This is it, the end of the season. Eight long weeks, two rounds of the playoffs, and here we are. A National Title will be given to an SEC team this season. Longhorns and Tigers are squaring off, but it’s the Auburn Tigers, not the Clemson Tigers. Auburn, who needed help to get in, and then go on a two game winning streak to make it here. Part of that two game winning streak included stopping a completed hail mary inches short of the endzone. Then there’s Texas, who had the first-round bye after winning the SEC, saw quarterback Ray Tatum throw three picks, and the Longhorns managed to beat Oregon by one, almost in spite of Tatum. That’s the backdrop for this game in front of us. Two teams have entered the ring, and only one is leaving as National Champions.
The Tigers and the Longhorns have faced each other three times before, but the closest it has ever been was a 31-24 contest from last season. Other than that, Texas has always won by double digits, beating up on Auburn in their first CFSL meeting. At the time, Auburn quarterback Blake Moon threw three interceptions, halfback Billy Carter only had 13 carries for 54 yards that game. Receiver Wayne Carter played well, but none could compare to Texas’ offense at the time. Texas’ former halfback Geaux Bamba was unstoppable, with 32 carries for 190 yards and two rushing touchdowns, with quarterback Ray Tatum adding 223 yards through the air for a touchdown and avoided turnovers. Texas won that game 44-12, a margin of 32 points. Earlier this season, a 31 point first half helped carry Texas over Auburn, in a 34-23 victory. Auburn quarterback Griffin Jelkic had to throw the ball 52 times, putting up 399 yards, yet he still fell short. In part because Tatum had three touchdown passes, over 400 yards, and no turnovers. This matchup, carries a lot of weight and pressure, at least for Auburn.
Why, hello there Cinderella. The Tigers are the CFSL’s underdog team this season, and it’s carried them this far. It’s also a tale that is not unfamiliar to the Auburn Tigers, where they were able to make a late season run, back into the playoffs with help, and beat the then number one seeded Boise State so as to advance to the National Title game against Notre Dame in that first CFSL season. That was then, and this is now. Auburn lost that title game, and so the question becomes whether or not they can find a way to defeat Texas now and claim their first National Title game.
In the semifinal round, Auburn faced one of the top tier defenses in the league, and it showed. Billy Carter struggled to get the wheels churning through the mud of the Ohio State defense, and that is evident by his 19 carries. It’s the workload we expect from Carter, but the 76 yards on the ground which accompanied the carries was standard for the season, but not with what we’ve come to associate with Carter. The stories of the Ohio State Sharks and their secondary have haunted teams throughout the season, frightened quarterbacks and fans alike. No different when Griffin Jelkic’s first pass of the game was intercepted. He then proceeded to throw four touchdown passes that game, en route to an Auburn win. Receivers Bubba Davis, Cross Ferry III, and Jacob Hill each made impressive plays, with Davis and Ferry each having at least five catches and a touchdown. Tight end James Mattly, he did his part as well, converting on third down and opening lanes for both Jelkic and Carter on the ground.
The Auburn defense has been a brutal force through this playoff run. It’s odd how a defensive battle can lead to a game where a total of 64 points are scored. But, linebacker Mark Calloway has put himself in position to be a defensive player of the year. He has stood tall in critical moments all season long, on fourth downs, making plays in the backfield, on top of entering the National Championship game tied for the most tackles on the season. Compound that with safeties Rian Chambers and Ollie P. Peters and all they’ve been able to accomplish. Chambers stood out, compiling 15 tackles, four tackles for a loss, a sack, and a forced fumble in that game. Peters may have only had five tackles that game, but has been averaging six and a half tackles a game throughout the season, having a total of 72 tackles so far this season, and they’re fierce tackles. Peters has got 15 tackles for a loss, and a sack, with at least two of those plays resulting in a total of four points for Auburn because of the safeties by the safety. Then there’s the coverage of corners Max Hands and LaRoi Sanders. They’ve been able to play well for the most part, but they gave up three shots downfield in the semifinals, meaning they need to step up tonight.
These guys are the favorites. The Texas Longhorns are finally in the spot they thought they would be in for the past two seasons. They won the SEC, knocking off the Clemson Tigers (who were undefeated at the time) so that they could get the first round bye. Texas has had some of these big games, but they’ve had some close games this season. And the result of those close games? Turnovers. Games where Tatum threw multiple interceptions. The five interception game against the Hurricanes in the regular season, and then the semifinals, where Tatum’s three interceptions forced the Texas defense to do just enough to scrape past Oregon. But now they’re facing Auburn, a team who they have been able to defeat with some ease for the most part, but can they do it when the title of National Champions is on the line?
This has been the larger story of the season. The strength of the offense, the offense who can strike, who can score from any moment in the game or during the regular season. Tatum has been a stud, a guy who can make the throw from any platform, and more often than not is on target. He threw three touchdowns and three picks against Oregon in the semifinal game, but moved closer to having 16,000 in a career. Halfback Tarraj Walker is complementing the passing attack of Tatum, but Tatum’s legs complement his rushing attack too. Receivers Vincent McCoy, Scooby Lewis, and Ray Conley have been stellar. McCoy leads the league in receiving yards, but Conley has the most touchdown receptions this season with 15, one away from the single season record of 16. Tight end Jackson James can convert third downs, can set the edge for the runs by Tatum or Walker. But this Auburn defense has been playing lights out, we’ll just have to see if Texas can get past it.
One of the best in the league on this side of the ball. Three of the top four defenses have been from the SEC, and while Auburn is one of them, so is Texas. The reason? Safety Jimbo Smithers, linebacker Howard Cook, and corner Terrence Top. They’re the ones that have been the major contributors. That’s nothing against linebackers Dallas Greene or Pluto Ross; or the safeties in Zachary White and Tayshaun Thompson. But the reality is, Smithers, Cook, and Top move the needle for this defense in a different way. Smithers is up for the running for the defensive player of the year once again, and Cook is in line to be an All-American at linebacker. Terrence Top is also in line to be an All-American. Their ability to create stops, force turnovers, and generate plays of negative yardage is unparalleled. This defense is fast, physical, and determined. Meaning that Auburn could struggle to move the ball, much like they did a week ago.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Auburn defense has been stellar this playoff run, as has Texas’. Both have had to overcome adversity this post-season, and now here they are. Both have stood tall. But, this game is different. Texas’ offense is vastly superior to that of Ohio State’s and Washington’s and Auburn gave up 31 in the first half when they last faced Texas. The Tigers cannot afford to give up some of the big plays they gave up to Ohio State a week ago, or it could end this game way faster.
I guess after the Ohio State game, it’s the safety Rian Chambers. Out of nowhere, he drops a stat line of 15 tackles, four tackles for a loss, a sack, and a forced fumble. Nobody saw that one coming from this guy, but here he is. The question now becomes, what can he do against Texas to help Auburn get victory? Whatever it is, it could be the difference.
Tight end Jackson James has not had the season he thought he would have, especially after last season’s success. He had 1,000 receiving yards, and caught eight touchdown passes. This season, 649 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns and the second most drops he’s ever had in a season. Tonight, a few of those drops could make all the world a difference, especially in the National Title game. But when James does make the catch, he can gather some massive yardage.
The table has been set for this final matchup of the fifth season in the CFSL. Auburn, Texas, and a National Championship between them. The Texas offense is going to come out firing, attacking the perimeters of this Auburn defense, which means they’ve got to pressure Tatum into making mistakes. But that’s only half the battle, as evidenced by the Oregon-Texas game in the semifinals. The other half? Griffin Jelkic, Billy Carter, and the rest of the Auburn offense has to find a way to overcome the vaunted Texas defense with a modicum of consistency. Oh, and not making mistakes as an offense would be pretty beneficial as well. It’s the National Championship game, and this one is between two SEC teams, where only one of them has beat the other. But this is the National Championship game, which means anything can happen, and I’m not brave enough to pick one or the other. But when kickoff hits, and this game gets started, we can all watch together how this unfolds, and who will be doused in champagne following victory. We’ll see you then.