Twenty-eight days. Four weeks. That's the window of time that will pass between today and Auburn taking the Rose Bowl field against top-ranked Florida State in the the BCS title game on Jan. 6, 2014.
In college football, that's an eternity. Semester final exams must be taken between now and then. And brief Christmas vacations home, wherever that may be. And plenty of practice endured, though its familiarity will be broken up by those finals, vacations and a need to heal up from a very long regular season.
And how both the Tigers and Seminoles handle that dramatic change in routine could well determine which proud program finishes on top of the final BCS format before next season's four-team playoff begins.
"We've gotten better every week," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn accurately observed on Saturday night at the close of the Tigers' 59-42 win over Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship game. "We're playing our best football right now."
But can they continue to improve over the next four weeks without the competition that only a real opponent can provide? Will they grow stale, rusty, out of sync, which could be disastrous for an offense such as Auburn's?
Beyond that, is 28 days enough for Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and the rest of his coaching staff to do what every SEC coaching staff but LSU failed to do -- solve Malzahn's offensive masterpiece of misdirection?
Is four weeks long enough to shut down the Tigers' human shell game?
"Their defense does a good job of getting the other offense off the field," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after FSU destroyed his Blue Devils 45-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. "It's no fun, but we competed with them."
This has been an incredibly fun football season, and that shouldn't be forgotten moving forward. The original goal of the BCS was to cut through longstanding bowl tie-ins to stage a national championship game. In that narrow sense, it worked pretty well.
For all the criticism of the BCS, the overwhelming perception heading into Saturday night was that the national championship game should be between FSU and the SEC title game, regardless of what Ohio State did in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State.
So what happens? Sparty tops the Buckeyes to deliver the exact contest most were hoping to see. Again, it's a long season, long enough that the two best teams have most often been the last two standing, much as former SEC commish Roy Kramer predicted they would when the first BCS game was staged at the close of the 1998 season.
In fact, would it be so wrong to rename the Coaches' Trophy the Kramer Cup, redesigning the $30,000 crystal football now that there will be a playoff, because without Kramer's vision and leadership there might never have been a BCS game to lead to a playoff?
Yet for this final BCS game, for these next four weeks, the focus will be on whether or not FSU's defense can slow down Auburn's offense enough to open the door for Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston -- the likely Heisman Trophy winner -- to continue his team's season-long average of 53 points a game.
It is certainly an intriguing question, especially given the way the Tigers tore through Missouri, a team that was second in the SEC in both rushing defense and scoring defense before surrendering 545 rushing yards and 59 points to Auburn.
"We just couldn't stop the run," Missouri defensive back E.J. Gaines told the St. Louis Post Dispatch afterward.
Added defensive end Markus Golden, "We practiced everything they did. They were just able to come out and run the ball. That's a good team over there."
But so is FSU. Saturday's demolition of Duke was the Seminoles' 12th win by at least 27 points. They've averaged outscoring opponents by 43 points. They outscored the four ranked opponents they played by a total of 200-35. They haven't trailed a single minute of a single game since besting Boston College by 14 back on Sept. 28.
Put another way, FSU may have been the only team in the country that might have been the favorite if Alabama, and not Auburn, had reached the national title game. Nor should anyone forget that Fisher was once a Nick Saban assistant and no one may want or need FSU to win more than Saban, if only to deny Bama's archrival a BCS title that would give both the Tide and Tigers two crowns over the last four years.
Not that this is the only BCS bowl. Expect a tremendously disappointed Ohio State team to flatly fall to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Expect Alabama to crush Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl because quarterback A.J. McCarron will demand that his teammates finish their careers in championship form. Also expect Stanford to outlast Michigan State in what may be the best of the BCS bowls and Baylor to bash Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.
As for the rest of the SEC, expect LSU (over Iowa), Georgia (over Nebraska), Missouri (over Oklahoma State), Vanderbilt (over Houston), Texas A&M (over Duke) and Mississippi State (over Rice) to all win, while Mississippi may struggle against Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl.
Yet 28 days from today, all those will be finished and forgotten. It will be Auburn versus Florida State on Winston's 20th birthday.
And unlike 16 years ago in the first BCS title game, when Florida State lost the national championship to another Cinderella team from the SEC in Tennessee, the Seminoles won't be taking the field with a fourth team quarterback (Marcus Outzen). Instead they'll have the likely Heisman winner with Birthday Boy, who'll blow out the candles on Auburn's miracle season, winning 41-35.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com