Less than a week remains until Auburn takes on top-ranked Florida State for the BCS National Championship. Most of the talk surrounding the contest addresses the concern of how Florida State will try to stop the potent ground attack of Auburn led by Tre Mason. The Seminoles certainly have a number of talented players on defense including All-American and Thorpe Award finalist, Lamarcus Joyner. If FSU is to win a third national championship however, it will need to happen up front.
As good as guys like Joyner, Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Terrence Brooks have been for Florida State, the success on defense starts up front and for FSU, that’s with Timmy Jernigan. Although he was not named to the ACC’s first team, Jernigan has been recognized as an All-American by some publications and as he goes in Pasadena, so may the Florida State defense.
The BCS era has certainly had its share of electrifying offenses, as both Auburn and Florida State are, but in the title game, it’s often dominating defensive efforts that earn a school the Sears Trophy.
As proof, Florida State needs to look no further than what Auburn did the last time the Tigers reached the BCS National Championship. While the Tigers certainly had a potent offense in 2010 led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and future first overall pick in the NFL Draft, Cam Newton, Auburn was fueled to a 22-19 victory over Oregon in the BCS title game thanks to the play of a less heralded Tiger, defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
In a game that may have had less than half of the points that were expected, Fairley lived in the Oregon backfield often forcing All-American running back LaMichael James to start running horizontally behind the line of scrimmage. The Ducks managed to stay in the game until the final seconds, but thanks to Fairley, the spread attack that averaged more than 49 points-per-game for the season was held in check.
While Fairley is the most glaring example of dominant defensive line play winning the national championship, it is not the only one. Auburn’s arch-rival Alabama won the BCS title game in each of the last two seasons by controlling the line of scrimmage. Two years ago, the Crimson Tide held LSU to 92 yards of offense and a mere 39 yards rushing. Against Notre Dame last season, the Tide held the Fighting Irish to 32 yards on the ground and a dismal 1.7 yards-per-carry average.
Following the 2006 regular season, Florida’s deep and talented defensive front held an Ohio State offense that was supposedly unstoppable to just a single offensive score in a 41-14 victory to win the national championship. LSU had similar results against an Oklahoma team that had scored on virtually everyone in 2003 in New Orleans. Led by defensive tackle Chad Lavalais, the Tigers held Oklahoma to 14 points and 154 yards of total offense with only 52 coming on the ground.
While the Florida State defense has proven to be deep, talented and dominant all year long, the individual with the most on his shoulders to slow down the Auburn rushing attack may be Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan started all 13 games for FSU this season and led the Seminoles with 10.5 tackles for loss. Jernigan was also second on the team in sacks in with 4.5.
Auburn will likely have the best offensive front that Florida State has seen this season, but the Tigers have not been as stellar against the nation’s premier defenses. In the only two contests against current top 25 defenses, Auburn has scored just a combined 55 points with six — albeit a pretty memorable six — coming on special teams. FSU is giving up the fewest points in the country.
Florida State will certainly put its talent on display in Pasadena as Heisman winner Jameis Winston and his array of weapons look to continue to make plays down the field, but where they game will be won or lost is up front. Though Winston will garner much of the pregame attention, the defensive front of FSU may be the team’s most important contingent. The most important player for the Seminoles may be the best player on that contingent, Timmy Jernigan.