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King: Running game vs. QB Winston

LITTLE ROCK — The glut of bowl games serves a purpose after all. In effect, the 30-plus contests constitute a two-week diversion from the BCS title game.

If Auburn vs. Florida State had been the only college football available, imagine the minutia generated from the time Chris Davis returned a missed field goal from one end zone to the other until the kickoff Monday night in Pasadena. Think twice the deluge of material produced during the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl.

The BCS games and a couple of other bowl games were compelling enough to take center stage and that’s a good thing. Given an extended period of time to ponder a monumental game, there is a tendency to overthink the analysis. Simply, Auburn vs. FSU will turn on the same two issues that were identified a month ago.

One is a for-certain; the other, not so much:

—Can Auburn run the ball? That’s what the Tigers do. During a 3-1 start, including two non-conference games, quarterback Nick Marshall threw 103 times. During the sweep of six SEC games and the league championship, he threw 108 times.

—How will Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston respond if the Seminoles fall behind by two scores? FSU trailed Boston College 7-0 in late September, but routed most every other opponent. The Seminoles have not trailed by 14 points or more since the 2012 regular-season finale against Florida.

Auburn running back Tre Mason was so spectacular late in the season that he earned a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, but some of the gaps in the Missouri defense in the SEC title game were so huge that his performance reminded of the Jan. 1, 2008, Cotton Bowl when a decent running back named Tony Temple made 281 yards against Arkansas. Several times that day, quarterback Chase Daniel’s only decision was whether to keep for 10 or 15 yards or pitch to Temple for a bigger gain.

The fact that center Reese Dismukes was the only offensive lineman on the first two units of the All-SEC team selected by the coaches raises a question about whether Auburn is blocking people or fooling them. If it’s the latter, the extended prep time guarantees that the Seminoles will know their assignments. Knowing and doing are two different things and that’s where discipline is in play.

With Auburn, defenders must be sure of what they see. When defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was in Arkansas for the Broyles Award last month, he described the distractions of Auburn’s offense as window dressing. “You have to know your keys at all times and be disciplined,” he said.

Working within the same time frame as Pruitt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn might tinker with some of those road signs.

FSU is No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing 10.7 points per game, and has held four of its last five opponents to 10 points or less. Auburn will do better than that and the Tigers’ proficiency on offense raises the possibility that Winston will be taking snaps staring at a deficit of 10 points or more.

Winston’s blinkers-on approach to football while authorities investigated allegations of sexual abuse against him prompted FSU coach Jimbo Fisher to say: “When it’s time to play football, when it’s time to go to school, he compartmentalizes and handles his responsibilities.”

Strictly on the football front, Winston must deal with the unrealistic expectations for a Heisman Trophy winner, talk that he will be the first pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and being the quarterback on a team favored to break the SEC’s stranglehold on the BCS title. That is a heavy load for a 19-year-old.

FSU 31, Auburn 27 is the expectation of the same person who wrote that Alabama-Notre Dame might be a three-point game with 10 minutes to play. Alabama led 42-7 with 11:27 remaining.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.

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