End of an era

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Weekly Citizen Sports Editor Kyle Riviere

It was an amazing run that all SEC fans cherished and took great pride in but I'm afraid that after Jan. 6, the conference's streak of seven straight titles will come to an end.

When a team goes from a 3-9 disaster to an improbable berth in the championship game in just one year, that's the team that's supposed to be totally free of the pressure.

But Auburn isn't. They carry the weight of all those SEC teams and fans on their shoulders. They are expected to do the conference proud and continue the reign of dominance, but I just don't see the Tigers doing it.

Auburn has had an amazing turnaround under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, and they enter this matchup as one of the hottest teams in the nation.

But at the end of the day, they are a team that went just 3-9 last year. That alone tells you that Florida State--who won the Orange Bowl last season--has much more talent top to bottom.

It's no secret, the Tigers are being fueled by a dominant spread triple-option rushing attack that ranks No. 1 in the nation. They pile up 336 yards per game on the ground alone.

Tre Mason leads the charge at running back with his 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns while quarterback Nick Marshall has added 1,023 yards and 11 scores of his own.

Marshall has really been the spark that has made this Auburn attack nearly unstoppable as of late. He is a master of that triple-option, and he has gotten it done when he has been forced to throw the ball as well.

He completed 60 percent of his passes this season for 1,759 yards and has only thrown five interceptions in the process. Most of that total went to the lethal Sammie Coats--who averaged a ridiculous 22 yards a catch.

However, if there is any team that can stop this Auburn attack, it's Florida State.

If you want to stop a spread-option offense, you have to have a great, athletic defensive line that can constantly get penetration, and you need fast linebackers and safeties that can run sideline to sideline.

Florida State has both. They have an SEC-like defense chocked full of speedy, blue chip athletes.

The 'Noles are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring defense as they only give up 11 a game. They rank No. 14 against the run, and they have the best secondary in the nation--only yielding 152 yards a game.

I also think this long layoff hurts Auburn. Their offense was white-hot and totally dialed in when the season ended. Can they still look that good after a month-long layoff? In addition, that stout Florida State defense had that long period of time to prepare for their scheme.

Either way, I still think Auburn will move the ball and score. They're just too good at what they do not to do so. Just look at what they did against Alabama's vaunted "D."

It's the Tiger defense that scares me. They have struggled all year and now, they have to face Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and this Florida State offense that averages 53 points a game.

Auburn isn't your prototypical SEC champion defense. They're giving up 24 points a contest, rank only 62nd against the run and a putrid 104th against the pass.

That's not good when you're facing a guy in Winston that has thrown for nearly 4,000 yards 40 touchdowns.

Look at what some of the elite quarterbacks did to them during the year. Johnny Manziel threw for 454, Aaron Murray went for 415 and James Franklin put up 303.

In regards to that Seminole passing attack, I just don't see how anyone covers Kelvin Benjamin. The guy is a 6-foot-5, 234-pound beast that is averaging 19 yards a catch and has 14 touchdown grabs.

Auburn has struggled immensely against big, physical wideouts.

Against Texas A&M's 6-foot-5 star Mike Evans, they were burned for 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns. Against Missouri's 6-foot-6 receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, they yielded six catches for 144 yards and two scores.

Even giving up all those receiving and passing yards, the Tigers always found a way to win, but this is a totally different situation.

This Florida State defense is the best they've faced all year. They can't afford to give up 35 or more points because it's highly unlikely they'll be able to keep pace against such a great defensive unit.

For seven straight years, SEC teams won the national title because of their defense. This season, I think it's defense that will be their downfall.