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Auburn, FSU are contenders built to last

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Jan 06 2014 09:56:16 AM CST
Florida State QB Jameis Winston, November 2013

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The 2014 national championship game in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday will mark the farewell act of the Bowl Championship Series.

Just like the first BCS title game16 years ago in 1998, Florida State will be a participant.

But after their last appearance in the game in 2000, it's no secret the Seminoles disappeared from the championship scene for more than a decade before finally re-emerging this year.

The opponent of No. 1-ranked Florida State (13-0) on Monday night, the No. 2 Auburn Tigers (12-1), have just one BCS appearance to their credit -- three years ago when they beat Oregon for the title -- but that was followed by two dismal seasons on The Plains before a surprising turnaround.

Considering the recent resumes of both teams playing for the final BCS Championship, it's more than fair to wonder whether 2013 was the season that FSU or Auburn announced themselves as perennial national title contenders, or was this season simply just a flash in the pan for the Seminoles and Tigers?

"Auburn football is back," Tigers athletic director Jay Jacobs declared last month after Auburn won the SEC Championship.

They feel the same way about Florida State in Tallahassee.

Which is why Jacobs and fellow Florida State athletics director Stan Wilcox locked up their respective head coaches with multi-million dollar long-term contracts since the end of the regular season. In doing so, the programs took the first crucial step toward longevity.

With the head coach happily signed long-term, it's easier to attract big-time recruits -- who are the cornerstone to building a championship program -- to sign on the dotted line.

Just look at Alabama, winner of three of the past four national titles. The Tide have twice given head coach Nick Saban long contract extensions, and he responds almost every season by delivering a top recruiting class and the assurance that the Tide will be in the mix for the BCS title.

"I'm happy to be here, and they're happy to have me," FSU fourth-year head coach Jimbo Fisher said after his new deal, which runs through 2018, was announced earlier this week -- all but ending rumors he may bolt for the coveted vacancy at Texas. "Hopefully, that relationship will go for a long time."

It doesn't hurt the Seminoles' cause to be parading redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston into the Rose Bowl. Awards, and NFL merit, travels a great distance with would-be recruits.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn -- who was an assistant coach on the 2010 Auburn BCS title team, although he's in his first season as the head coach and already playing for the national title -- was given a similar extension and raise in early December. His new deal runs through 2019, and. both Malzahn and Fisher are now in the Top 10 among college football's highest-paid coaches. Malzahn, too, produced a Heisman winner in Cam Newton, currently a candidate for NFL MVP with the Carolina Panthers

"As I've said before, we want coach Malzahn to be at Auburn for a long time,” Jacobs said of Malzahn, whose rapid rise from a high school football coach in Arkansas just eight years ago mirrors his program's improbable climb from 3-9 a year ago to playing for all the marbles Monday night. “The new contract is our statement that Auburn is committed to coach Malzahn ... While this season has been remarkable, I'm equally excited about the future of our program under his leadership. The future of Auburn football is very bright."

Securing a proven winner at head coach by giving him a long contract is certainly a huge step in building a program that should be in the national title picture every season, but it is by no means the stopping point. Recruiting plays an enormous factor in the success of any program, and more time is spent on that particular area than many know about.

"A whole lotta hours," Fisher said with a shake of his head when asked how much time he still manages to dedicate to recruiting next year's signing class during a chaotic national title season. "We spend more time than you'd believe with as much as we've got going on. But you have to. It's one of the most important parts of building your program."

A program also needs signature wins, and both Florida State and Auburn had those in 2013. The Seminoles hammered four Top 25 opponents (Maryland, Duke, Miami and Clemson) by an average of 43.7 points, while Auburn beat five teams in the Top 25, including previously unbeaten No. 1 Alabama, the Tigers' most hated rival.

And because of the excitement surrounding each school right now, recruits are paying undivided attention to the Seminoles and Tigers like never before leading up to their BCS title clash.

ESPN.com ranks Auburn as having the No. 9 recruiting class -- a four-spot jump just in the last two months -- while FSU is just ahead at No. 6. Other recruiting websites have both teams ranked higher, such as Rivals.com, which puts FSU at No. 4 and Auburn No. 8.

But no matter who wins Monday night, each school's number of commitments is expected to jump significantly before National Signing Day in February. In the case of some recruits, they may just be waiting to see who wins to make their decision.

Some, however, aren't.

On Wednesday, two top prospects expected to be headed to rival programs (RB Dalvin Cook, No. 20 overall and DE Lorenzo Featherstone, No. 27) both announced on the same day they were headed to Florida State. That gave FSU 28 total verbal commitments for its growing 2014 class, including 11 four-star prospects and one five-star in Cook.

Auburn is not far behind, securing 21 players for 2014, including 10 four-star prospects and three coveted five-star recruits.

Bud Elliot, who covers college football recruiting for SBNation.com and is the managing editor of renowned FSU football website TomahawkNation.com, said it's no coincidence these two schools are snapping up blue-chippers left and right.

"These two teams are definitely setting themselves up for (long-term) success. I actually looked at this the other day. There are nine teams who have recruited more four- and five-star prospects in the last four classes than two and three-star prospects. Call it the blue-chip ratio, if you want to. The vast majority of teams we could find data on who have won national titles in the BCS era (the last 16 years) have done just that. So that's sort of a benchmark to hit," Elliot said. "Even with its turmoil over the last several years, Auburn is still hitting that mark; they're one of the nine teams to do so. Florida State also hits that mark. In fact, they're almost neck-and-neck as far as the percentage of clue-chippers they've brought in. So that's how you set yourself up to succeed.

"While bringing in elite recruits does not guarantee you will win a national title, (the data shows) you will not win a national if you fail to bring in elite recruits."

Elliot added that while head coaching stability, signature wins on national television and hoards of star recruits are certainly three of the biggest factors to building a championship-caliber program, there are two others which are equally important.

And both Florida State and Auburn are at the top of the class there, too.

"Certainly, both these programs send a lot of players to the (NFL)," he said. "Who sent the most players to the NFL last year? That'd be Florida State. In fact, this current roster of starters actually has the realistic chance to all go on to be drafted. And then you have a guy like Cam Newton, who is very much attached to Auburn even though he was there for just a year, who has become such a star in the NFL after he was coached by Malzahn. Recruits pay a lot of attention to that.

"(The other important building block) is that both coaching staffs are literally stocked with elite recruiters; guys like (former Auburn star) Dameyune Craig or (former FSU star) Lawrence Dawsey who bleed for their school and can tell you (first hand) what it's like to go there. You don't really see head coaches winning national titles without important guys (behind the scenes) who get great talent. So I definitely think that as long as these staffs stay together, they're going to be set up to play in the national spotlight for the foreseeable future."

Florida State and Auburn will still have their work cut out for them to maintain success at an elite level even if they maintain a Camelot existence. But with only a few days to go before one is crowned the kings of college football, the future certainly looks bright.

Or as Malzahn put it this week, "We're a program on the rise."

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