BCS National Championship Game:vs. , 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Two players might be critical to Auburn's chances of winning the crystal football tonight, but there are several players and coaches who will play a role in deciding the championship. Here are the most likely to have an impact on the final game of the season.
Until now, Jimbo Fisher was perhaps most famous for the three coaching trees he managed to land on. Fisher served as offensive coordinator under no fewer than three of the head coaches that currently hold BCS national titles: Nick Saban, Les Miles and Bobby Bowden. But the success of this season might finally be enough for him to finally get out from under the shadows of his mentors, especially now that he dodged the possibility of a showdown with Saban in the championship game. Fisher is now 44-10 over his four seasons as the head coach in Tallahassee, including 25-2 over the last two years with two ACC titles to his name -- and an undefeated season this year, the school's first since 1999. Oh, he also calls plays for perhaps the best offense in the country.
The High School Coach
The first few years that he was in college football, it was fashionable among some to laugh at him for bring a "high school offense" to college in general, and later the SEC in particular. They're not laughing now. Malzahn's offenses have been prolific since he got significant control of one during his time at Tulsa, with the 2010 undefeated regular season at Auburn being the crowning achievement so far. This year, Malzahn came to a school that went 3-9 in 2012 and now has it on the cusp of its second national championship in four seasons. Whatever happens tonight, the smart money is on Malzahn not needing a high-school job for the remainder of his coaching career.
The Lightning Rod
Even when he was flashing his athletic ability and making spectacular plays while playing for Florida State's baseball team earlier this year, it was impossible to see what would come over the next six months for Jameis Winston. He's become the star of one of the most powerful offenses in the country in 2013, going 237-of-349 passing for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passing efficiency is close enough to Russell Wilson's all-time record in a single season that Winston could break the record with a solid performance tonight. Around that has come the "Famous Jameis" hype, the squinting for the signs and, tragically, allegations of sexual assault. Winston will never lack for publicity -- good, bad or otherwise.
The Defensive Back
For all the criticism that Johnny Manziel as a defensive back, Mark Richt actually placed Nick Marshall at defensive back during the player's one year at Georgia. Now, Marshall is one game away from the crystal football. As a passer, he's got above-average efficiency on a lower number of attempts, going 128-of-212 passing for 1,759 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. But he's invaluable to Auburn at running the football -- he gained 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns on 156 carries this year -- and distributing it across the options that are created by Malzahn's scheme. This team's chances tonight ride at least in part on Marshall making the correct decisions.has taken for reportedly recruiting
Tre Mason somehow seemed to be a surprise candidate for the Heisman, even if there was very little predictable about the race with upheaval surrounding Winston. But Tre Mason's season was truly phenomenal: he ran for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns on 283 carries. That's an average of 5.7 yards a pop, which would look even more impressive on any offense other than Auburn's. If there's anything besides Malzahn's scheme that allows the Tigers to make so many yards without throwing the ball very much, it's Mason.
RASHAD GREENE, KENNY SHAW and KELVIN BENJAMIN
While Rashad Greene was Winston's favorite target with 67 catches, he was only one of three wideouts to get the ball 50 or more times and pass 900 yards receiving. Greene had 981 yards and nine touchdowns. Kenny Shaw caught the ball 52 times for 929 yards and six touchdowns. And Kelvin Benjamin had 50 grabs for 957 yards and 14 scores. When you have three targets like that, it makes it much easier for the first-year starting quarterback to win the Heisman and the national title.
While head coaches usually get all the attention for moving from program to program, coordinators often do so even more. And Ellis Johnson has been both head coach and defensive coordinator, serving in at least at one of those positions for no fewer than eight schools, according to his bio on the Auburn website. Johnson's defenses were one of the key reasons for Steve Spurrier's success during Johnson's tenure at South Carolina, including the first 11-win season in program history. Johnson's defense wasn't exactly overwhelming in 2013, allowing 423.5 yards a game, good for just 87th in the FBS, but Auburn faced all but one of the SEC teams that placed in the conference's top eight in scoring and total offense. (South Carolina was the exception.) And he will have to at least slow down Florida State if Auburn's going to have any chance of winning.
At just 38 years old and during his first season as a coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt is on the verge of helping Florida State win the national title. For all the attention that goes to the Florida State offense, Pruitt's defense has been one of the reasons that the Seminoles are perhaps the most dominant team in college football. One team has scored more than 17 points against Florida State -- Boston College somehow got 34 -- and seven have ended up in single digits. The Seminoles rank first in passing yardage defense, first in passing efficiency defense and first in scoring defense. They are a piddly 13th in rushing defense. Like Fisher, Pruitt once worked for Nick Saban; we'll see if he has any better luck than his mentor at figuring out the Tigers' offense.