NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - As great a season as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston had in leading No. 1 Florida State to a 13-0 record and the BCS championship game Monday night, the road to the top really was about as challenging as a Sunday drive.
Thanks to FSU's No. 1-ranked scoring defense, which allowed only 10.7 points per game, Winston cruised through a season in which FSU outscored all but one opponent by at least 27 points. But No. 2 Auburn (12-1) believes it can pressure FSU with a read-option running game led by quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason.
"They're fundamentally sound, but they're not going to stop anything we've been doing," Marshall said. "Against our offense, you have to play assignment football. If you mess up, we'll gash you. We'll hurt you with a big run or a pass."
The Tigers scored at least 30 points 11 times. Mason rushed for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns; Marshall ran for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns and threw for 1,759 yards and 12 TDs.
The Tigers reached a pinnacle in their SEC title win over Missouri. Mason carried 46 times for 304 yards and four touchdowns and Marshall rushed for 101 yards and a TD.
"I feel there is a chance of a shootout," Mason said. "They have a high-powered offense and so do we . . . They're a very fast, physical defense, and they're very smart. We've been doubted all year, people saying we can't run the ball against teams like Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee."
All Auburn did was finish as the No. 1 rushing offense in the country (335.7 yards per game). "They try to use smoke and mirrors," FSU linebacker Telvin Smith said. "They send receivers across your face; they send a fullback across your face. Sometimes he's not even in the play. He's just there to get your eyes going. So it's just discipline, making sure you do your job."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said he preached the importance of "eye discipline" and not reacting to anything designed to distract his defenders. "If somebody flashes a hand in front of you while you're driving, it makes you blink and you get off what you're looking at," Fisher said. "At the same time, they become very physical, you get yourself out of position and they knock you out of the way."
The next thing teams know, Mason or Marshall are 10 or 12 yards into the secondary, forcing defensive backs to make open-field tackles. Seminoles All-American cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said he must resist the urge to leave his receiver too soon to make a tackle.
"If that wide receiver runs to the mascot, you run with him to the point of no return," Joyner said. "Once the running back has broken to the second level, then it's your job to tackle. Until then, believe in the guys around you."
At this stage of the season, it's hard for the Seminoles to believe they could wind up in a dogfight, given the dominance of their defense and Winston's brilliance. "I would love to say that's disrespectful due to the fact of all the things this defense has done this year," Joyner said, "but Auburn's a pretty good football team. It may be a shootout. You never know. It's the national championship. Anything can happen."