NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- In his first team meeting last January, newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn laid out an ambitious goal for a team beaten down by a disastrous 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season in 2012. "We're going to have the biggest turnaround in college football," he said.
In the spring, Florida State's 18-player Unity Council laid out its own goal in a meeting with coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team was coming off an ACC championship and its first 12-win campaign in 13 years. "We decided we're going to dominate everybody we play," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "That's been our goal all season."
Both teams achieved their goals. Auburn (12-1) is currently tied for the biggest year-over-year improvement (nine wins) in FBS history. Florida State (13-0) beat every one of its opponents by at least 14 points, all but one by far more than that. As a result, they'll face each other in Monday night's BCS National Championship Game.
Still, while the Seminoles' polished machine methodically thumped its competition by scores like 63-0 (against Maryland) and 59-3 (in consecutive weeks against Wake Forest and Syracuse), the Tigers squad eked out one SEC victory after another, culminating with a pair of miraculous last-second plays to beat Georgia (on Ricardo Louis' 73-yard tipped Hail Mary catch) and Alabama (on Chris Davis' 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown as time expired).
Florida State is a nine-point favorite on Monday night, and few outside of SEC country (or perhaps even the Auburn-Opelika metropolitan area) believe that the Tigers are the better team. But given the incredible nature of Auburn's charmed season -- not to mention the fact that underdogs have won each of this year's first four BCS bowls -- the title game may come down to which force is more powerful: Destiny or dominance?
"I knew we were destined to get where we're at now," said Auburn's Louis. "We knew from Day 1 we had something special. Each day we got better and better and better. And look where we're at now."
"I'm glad they call Auburn the team of destiny, because at Florida State we control our own destiny," said Winston. "They had some great games beating people in the last five minutes ... But Florida State -- we are controlling our destiny and we tryin' to do it big. We not lookin' for miracles to happen. We're lookin' to play football and do what we do."
Destiny may be the most overused -- and misused -- word in sports. By definition, one cannot control his destiny. It's predetermined. However, it's more fun to believe in some mystical element that controls wins and losses.
Some Auburn players got defensive this week when asked about the team of destiny label. They deemed it a disservice to the hard work they put in. That ball did not magically land in Louis' hands against Georgia. Luck did not pull Davis from one end of the field to the other in the dramatic final seconds of the Iron Bowl.
"It's definitely a blessing," Auburn fullback Jay Prosch said of the crazy endings, "but I firmly believe that you get what you work for. I think that we've put in the work to win the games we've won."
Some Florida State coaches and players also took umbrage with the destiny narrative, bristling at the insinuation that some divine force would trump their talent and preparation.
"I don't believe that anyone is destined to win," said Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene. "It's how you go about your business."
Businesslike is the best way to describe the personality of Florida State's 2013 squad. Fisher's program has had national championship-caliber talent for the past few seasons, as evidenced by the school-record 11 players selected in last spring's NFL draft. But numerous players have described a leadership void on past teams. That changed this year, thanks in part to senior standouts like cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and linebacker Telvin Smith, but primarily to the precocious Winston, who injected the team with a dose of his preternatural confidence upon earning the starting quarterback job as a redshirt freshman. Before the 'Noles' much-anticipated visit to then-undefeated Clemson on Oct. 19, Winston, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, said he told his teammates: "Guys, where in the rule book does it say we can't blow out everybody that we play?" FSU promptly dismantled the eventual Orange Bowl champions 51-14 and spoke of the result as if it was entirely expected.
"It's been like something I've never been around before," said backup quarterback Jacob Coker. "It's not a cocky deal. Everyone's just real calm and relaxed. We know what we're capable of. We feel like we can beat anybody. It's real special."
But going up 35-0 every week -- and doing it in the largely underwhelming ACC -- is also boring. Despite establishing itself as one of the most dominant teams in recent memory, Florida State has largely failed to capture the nation's imagination. Only diehard fans bothered to watch more than two of its games (against Clemson and Miami).
Auburn, on the other hand, became must-see TV beginning on Sept. 14, when quarterback Nick Marshall -- an unheralded juco transfer who arrived on campus last summer -- engineered a game-winning 88-yard touchdown drive with 10 seconds remaining to beat Mississippi State 24-20. At first, it seemed difficult to take the Tigers seriously; after all, archrival Alabama was the preordained SEC champ, and Auburn's 35-21 loss at LSU on Sept. 21 temporarily kept it off the radar. But when the Tigers went to College Station on Oct. 19 and knocked off Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M 45-41, it became clear that offensive guru Malzahn was orchestrating his greatest reclamation job yet.
However, the notion that the Tigers -- winless in SEC play just a year earlier -- would compete for the national championship still seemed far-fetched until their Nov. 30 Iron Bowl stunner. Even then, they needed help in the form of Michigan State's Big Ten title game upset of Ohio State on Dec. 7 to finish No. 2 in the BCS standings. Though the combo of Marshall and Tre Mason had long since morphed into an overpowering rushing attack, the team continued to live dangerously because of its seemingly porous defense. "We play so 'unhooked' at times," said defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Auburn's 59-42 SEC Championship Game victory over Missouri -- in which it rushed for an astounding 545 yards -- was perhaps most emblematic of a squad that stands one win away from extending the SEC's seven-year BCS title streak, but so far away from the league's traditional defense-first mold.
"All I know is we're finding ways to win," said Malzahn. "We found ways to win in a lot of different, unique ways. Some people call it destiny, some people call it luck. But bottom line is we play in the SEC and we played some very good opponents."
Those picking Auburn to upset the 'Noles point to the Tigers' rigorous schedule, which included nine bowl teams and four that will likely finish in the top 20 of the final AP Poll (LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama and Missouri). While Malzahn's offense involves a hefty dose misdirection, one doesn't beat opponents of such high caliber without a roster full of good players.
"Auburn hasn't really had the talent it has on this football team probably ever," said Tigers wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, a former Auburn quarterback who coincidentally spent the previous three seasons on Florida State's staff. "This offensive line will go down as one of the best to ever play here. Tre Mason, his talents have spoken for themselves. The receivers are a young group, but before it's all said and done they'll hold a couple of records at Auburn University."
Still, Florida State may be the sport's most talented team in at least a decade, if early NFL draft evaluations are to be believed. As such, an Auburn victory would require both teams performing differently than they have all season.
While the Tigers' defense is better than the stats indicate, it has yet to show it can slow an elite quarterback like Winston or his trio of 900-yard receivers (Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin). Even if it can, it will still have to contend with Florida State running backs Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr.
"[The defense] has got to be better this time because [the Seminoles] are too prolific and too balanced," said Johnson.
And as devastating as Auburn's national-best rushing attack (335.7 yards per game) has been, Florida State's defense has shown virtually no cracks. In fact, it has allowed just five rushing touchdowns to date. For the Tigers to generate anywhere near their usual production, the 'Noles would have to turn their worst defensive outing of the season.
In other words, if Florida State plays the way it has all year, it may do to Auburn what Alabama did to Notre Dame last January. But if the Tigers keep progressing the way they have of late, Malzahn's crew may do to Florida State what it recently did to Alabama.
Is Auburn's destiny to cap the wildest turnaround season in the college football history with a national title? Is Florida State's destiny to complete the sport's most dominant regular season in two decades with a championship coronation? Or is there no such thing as destiny at all?
"I don't believe in destiny," said Fisher. "... We're going to play our game, Auburn will play their game. We'll see what happens."