Sammie Coates (18) is key to Auburn establishing some semblance of a passing game. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
It's finally here. No. 1 Florida State is set to clash with No. 2 Auburn in Monday's BCS championship game, a matchup that pits a dominating Seminoles squad against a Tigers team that has mounted an improbable one-year turnaround from SEC doormat to conference champions.
The X's and O's have been dissected for a month now, but what are the under-the-radar keys for each team? Martin Rickman and Zac Ellis provide five X-factors for Florida State and Auburn heading into the game in Pasadena.
1. Jeremy Pruitt and the Florida State defense: Entering the season, it would’ve been crazy to suggest that the Seminoles' defense would somehow be better than last year's unit. Seven defensive starters were selected in the 2013 NFL draft, and Florida State brought in a new defensive coordinator in Pruitt. The group's success this year is a testament to Pruitt's philosophy, which helped the 'Noles become the nation’s best defense (according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings). The brilliance of Pruitt’s schemes are in their simplicity. As defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. told SI.com before the the Seminoles' 41-14 win over Miami on Nov. 2, “He just lets us go and be ball players.”
THAMEL: Auburn's Lashlee's path from running magazine to Tigers' offense
2. Nick O’Leary: Let’s get it out of the way now. Yes, O’Leary is Jack Nicklaus’ grandson, and you should probably already know this if you’ve watched or read anything about college football this year. You’ll certainly hear about it at least once during the broadcast. And yes, O’Leary survived a crazy motorcycle wreck, of which Tomahawk Nation has the video. What's more important to the game on Monday night, however, is O’Leary’s role in Florida State's offense. The tight end has been a safety valve for quarterback Jameis Winston all season, and with defenses keying in on the rest of the Seminoles' stars, O’Leary (33 catches, 557 yards, seven touchdowns) has had his chances to make plays like this:
STAPLES: Florida State's receiving corps pose matchup nightmare
3. Sod Cemetery: If the Seminoles beat Auburn, they’ll earn the BCS trophy ... and crystal makes for a nice centerpiece. But Florida State will also be able to bury another incredibly important piece of turf in its Sod Cemetery. For more than 50 years (since 1962, to be exact), the Seminoles have been bringing back ‘some sod’ from big road victories. This includes turf from games in which they were underdogs, as well as from conference championship games and bowl games. Grass is grass is grass, but sod from Pasadena would be pretty special.
4. Florida State Twitter: The backbone of any successful program lies in its fan base, and it’s hard to find a more lively and productive group than the Seminoles’ supporters on everyone’s favorite 140-character soapbox. Florida State Twitter is a living, breathing entity drunk on recruiting stars and advanced metrics. No other bunch has taken as fervently to the #goacc hashtag that I sired (and continue to love like my own child). Although the hive mentality can get nasty at times, there are some truly great people out there. This has to be good for a point or two in the spread, right?
5. Levonte Whitfield: First off, the wide receiver's nickname is Kermit. So even if he doesn’t touch the ball once on Monday night, he’s an X-factor based on that alone. But given so much time to prepare, Whitfield should be involved in the offense -- and he could play a key role. It’s what he can do with a single touch that makes the difference. The freshman possesses elite speed, and he should be a special player in years to come. On his eight offensive touches this season, Whitfield averaged almost 29 yards per play. He’s a threat on special teams as well, averaging 34.3 yards per kick return. Give the ball to Kermit and good things happen. -- Martin Rickman
1. Gus Malzahn's BCS success: Everyone knows that Malzahn helped guide the Tigers to the 2010 BCS title as the program's offensive coordinator. That year's game against Oregon wasn't the shootout most expected (Auburn won 22-19), but Malzahn's offense still picked up 519 total yards and averaged 6.11 yards per play against a Ducks' defense that came into the game giving up an average of 331 yards per game. The Seminoles boast a far stingier defense than Oregon's, but perhaps a month's worth of preparation will benefit Malzahn.
STAPLES: Malzahn, Pruitt paving path from high school coaching ranks to college
2. Sammie Coates: Florida State knows to expect the run from Auburn, which combined to rush for 841 yards against the SEC's top two run defenses (Alabama and Missouri). But Malzahn could add an extra wrinkle to his game plan by making use of Coates, the only Tigers wideout with more than 300 receiving yards this year. Quarterback Nick Marshall should look to find Coates on a few early routes to keep the 'Noles' defense honest.
3. Tigers' secondary: Heisman Trophy winner Winston has perhaps the best group of wideouts in the country with Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's unit allows an average of 260 passing yards a game, 102nd nationally. If cornerback Chris Davis and the secondary can't contain the Seminoles' athletic receivers, it could be a rough night for the Tigers.
MANDEL: Auburn defense better than stats say, but Florida State still huge challenge
4. Been there, done that: Yes, Florida State has been utterly dominant all season long. But the Seminoles have yet to face a tough, late-game test, thanks in part to a schedule that's been weaker than Auburn's. The Tigers have won five games decided by seven points or fewer and have faced four top-10 teams.
5. Auburn's magic: Are the Tigers a team of destiny? It's hard to argue against that notion given Auburn's miraculous wins over Georgia and Alabama. One year ago, the Tigers were coming off a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) campaign. Now, they're on the cusp of the most monumental turnaround in college football history. If destiny is more powerful than dominance, give Auburn the edge. -- Zac Ellis
MANDEL: Destiny or dominance? Does Auburn or Florida State have BCS title edge?