Once again we see Floridian speed in a pro-style scheme matched against a bruising, power-option team, much like the classic Nebraska and Miami contests in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This is a matchup with a lot of history, whether the Tigers and Seminoles have a lot of history against each other or not.
No one looked ahead to an Auburn vs. Florida State pairing this season. Few anticipated redshirt freshman Jameis Winston and the Seminole defense ascending to this level. And no one foresaw Gus Malzahn's instant transformation of the winless War Eagle into an SEC champion.
Yet here we are. And this contest could prove to fit well into the evolving narrative of football strategy, clashing NFL-favored strategies against an offense birthed in high school football and, at least when Auburn has the ball, speed against strength.
[Edit: And no, Auburn doesn't outweigh Florida State at every position on the field. The Noles have loads of size. But looking at the edges of FSU's defense and Auburn's pass rush, it's clear these teams are different at a couple points of attack.]
The dilemma Auburn gives you
It's easy to get lost in the X's and O's lingo regarding Gus Malzahn's Tigers, typically described as a spread-option team.
But unlike many other programs that are attributed the spread title, Auburn more closely resembles the Tom Osborne Huskers. The Tigers boast the country's most punishing rushing attack, thanks in part to the lean Malzahn playbook first honed at Arkansas high schools.
It all starts up front. The Auburn offensive line is a dominant force, particularly on the left side, where tackle Greg Robinson and guard Alex Kozan have made a habit of caving in some of the best defensive fronts in the SEC.
And Auburn focuses on power throughout the rest of its lineup. The Tigers spread out, but include maulers like fullback Jay Prosch and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Prosch is a 6', 258-pound wrecking ball who figures prominently as a lead or backside blocker in Malzahn's various run schemes. Uzomah is another hefty player, at 6'4 and 258 pounds, who serves primarily as a blocking surface.
Because of this personnel, Auburn's attack is primarily built around physicality and angles. While the Cam Newton offense of the 2010 championship team focused mostly on power read and the Wing-T's buck sweep, the current Auburn team usually complements power read with the classic zone-read play. In particular, they love to run today's favored version of the read, with the fullback arcing around the unblocked defensive end and picking off a linebacker or safety at the next level and enabling big gains for the quarterback keeper.
With both power and zone Auburn emphasizes down-blocks and double-teams at the point of attack, but the Tigers run dozens of different plays behind these punishing blocking schemes.
For instance, Malzahn often drops his slot receivers several yards behind the line of scrimmage, where they can act either as pitch-option threats via the bubble screen pass, if nickelbacks cheat toward the edges and threaten quarterback Nick Marshall on those zone-read plays ...
... or as extra running backs who can sweep across the formation at high speed and threaten the opposite perimeter of a defensive front.
Defenses often feel they must employ nickelbacks and quicker defenders to cover ground and handle these horizon-stretching elements of the Auburn offense, but that surrender of size hurts them when they find themselves taking on blocks by the thunderous Uzomah or Prosch.
How Florida State answers
Kim Klement, USA Today
The Seminoles have the fastest defense that Auburn will face this season. The Noles will likely choose to make another test of the speed-vs.-size formula that routinely comes up in national title games. Except this time the question will be whether an SEC team can handle ACC speed.
Many Florida State fans breathed a sigh of relief when their Noles were spared the task of defeating Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. However, Auburn's large and physical offense presents similar challenges to the Seminoles D as did the Tide machine.
The FSU defense is technically a 3-4, but with hybrid principles of both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. Linebacker Christian Jones was converted into a ‘tweener player on the edge, and the best FSU personnel packages feature cornerback and former safety LaMarcus Joyner in the slot as a nickel.
The Seminoles thrived against passing offenses, especially ones attempting to play catch-up with Winston and his own explosive offense. Their ability to bring pressure on the edge with Jones or Joyner and a good deal of disguise absolutely wrecked teams like the Clemson Tigers and their more aerial brand of spread-to-run football.
The Noles finished second in pass defense in Football Outsiders' S&P rankings. Joyner's secondary is an elite unit. And it is, unfortunately for the Seminoles, not matched against the central strength and thrust of the Auburn machine.
The concern: how the ‘Noles will hold up against Auburn's big blockers. In FSU's nickel sets, its four linebackers are Jones at 6'4, 235, Joyner at 5'8, 190, Telvin Smith at 6'3, 218, and middle Terrance Smith at 6'4, 215.
Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have difficult choices to make regarding whether to trust Joyner's explosive abilities on the edge if matched against lead blocks by Prosch or Uzomah. The Noles have similar problems on the perimeter, where Auburn has physical blockers like 6'2 receivers Ricardo Louis and Sammie Coates.
The Seminoles probably feel at least reasonably confident in the abilities of their linebacking corps and safeties to cover ground and make physical plays in space, but the greater challenge comes in the trenches. The Seminoles' ability to play man coverage at corner and drop the safeties down only has so many advantages against Auburn's arc blocks, option, and motion, all of which still allow the Tigers to bring numbers to the point of attack.
On the FSU side, there is an exceptional run-stopping talent who gives the ‘Noles a chance to not see their front caved in by the left side of the Auburn line and their light linebacker group driven off the ball by advancing blockers: former No. 1 defensive end recruit Mario Edwards.
At 6'3, 277 pounds, Edwards has the ideal size and skill to play the 3-4 two-gapping DE position in FSU's hybrid fronts, opposite Jones. He excels at playing low to the ground and stalling a tackle's forward march and also possesses the quicks to get off blocks and make plays in the backfield. Against Miami, the best running team he faced, Edwards made quite a few statements.
When the Canes ran away from Edwards, they were able to get movement against the Seminole front and reach the normally free-running linebackers:
But when they attempted Edwards' side, they often found the line of scrimmage shoved back into their own backfield. They had to reduce angles and options for their runners:
Edwards represents the best hope for freeing up the outstanding athletes of Florida State's second and third levels. He may be able to reset the line of scrimmage and prevent his ‘Noles speedsters from having offensive linemen parked in their laps before they have a chance to accelerate. No linebackers look good when tackles are able to reach them at the second level, especially small linebackers.
The Auburn offense is a read-heavy system that allows it to option defenders it'd rather not attempt to block. The best Florida State can do is plant Edwards across from Robinson and challenge Auburn to either read him or run away from him, thereby wasting the dominant left side of its offensive line. If the Noles attempt to line up Jones as a stand-up end against that left side, they'll invite pancakes and breakaway runs by Marshall and Heisman-finalist Tre Mason.
Of course, the Noles' best defense against the pounding Auburn run game is to score. Florida State's offense can pressure Malzahn into throwing more than might otherwise be advised.
Auburn can slow Florida State's ground game ...
Kevin C. Cox, Getty
The Seminoles run game is at its best when utilizing outside zone blocking with a fullback or with tight end Nick O'Leary leading the way for one of their explosive running backs. Because FSU's offensive linemen are pretty tall, they struggle to root out defensive linemen who play with low pad level on concepts like power or inside zone. They are much more comfortable getting their feet moving, beating defenders to a spot on the field, and then screening off defenders who are hurrying to close the newly created creases.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's general philosophy is simplicity and athleticism. The Tigers don't play particularly complicated or rigidly defined roles. Instead, they focus on disruption by the defensive line and rallying to the ball in the defensive backfield. If you motion to create a different blocking matchup against their tackles, they'll shrug it off and simply attempt to rely on their quickness in attacking gaps to thwart you regardless.
The great hope for Auburn is that the FSU run game will struggle to stay ahead of the chains against such an active defensive line. The Noles might struggle to beat the quick Tigers linemen with their reach blocks on outside zone. That could effectively neuter the FSU run game and make them more vulnerable to an aggressive pass rush from All-SEC First-Team defensive end Dee Ford and company.
A possible advantage that Malzahn and his team will have over Jimbo Fisher's Noles? They've already faced an offense similar to Florida State's this year (Georgia's), while the Tigers' power-option attack will be well beyond what FSU has faced yet this season, even the similar Clemson Tigers. (While Clemson runs some similar zone and option concepts, the main feature of their offense is the play-action passing game. Their blocking and featured runners are not comparable to Auburn's, particularly at quarterback.)
While Fisher is unlikely to examine the Georgia-Auburn tape and find answers to Auburn he wouldn't have discovered on his own, the Auburn staff likely learned some lessons in that game which will serve them against Florida State's offense.
Streeter Lecka, Getty
... but what can it do about Jameis Winston?
Like the Seminoles, the Bulldogs rely on a quick offensive line most comfortable with outside zone blocking and utilize many of the same 11-personnel formations (three wide receivers, one tight end) as FSU does.
Georgia was forced by Auburn to work its way down the field through quarterback Aaron Murray showing mastery of his checkdown options. His receivers then made Auburn tacklers miss in the open field. Murray was terrific, with 415 passing yards and 8.5 yards per attempt, despite frequently relying on quick slants and tosses to running back Todd Gurley to move the chains.
The results of the Georgia-Auburn contest suggest that Auburn's defensive goal of making opponents beat them down the field with high-level execution in the passing game is one that will fail to curb 2013's Heisman winner. But for what it's worth, Florida State's offense hasn't been as good at methodical drives as it has been at explosive drives, according to Bill Connelly's advanced stats.
If Auburn can lure FSU into attempting perfection in the passing game and earning points in the least-efficient manner possible, that would certainly increase the odds of Auburn hanging around in the game and inflicting another theatrical defeat.
Here's the problem. Florida State's greatest strength is its passing game, which likewise finished second in S&P's rankings.
That tall FSU offensive line is a difficult group to beat with a pass rush. The receiving group is arguably the best in the nation. Rashad Greene, 6'5 Kelvin Benjamin, and Kenny Shaw are all over 900 receiving yards and are joined by dual-threat tight end O'Leary.
Winston's comfort with the Noles' passing game and tremendous accuracy to all areas of the field, when paired with phenomenal wideouts who are dangerous as acrobatic receivers and runners after the catch, makes their passing game nearly impossible to scheme against. Defenses have been proving this all year long. Winston's only game so far with a passer rating below 152.8 came in a 56-point win at Wake Forest, whose defense is keyed around a 250-pound nose tackle, so there's not a whole lot we can glean about what teams have tried against him so far.
Both the Seminoles and Tigers focus on simplicity and execution in their approaches, which means the defining battle between Winston and the Auburn D will lead to many anxious moments for War Eagle fans as they attempt to out-execute the Heisman-winner.
Auburn's linebackers and safeties constantly show blitzes and varying coverages. But they rotate between a few basic coverages, like Cover 2 and Cover 3 with the boundary safety dropped down, plus a handful of opponent-specific blitzes (which will need to be very carefully used against Winston).
In the secondary, the Tigers will attempt to keep the Seminole passing game in front of them and encourage Winston to beat them down the field repeatedly with checkdowns. They'll trust their exceptionally quick and deep defensive line to eventually inflict negative plays or pressure Winston into drive-killing incompletions.
Ellis Johnson's dream would be to see Winston attempting to beat leveraged safeties and corners downfield while on the run from four-man pressures. His nightmares look the same, only with Winston simply beating the pressure and coverage with pinpoint passes to extended receivers.
There is only so much a defense can do to stop throws such as this:
Putting it together
College football has come to be dominated by the passing game in such a way that comparing offensive and defensive passing games is often the best way to tell which teams are the strongest. But it's difficult to win an individual game against a similarly talented team if you can't run the ball and stop your opponent's run game.
Running the ball allows a team to control the clock, psychologically wears on an opponent, and opens up some of the most effective big-play weapons available: screens and play-action passes. Meanwhile, an inability to run the football deprives an offense of the ability to put pass defenders in conflict, allows defensive linemen to rush at the quarterback without caution, and robs a team of that invigorating, we're-imposing-our-will feeling.
The history of speedy football teams winning out against physical opponents in BCS title games is not a long one. A major reason for the success of Saban's Alabama and other SEC programs in this game has been the way in which these Southern teams have won the battles in the trenches that allowed luck and fortune to follow the will of the stronger and lower man.
If Edwards and company can stand up and shed the powerful Auburn line, and if the Seminole offensive line is able to neutralize the frenzy of Auburn's front and open creases for those talented running backs, then this game will look much like the rest of Florida State's dominant victories.
However, if the Tigers prove to be a foe that can take advantage of FSU's diminutive defensive backfield and successfully force Winston to scramble and navigate thick downfield coverage, don't be shocked if things fall in place to secure Malzahn and Auburn another BCS ring.
Football fortunes favor the teams who own the trenches, be it through quickness or sheer might. These two teams will both attempt to arrive there in different fashions. History tells us that either could work.