NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – The pomp and circumstance of the national championship game is nothing new to Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson; been there, done that. Johnson isn’t wide-eyed during preparations and is eager to ply his wares Monday night. In fact, listening to him during media availability, Johnson came across as down-right eager to get this BCS title game party started.
Florida State's Jameis Winston, who will celebrate his 20th birthday Monday, is adept at lighting the candle on the Seminoles’ fifth-ranked offense. He has thrown for 26 touchdowns and 2,579 yards in the first half alone this season. The 26 first-half scores are more than 108 starting QBs in the FBS, while the first-half yardage total is more than 80 starting QBs.
“No matter what happens early in the ballgame, it'll take 59 minutes and 59 seconds, and it may take one more second, and our players know how to win a game with one second left on the clock,” Johnson said Friday. “They know how to win a game with a minute and a half left on the clock. They know how to win a game.”
OK, how about this: Winston has thrown 18 TD passes and 1,576 yards in the second quarter alone this season. Those are the best marks for TD passes and yards of any QB in any quarter this season.
“I think no matter what the situation is, they'll play their way through it,” Johnson said of the second-ranked Tigers.
“I think our offense will give us an opportunity not to have to play uphill all day long like most teams have against [Florida State], and maybe we can play downhill a little bit and see what that does.”
Johnson helms the No. 87 defense but don’t get lost in the morass with the Toledos and Northwesterns at Nos. 86 and 88. Yes, Auburn has yielded 30 or more points four times (3-1) and gave up 70 in the past two games combined. But the Tigers faced prolific offenses and lived to tell the tale.
“We've played four quarterbacks who have been mentioned in the Heisman race at some point in time during the season, and probably five NFL quarterbacks,” Johnson said. “It's been a test, and we haven't always played extremely well, but we've always found a way to step up, and I think our system is just a part of it. It's what the players have done within the system to make plays."
Said safety Jermaine Whitehead: "Seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman. Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of.
"I think he's a great playmaker. I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play. We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country and they're going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game."
Auburn has been resilient -- especially after a turnover. The Tigers are even for the season -- 18 turnovers, 18 takeaways -- but the team has outscored opponents 73-41 in points off turnovers, a tribute to the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.“Our secondary deserves a lot of credit,” Johnson said. “We've lost some really good players along the way, and we've played without a lot of depth. But up front we've rotated a lot of players, and I think that's helped us be a better fourth quarter team.
“We have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year,” he admitted. “I think part of it is because we're in a new system. These guys have gone through three different systems in three different years. We've been inconsistent at times. You need to put that on me.
“But we always know how to play in the moment. When there's a play on the line, we've been good on third down, we've been good in the red zone, we've been good in the fourth quarter. We've made critical stops at critical times, and I think that's a credit to our players.”
Ultimately it is not on the defense to “win” the game; if the defense does its job, it’s on the offense to score. Historically, Auburn has been able to do just that. The Tigers have won 88 consecutive games when scoring 30 or more points, dating to a 56-49 four OT loss to Georgia in 1996. Auburn is 305-4 all-time when scoring at least 30 points.
So for Johnson, keeping Florida State out of the end zone is not the goal. Keeping Auburn close and giving the Tigers’ offense an opportunity to win the game – that’s the key.
“What the key is going to be is can we get pressure [on Winston], and we need to get pressure before, we need to get pressure with pressure,” said Johnson, who was the defensive coordinator for Alabama’s 1992 national championship team. “It's going to be a big factor. The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have.
“There will be some other things in the game we can't control – kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”
Winning the SEC’s eighth consecutive national championship – and the fifth in a row for the state of Alabama – is not lost on Johnson. “It's a state that loves football, loves high school football, loves college football, but I think the commitment of both these universities, to the facilities, the support, the fan base, the conference we play in obviously plays a huge part of it.
“I watched it affect South Carolina over about a 12-year stretch to now they're nationally competitive where they used to hardly have .500 seasons year in and year out. The SEC certainly has a lot to do with it. It is an unbelievable thing. Hopefully we can represent the state well and the SEC well and get another national championship. Certainly it won't be easy, but that would be unbelievable.”
Auburn knocked off No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30 and is 4-8 all-time against the nation’s top-ranked team. But no team has ever beaten two No. 1 teams in the same season. That’s just the kind of party that Johnson would love to crash.