Over the course of the 2013 season, the Auburn Tigers developed an identity. It took them to the top of the SEC and into the BCS Championship. It was an identity built around steady defense and a two-headed run game that was second only to Ohio State in power and explosiveness.
Is Gus Malzahn's team still building that identity, or it is established? So far, Auburn's averaging about as many rushing yards against lesser competition (330, against Arkansas and San Jose State) as it did against its full, challenging schedule last season. Unlocking the full potential of the 2014 offense was always going to require that Nick Marshall make strides as a passer in the offseason. Although he's only played six quarters of football, it's not apparent that 2014's Marshall is a significantly better passer than the 2013 iteration.
Offseason losses of stud left tackle Greg Robinson and stalwart fullback Jay Prosch were bad enough, but the loss of left guard Alex Kozan to injury has also left Auburn with young pups at both tackle positions and right guard. This is still an effective run game, ranking No. 6 so far in yards per attempt, but any marginal decreases in efficacy will make the Tigers vulnerable, especially early in the year.
Compounding that is their Thursday night road trip to "the Little Apple" to face that enigma of college football, the Kansas State Wildcats. Both teams had bye weeks coming in. Will that more benefit Kansas State's sound defensive prep or Malzahn's eye for finding soft spots?
Stopping War Eagle
The Auburn offense does a lot of its damage with tempo, shifts, motion, and varying alignments as window dressing on what amounts to a simple scheme. It becomes easy for opponents to get lost and give up leverage or miss assignments. Between the Tigers' tempo, unique brand of option football, and overall talent, teams can't keep up.
Don't expect the Wildcats to fall prey to these tactics. They face rapid tempo in the Big 12 just about every Saturday, they face a diverse option offense all offseason in practice, and they are one of the more detail-oriented teams in the nation.
Bill Snyder's 2014 team features seven former walk-ons in the starting lineup, giving testimony to a culture that rewards the players who understand and follow their assignments with perfection. The team's philosophy is about executing sound tactics in all three phases and waiting for their opponents' young college students to muck it all up.
That doesn't mean that Auburn won't just out-execute KSU with superior players. So how do these teams match up?
For the most part, Kansas State will line up in base defense and make Auburn work down the field against deeply aligned but flat-footed safeties. The one way Marshall can consistently punish teams through the air is by throwing open shots off play-action, but the Wildcats' deeper alignments will instead look to force the Tigers to maintain drives with steady gains.
KSU has been mixing in much more cover 3 this year, whereas in 2013 it was content to play quarters most snaps. But the overall emphasis on matching routes, deep alignments, and fundamental football is consistent in either base coverage. Here's how the Wildcats' cover 3 looks against misdirection option football:
Careful eye control and good leverage combined with strong line play carries the day.
Their increased use of cover 3 also mixes well with their favorite method of aggression, the edge blitz with an outside linebacker or safety:
There's nothing flashy here. There never is. It's a base that happens to bring an extra rusher and allow defensive end Ryan Mueller to pursue his favorite pastime, knifing inside to inflict negative plays. Like many other man 1 blitzes in vogue, it also allows KSU to funnel the ball inside, where the middle linebacker and free safety can safely reach it. The man coverage also takes away the easy, quick throws that spread teams like to use to punish teams for blitzing.
And there lies the crux of the matter for Auburn. Marshall is not ready to consistently beat a blitz backed by man coverage with his throws. Nor is it a safe bet to expect him to navigate KSU's disciplined off coverage on play-action.
That leaves pounding the ball against a stout, if not super talented, Wildcat defensive front. Despite Auburn's losses in the offseason, it still has one of the most athletic and powerful offensive lines that Kansas State will face in 2014. When the Tigers bunch in tight end C.J. Uzomah and new fullback Brandon Fulse to threaten the edge on zone read, Cameron Artis-Payne becomes a real load running between the tackles.
Because those two blockers can hit either side of the formation, the defense can't match blockers with defenders without active run support from the secondary.
As it happens, KSU gets great run support in the middle of the field from nickleback Randall Evans and free safety Dante Barnett, although strong safety Dylan Schellenberg is generally slower to the party and susceptible to fast-twitch slot receivers. Out at right cornerback, JUCO transfer Danzel McDaniel could be the best run-support cornerback in the country:
Stopping the Auburn offense is a matter of fighting through tempo and shifting looks, then standing up to talented run personnel. A Wildcats victory would depend on them making open-field tackles on the back end to force Auburn to earn points the hard way.
More Auburn-Kansas State
More Auburn-Kansas State
Like Auburn, the Kansas State offense is one that loves to cause paralysis through analysis, forcing defenders to have to think on the move and setting them up to be exploited.
Kansas State is a ball-control offense, generally relying on the quarterback run game. However, the first key to stopping Kansas State is to control big play receiver Tyler Lockett.
Coordinator Ellis Johnson's defensive strategy at Auburn is to attack offenses with an aggressive front four aiming to penetrate, then swarm the ball in the middle while the corners take away easy throws on the outside. With respect to the brilliant Florida State receivers Auburn faced, Lockett's ability to use double moves to get open deep is going to present a unique challenge. He shredded just about every top Big 12 cornerback over the course of 2013, including current NFL starter Jason Verrett.
The game very well might be decided by whether the Tigers have to shade a safety over the top to keep KSU's No. 16 in check. If the game is officiated like a Big 12 contest, with a strict interpretation of pass interference, don't expect the Auburn secondary to be able to easily check Lockett.
The play of the offensive line against Auburn's aggressive defensive line will be a major contrast in styles that should prove interesting to watch. Kansas State's approach to blocking is based in stopping penetration with coordinated and cautious double teams before releasing blockers to the second level. The Wildcats just want to control you. They aren't looking to necessarily overwhelm you, as the presence of three former walk-on starters on the line shows.
Meanwhile, quarterback Jake Waters seems to have been tutored by former Heisman finalist Collin Klein in the offseason on how to best set up blockers before darting through the ensuing creases. Wildcat ball carriers are by rule a patient bunch. Aggressive and athletic defense? Meet patient and steady offense.
Assuming that Auburn is still able to get penetration, KSU possessions will become a battle between Waters and the linebackers, who are charged with avoiding the wash and cleaning up the messes in this system:
The Wildcats have a variety of weapons here, not least of which are their pop plays such as the quarterback draw, which would require the linebackers to negotiate their coverage responsibilities over the middle with the need to take away creases for Waters in the running game.
By playing more cover 2 schemes and relying on open-field pursuit by linebackers and safeties to corral Waters and the backs, Auburn could slow down the attack. Of course, if Waters can hold up to an SEC pounding, Snyder has provided him with all the tools needed to slow down and exploit the Tigers' defense.
Amongst the checklist items for a Wildcat upset win include strong play on special teams, disciplined KSU defensive play, and for Lockett's name to be called on the PA system far more often than those of Auburn receivers D'haquille Williams or Sammie Coates.
What the Tigers achieve on offense through option and overwhelming force at the point of attack, Kansas State achieves through balance and a highly diverse offense. Although they share similar approaches on offense, their personnel and strategies are perfect foils.
Rather than gauging the winner of this contest based on which style is better for football, the wiser pick is to choose the team more likely to maximize fourth-quarter possessions. In that event, you could do worse than to bet on the home team.
If Waters can both navigate the big SEC defensive backfield on the run and also involve Lockett on the outside with the passing game, Snyder-ball can achieve a huge win that could be one of the ancient coach's final masterworks.