, tied for the best in the conference. Fellow Heisman candidate Manziel was third (85.5).

RB Andre Williams, Boston College
This season, Williams became just the 16th player in FBS history to run for at least 2,000 yards in a season, and the first since Donald Brown did so for Connecticut in 2008.

Williams also showed big-play ability. He had 26 runs of at least 20 yards, the most by an FBS player since Kevin Smith had 26 in 2007. His 11 touchdowns on such runs are the most for any player in the last 10 seasons.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
Winston is the clubhouse leader for the Heisman, and as the FBS leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.9), he has good reason to be. The leader in opponent-adjusted QBR in three of the last six seasons went on to win the Heisman, including Manziel last year.

Winston has also showed a clutch presence on the field throughout the year. On third downs, Winston has a 98.9 Total QBR, leading all FBS quarterbacks. Over the last 10 seasons, the highest third-down Total QBR in a completed season was also 98.9, by Andrew Luck in 2010.

If the four-team playoff started this year …

December, 11, 2013

Getty ImagesWhat teams would join Florida State and Auburn if there were a playoff this year?
If there were a four-team playoff this year, the current version of the Championship Drive Ratings would suggest that the four most deserving teams on résumé alone are Stanford, Florida State, Auburn and Michigan State.

Stanford is the highest-rated team in the current version of the Championship Drive Ratings on account of putting together a great performance against a top-five schedule. In the 10 years for which we have play-by-play data, no team with a schedule rated in the top five has done as well -- taking into account wins and average win probability -- as Stanford this year. An average FBS team would have won less than four games against Stanford’s schedule and would have had an average in-game win probability well below the Cardinal’s 72 percent.

If we are specifically interested in rating top teams’ résumés (and we generally are), one potential modification to this method would be to look at things from a top-team perspective rather than an average-team viewpoint. So instead of looking at how an average team would do against these teams’ schedules, how would a team at the 90th percentile -- such as Clemson this season -- do? The below chart helps answer this question.

The expectations rise against each of these team’s schedules, obviously, but now Auburn’s and Florida State’s results look more impressive relative to schedule than Stanford’s résumé. At the same time, going 11-2 against Stanford’s schedule would have been harder even for a top team than going 12-1 against Michigan State's schedule or 11-1 against Alabama's slate.

If you want to go beyond pure résumé and look at how strong the teams actually are, take a look at the Football Power Index top five: Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Stanford and Baylor. Auburn is eighth, and Michigan State is quite a bit lower.

There is no exact answer here, but if you combine the numbers above with the stated goals of the College Football Playoff committee to value strength of schedule and conference champions, it’s pretty clear that Florida State, Auburn and Stanford -- yes, even with two losses -- should each earn a spot in the playoff. Each of those teams has a very solid résumé from either a top team or an average team perspective, and all three are rated strongly by FPI.

The fourth spot gets a bit trickier. From either the average team or top team perspective, Michigan State’s résumé of wins and losses alone is about as impressive as Alabama’s, and the Spartans have a conference championship that the Tide don’t. On the other hand, FPI shows that Alabama is quite clearly the stronger team, so if you put the résumé criteria aside at that point and just pick the better team, Alabama would be the choice.

BCS bowl games at a glance

December, 8, 2013
The final BCS standings were released Sunday along with matchups for all of the remaining bowl games. Here are some tidbits to prepare you for the five BCS games.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio
4 Michigan State Spartans vs 5 Stanford Cardinal
January 1, 2014, at 5 ET on ESPN

Michigan State: First Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season and its first appearance in a BCS bowl. The Spartans have reached a bowl game in all seven seasons under head coach Mark Dantonio after making no bowl appearances from 2004-06.

Stanford: Second consecutive appearance in the Rose Bowl (def. Wisconsin 20-14 last season). The Cardinal are making back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances for the first time since 1970-71. Stanford has reached a BCS bowl in four straight seasons after making just one from 1998-2009.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
15 UCF Knights vs 6 Baylor Bears
January 1, 2014, at 8:30 ET on ESPN

UCF: First BCS bowl berth in school history. Won 11 games this season, tied for the most in school history (also won 11 in 2010).

Baylor: Like their opponents in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears receive their first BCS bowl berth in school history. Baylor looks to extend a school-record 11 wins this season to 12 in this game.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
11 Oklahoma Sooners vs 3 Alabama Crimson Tide
January 2, 2014, at 8:30 ET on ESPN

Oklahoma: Ninth BCS bowl appearance, second-most all-time. The Sooners are 3-5 in BCS bowl games, snapping a five-game losing streak with a win in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl vs Connecticut.

Alabama: Third straight BCS bowl appearance and fifth in the last seven seasons under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide will make their first Sugar Bowl appearance since the 2008 season (lost to Utah in that game).

Discover Orange Bowl
12 Clemson Tigers vs 7 Ohio State Buckeyes
January 3, 2014, at 8:30 ET on ESPN

Clemson: First BCS bowl appearance since 2011, when the Tigers played in the Orange Bowl. Those two games mark the only BCS bowls in school history. Speaking of history for the Tigers, they will make a school-record ninth straight appearance in a bowl game.

Ohio State: Tenth BCS bowl appearance, most all-time. The Buckeyes will make their first Orange Bowl appearance since the 1976 season against Colorado. Their last BCS appearance came in a 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas.

Vizio BCS National Championship Game
1 Florida State Seminoles vs 2 Auburn Tigers
January 6, 2014, at 8:30 ET on ESPN

Florida State: After beating Northern Illinois in last year’s Orange Bowl, the Seminoles return to a BCS bowl game. It marks their first back-to-back BCS bowl appearances since 2002-03. This will be their first BCS Championship Game appearance since 2000 and fourth overall.

Auburn: Second BCS Championship Game appearance, first since winning the national title over Oregon in the 2010 season. This marks the third BCS bowl appearance for the Tigers, who are unbeaten in such games thus far.

Auburn rushes to victory over Missouri

December, 8, 2013

Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTre Mason carried Auburn with 304 rushing yards in the SEC Championship Game.
The Auburn Tigers shredded the highly regarded defense of the Missouri Tigers Saturday in the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game in history. The 101 combined points shattered the previous record of 75 set in 1996, when Florida beat Alabama 45-30.

Tre Mason’s record day
Missouri hadn’t allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards this season. Auburn running back Tre Mason surpassed that by himself with a record-breaking game.

Mason had 304 rushing yards, the second-most ever by an Auburn player behind Curtis Kuykendall, who had 307 against Miami on Nov. 24, 1944. Mason posted the fifth-most rushing yards in a game by an SEC player, the most since Arkansas' Darren McFadden had 321 in 2007 against South Carolina.

Mason gained 182 yards inside the tackles, the most by an SEC player this season. He made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 14 of his 34 carries inside the tackles.

The Auburn running back made his mark on the school record book as well, setting single-season school records for rushing touchdowns (22) and all-purpose yards (2,137). The all-purpose yardage record was held by Bo Jackson, who amassed 1,859 yards in 1985.

Mason also set SEC Championship Game records for rushing yards (304), rush attempts (46), all-purpose yards (312) and most touchdowns (four).

Auburn dominates the line of scrimmage
Mason’s performance was indicative of Auburn’s dominance of Missouri at the line of scrimmage. Auburn ran for 545 yards, the most ever by an SEC team against an SEC opponent and the most by an SEC team since Auburn had 565 against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985.

Auburn rushed for the third-most yards in an FBS game this season. Missouri entered the game allowing 119.1 rushing yards per game, second-fewest in the SEC and 14th in the FBS.

Auburn’s 19 runs of at least 10 yards were the second-most in a game this season behind New Mexico’s 20 against Air Force on Nov. 8. Entering Saturday, Missouri had allowed 42 such runs this season and had not given up more than five in a game.

Auburn had 29 carries in which first contact was not made until at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, the most by any AQ school in a game this season. Entering Saturday, Missouri had not allowed more than nine such rushes in a game.

Auburn had 29 carries outside the tackles for 309 yards, the most such rushing yards yielded by any SEC defense this season and the second-most by Auburn. For the season, Auburn has more rushing yards outside the tackles (2,893) than 105 FBS teams have total rushing yards.

What2Watch4: Missouri's inside runs

December, 6, 2013

USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesQuarterbacks Nick Marshall (left) and James Franklin will help decide the SEC title on the ground.
The two best rushing teams in the SEC square off Saturday in the SEC Championship as Missouri faces Auburn. Both teams average more than 235 yards per game on the ground.

Auburn runs for most of its yards outside the tackle box but Missouri prefers to pound the ball up the middle. That bodes well against an Auburn defense that has struggled to stop inside runs all season.

On rushes between the tackles, Missouri leads the SEC averaging 144 yards per game and 6.1 yards per rush. Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy and James Franklin have each rushed for more than 200 yards between the tackles this season, and each averages at least six yards per carry.

Against SEC opponents, Auburn has allowed 134 yards per game between the tackles on 5.3 yards per carry, both worst among SEC teams. That weakness is the primary reason why Auburn is not undefeated.

In its only loss this season, it allowed LSU to run for 212 yards up the middle despite averaging nearly eight defenders in the box.

Auburn has allowed conference opponents to rush for almost three yards per carry before contact, second-worst in the conference. Its primary issue has been its consistency.

In SEC play, Auburn has hit opponents in the backfield on 23 percent of carries, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. On the other hand, it has allowed rushers to run at least five yards before being touched on 24 percent of their carries, the third-highest percentage in the conference.

Missouri has been held to fewer than 100 yards between the tackles three times this season, including in its only loss. The common thread between those defenses was limiting Missouri’s yards before contact.

In those three games, Missouri averaged just 1.1 yards before contact on inside runs. Overall, the Tigers averaged 3.8 yards before contact per carry on such runs, second among BCS-automatic-qualifying (AQ) teams.

If Missouri can get running room, it can break long runs. Missouri has 13 rushes up the middle of at least 20 yards, tied for most in the SEC. Auburn has allowed 10 runs of at least 20 yards between the tackles, also tied for the most in the SEC.

Auburn has also struggled to slow down mobile quarterbacks, having allowed 426 rushing yards to quarterbacks, the third-highest total in the SEC.

Missouri’s James Franklin is one of four SEC quarterbacks to average 50 rushing yards per game. The other two that have faced Auburn this season, Dak Prescott and Johnny Manziel, ran for a combined 224 yards against the Tigers (excluding sack yards), with 200 of those yards (89 percent) coming between the tackles.

Missouri brings a streak of note into this game. Over the past two seasons, it is 11-0 when rushing for at least 200 yards.

Key matchup: Auburn o-line vs. Missouri 'D'

December, 6, 2013
The matchup to watch in the SEC Championship Game is the battle in the trenches when Auburn has the football.

Auburn’s offensive line is among the nation’s best at opening holes for its runners and protecting its quarterback. Conversely, Missouri has one of the top defensive lines in the nation at stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.

Auburn’s offensive line
Auburn averages 318.3 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry, both of which rankfifth in the FBS. Its success is predicated on its offensive line’s ability to open holes for quarterback Nick Marshall and the running backs.

On designed runs, Auburn averages an AQ-high 210.3 yards per game before first contact. That is 108.5 more than the AQ average. Auburn gained 189 such yards against Alabama, 95 more than any other team has gained against the Tide in the last two seasons.

Auburn averages an SEC-high 4.5 yards before contact per rush and makes it at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before contact on 31 percent of its rushes.

The key has been Auburn’s ability to set the edge. Gus Malzahn’s team leads all schools from AQ (automatic-qualifyin)g conferences in rushing yards (2,584) and touchdowns (26) outside the tackles, and ranks second in yards per carry (8.3) on such plays behind Wisconsin.

How Missouri’s defense can stop Auburn’s run?

Missouri is allowing 119.1 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the SEC behind Alabama, and has held all 12 of its opponents below their season average in rushing yards. These Tigers have held opponents to zero or negative yards on 29 percent of their rush attempts, the highest percentage in the SEC.

The key for Missouri will be containing Nick Marshall and Auburn’s zone read. Zone reads have accounted for 42 percent of Auburn’s carries. On such plays, Auburn is averaging 7.2 yards per rush and has an SEC-high 16 runs of 20 yards or longer.

Missouri has struggled to stop these plays this season, allowing 4.9 yards per rush, including 6.1 when the opposing quarterback keeps the ball. If they can stop them Saturday and force Auburn to throw the ball, Gary Pinkel’s team will be able to do what it does best, rush the passer.

Missouri’s defensive line
Missouri lead the SEC with 37 sacks, 74 knockdowns and 116 total pressures (hurries, knockdowns and sacks).

Yet, Missouri does not have to send extra pass rushers to get after the quarterback. Missouri sends four or fewer pass rushers on 89 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks, the highest percentage of any AQ defense. When sending such pressure, the Tigers have an AQ-high 32 sacks and 97 total pressures.

Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are among the nation’s best defensive linemen. Sam leads the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Ealy leads the SEC with 30 total pressures and 14 quarterback hits.

How Auburn’s offense stops Missouri’s pass rush?
Auburn must keep its run game going to limit Missouri’s pass rush. Auburn runs on 69 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple option offense. If they can run the ball with success, there will be no need for them to pass.

Something has to give
Missouri is one of seven teams that has not allowed 200 yards rushing in any of its games this season, and Auburn has rushed for more than 200 yards in 11 of its 12 games.

Conversely, Auburn is one of 26 FBS teams that has not allowed more than three sacks in any of its games, while Missouri is averaging an SEC-high 3.1 sacks per game.

Both teams are in the midst of magical, turnaround seasons. For both teams, winning an SEC Championship would be the final piece to validate those turnarounds. Whichever team can impose its will in the trenches when Auburn has the football will be one step closer to achieving its goals.