NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Forget the chatter about No. 2 Auburn's miracle victories or its up-tempo, cutting-edge offense.
Florida State defensive tackle Demonte McAllister said the biggest factor in Monday's BCS championship game will be the same as it is in any football game: Stop the run.
"That's going to be the meat and potatoes," McAllister said. "If you can't stop that, you can't stop anything."
Alabama couldn't. The Tide, then No. 4 in the nation in rushing defense, allowed 296 yards on the ground — the third most of the Nick Saban era — in a 34-28 loss to the Tigers on Nov. 30 that ended its national title hopes.
Missouri couldn't, either. Auburn tore through the Tigers for 545 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in a 59-42 SEC championship game victory that sent Auburn to its second BCS championship game in four seasons.
"If you mess up any time, we're going to gash you," Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall said.
Marshall is perhaps the most important part of a rushing attack averaging a nation-best 335.7 yards a game. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior is athletic enough to pull off between-the-legs dunks but polished enough as a passer to throw for almost 1,800 yards in his first year in the SEC.
"We knew Nick was a great athlete," Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I don't think we knew how dynamic of a playmaker he could be."
The realization came in Auburn's only loss. Though Marshall rushed for only 46 yards on 14 carries in a 35-21 defeat Sept. 21 at LSU, coach Gus Malzahn saw enough success from the speed and misdirection to start giving Marshall more zone-read run plays.
Auburn's ground attack exploded, from 929 yards and eight touchdowns in the its first four games to 3,435 yards and 38 in its next nine.
Marshall scored all 11 of his rushing TDs after that loss in Baton Rouge, and running back Tre Mason's rushing average jumped almost 60 yards per game to make him a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Mason has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of the past nine games, including a career-high 304 against Missouri in the SEC title game. His 2,137 all-purpose yards broke legendary back Bo Jackson's 28-year-old school record.
"He can take a small crease and take it to the house," FSU defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said.
FSU's rushing defense has been equally dominant. The Seminoles have allowed only five TD runs all season — tied with Iowa for the nation's fewest — and none by the first-team defense.
FSU has held every opponent under 200 rushing yards and has allowed fewer rushing yards all season (1,515) than Auburn has amassed in its past four games (1,608).
The 'Noles contained Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams to 149 rushing yards, 18 below his season average, in a 48-34 win Sept. 28 at Boston College. USC and Clemson were the only other teams to keep the nation's leading rusher out of the end zone.
Lashlee said the Seminoles' success comes from a physical front line that can clog the line of scrimmage long enough for FSU's speedy linebackers and defensive backs to fly in.
"You can have a play that looks pretty good at the beginning, that maybe you think's going to gain 8, 10, 12 yards," Lashlee said. "But they recover so well, it's a 3-, 4-yard gain."
The team that rushed for the most yards in the BCS title game has won the past 11 championships.
"We've got to stop it," McAllister said of Auburn's running game. "If we don't, they're going to run it up and embarrass us on national TV in front of everybody in the world."
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.