Matthew Emerson and I decided to celebrate the National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State University (of which we are fans respectively) by answering a few questions about the game itself and the connections between football and theology. You can find my answers to his questions on his blog – Secundum Scripturas.
1. After last season, the firing of Chizik, and hiring of Malzahn, what were you expectations for Auburn coming into this season?
I fluctuated between 6-6 and 11-1, and eventually settled on 8-4. I thought AU would lose to UGA, Bama, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss. Given the recent recruiting success I knew there was talent at Auburn, and I knew the Tigers were deep and talented where it matters in the SEC – on both lines. I also was counting on Tre Mason to surpass his 1,000 yard total in 2012. What worried me, though, was finding a quarterback that could take Auburn to the next level, along with our thin linebacker crew and secondary. Those already thin positions took a hit in the spring with some attrition. I settled on 8-4 because I thought Auburn could run the ball well enough to beat the lower tiered SEC competition but ultimately felt that question marks at QB and in passing defense would hurt them.
2. At what point during the season did you begin to think, “This team could be really good?” And then, “This team could play for a National Championship?” Why?
Believe it or not the turning point for me as far as Auburn being really good was at the end of the LSU game (Auburn’s only loss). Auburn dug themselves into a deep hole in the first quarter – two turnovers that resulted in immediate scores. It was their first game on the road, in dreaded Death Valley, it was raining, and Nick Marshall still didn’t have a good grasp of the offense. He started the season knowing about 25% of the playbook. But even though Auburn went to halftime down 21-7, they never quit fighting and had a chance at the end of the game to get to one score, onside kick, and tie it. They rushed for over 200 yards against the vaunted LSU defense and there wasn’t any quit in them. Perhaps most importantly, it was obvious that, even with a loss, Auburn was continuing to improve in all phases of the game every week. That was something that absolutely did not happen under Chizik.
After the Tigers beat Ole Miss I started considering the possibilities for a national championship run. The hardest part of the schedule was over (at least until UGA and Alabama came at the end of the season), and I felt like Nick Marshall and the defense were continuing to improve. After Auburn trounced Tennessee in its second consecutive away game, I knew I was watching a great team.
After the UGA Prayer at Jordan-Hare, I basically assumed that Baylor would lose at Oklahoma State and OSU would lose to Michigan State. After watching college football for 30 years, I just had a feeling about how the end of the season would go.
3. What are the keys for Auburn to be successful against FSU in the National Championship game?
All the analysts continue to point to Nick Marshall’s passing ability; the assumption seems to be that FSU will be able to stop (or limit) Auburn’s rushing attack. To be honest I don’t see that happening. FSU plays a very similar defensive scheme as Alabama, especially against the run (their DL drops back instead of trying to stop the play in the backfield, a la Mizzou), and Auburn rushed for 296 yards against a Tide D that had been giving up 91 rushing yards per game. When Auburn has faced tough rushing defenses it has continually had major success. So I’m not sure offensive success will be the defining factor.
For me the key is Auburn’s defensive line. The Tigers have a thin secondary that, while improved, is very vulnerable, and their linebackers aren’t great in pass coverage. This means that the DL absolutely must pressure Winston to produce defensive stops. Auburn’s DL is 10 men deep, and I’m not sure FSU has faced anything like it in terms of size, depth, or conditioning this year. If Auburn wants to win, they need to pressure Jameis early and often.
4. As an FSU fan, I have heard from several Auburn fans that the Tigers are a team of destiny (some even refer to them as God’s team). Furthermore as a Southerner, I am very familiar with the way sports, especially football, and religion are intertwined. As Christians and football fans, how should we respond to those who integrate religion with sports? Does this mindset open doors for honest discussion or make discussion more difficult?
“God, family, football, and not necessarily in that order.” “I know God’s an Auburn fan because the sun is orange and the sky is blue.” “It’s a God thing.” God and football are so intertwined in the South that I’m not sure we can tear them asunder. But we ought to try. At the end of the day college football is just another game, and yet one of the besetting temptations of many a Southerner is idolatrous worship of their team. In that situation the discussion becomes more difficult, because, in evangelism, for instance, you are trying to preach the supremacy of Christ over against something that to many is as natural as breathing.
On the other hand, the South is unique because people haven’t lost the art of conversation, and, if it’s in the right setting, they’ll talk to you about almost anything, including religion. Because God and the gridiron are the most popular topics in the Bible Belt, it’s easier to get into a conversation about Christ than it might be elsewhere.
I’d also want to say here that I don’t think fandom is in and of itself a bad thing. God made us for community, and identifying with particular groups, including sports teams, is one way in which we find affinity with one another. The problem comes when we treasure our team above Christ and the fans of our team above the church.
5. What do you think about the current move to pay college athletes? Is this a case of systematic injustice or is the system fair? Is this a moral issue the church should be discussing?
To be honest I don’t know enough about how tuition, room, and board work for student athletes to comment too much. I do think that there seems to be a disparity between what the universities make off of football, and for some schools basketball, and the benefits those athletes receive. But at the same time if you institute a pay system for football players, what happens to the golf team? Much of the money that universities make off of football or perhaps basketball fund other sports programs. Furthermore, those other sports programs provide scholarships for other student athletes, scholarships they wouldn’t receive otherwise. What if a tennis player, who couldn’t afford college otherwise, didn’t have a scholarship anymore?
6. There has been an intensifying discussing recently concerning the physicality of football and the relationship to Christian ethics. Do you consider football inherently “violent”? What is your definition of violence? Does the Bible address this issue, and, if so, can a Christian faithfully participate in football as a player or fan?
I’ll start off by saying I don’t think the Bible directly addresses the physicality of football, and for that reason we need to be careful about how we discuss it. Many are prone to call something a sin that isn’t defined as such by Scripture, simply because it suits their preferences. That being said, I do think the Bible speaks to physical health, how to treat others, and especially to violence. In my opinion, though (without having carefully studied this, I might add), it seems to me that when the Bible speaks of avoiding violent actions it is talking about malice towards another individual. Physicality in football is not the same. Nothing about blocking or tackling is inherently malicious or spiteful. It is individual fans and perhaps players that bring that element into the game, but I think if you go and listen to players talk that’s not how most approach it. They respect their opponent and don’t want to see them injured.
7. What is your prediction for the game (winner and score)?
Well I can’t pick against Auburn, surprise surprise. I’ll say 42-34 with the game going well into the fourth quarter. Auburn scores a late TD and makes a final defensive stop to seal the game.