Gus Malzahn's return rekindled Auburn's offense back to the heights it enjoyed when, as a coordinator, he helped the Tigers win a national title, But his defense has not reached the level necessary to be a consistent SEC West champion.
In year one, Ellis Johnson managed to put together a defense ranked 24th in the nation in Football Outsiders' S&P. It particularly excelled in pass defense, finishing 19th in passing S&P and third nationally on passing downs. It was only 36th against the run and 49th on standard downs.
In year two, the Tigers improved against the run, but to the detriment of the passing defense, which was 17th on passing downs and 43rd overall.
The SEC is beginning to change, with fellow West teams Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State running spread schemes that can hurt opponents quickly if they can't hold up in coverage.
The decline in pass coverage cost Johnson his job days after Alabama's Amari Cooper put up 224 receiving yards in a Tide win. Auburn's defense became the soft landing of choice for deposed Florida head coach Will Muschamp, another former Tigers coordinator.
One of the biggest for the Tigers was the death of their pass rush.
Auburn had a good rush in 2013, which nearly proved to be the ruin of Florida State in the title game. End Dee Ford did much of the work, with 10.5 sacks. Freshman Carl Lawson added four. Linemen LaDarius Owens, Gabe Wright, and Nosa Eguae contributed pressures, if not sacks.
With Ford gone and Lawson injured, the number of sacks fell from 2.29 per game to 1.62. No one finished with more than 3.5. One of the two to achieve that mark was weakside linebacker Kris Frost. Without blitzing, the Tigers could not bother the pass. They could hardly blitz on every early down, so teams were able to tee off.
Feeding into that was the fact that when Auburn wanted to play coverage and give the base pass rush time to make a play, it yielded throws all over the field.
Some clear examples could be found in a shootout win against South Carolina.
A number of things went wrong here. Auburn only rushes four, but South Carolina uses max protection (seven blockers) while rolling out Dylan Thompson, who threw for 402 on the day.
Auburn plays a variety of Tampa 2 here, with two corners and two linebackers covering underneath and three safeties deep. But one of its underneath droppers is oblivious to the crossing route that passes right by him and provides Thompson with the easiest possible throw to convert third down.
Auburn was frequently beat by teams either because its corners were beat when playing outside in isolation, or because its linebackers did a poor job manning up or trading receivers off in zone.
There are seldom quick answers for teams that lack playmakers. However, personnel acquisition is a particular strength of Muschamp's.
One of the most important parts of the deal was Auburn securing the services of the Gators' ace recruiter, Travaris Robinson. This paid immediate dividends, with T-Rob adding the following Floridian defensive backs right before Signing Day:
- Tim Irvin, 5'9, 194: A fierce Miami DB with play comparable to similarly sized Muschamp safeties of the past, Matt Elam and Earl Thomas. Irvin is also an early enrollee.
- Carlton Davis, 6'2, 184: Another Miami kid whose lanky frame and range could allow him to be a cover 3 corner or a safety.
- Jeremiah Dinson: 5'11, 180: The third Miami kid who brings the region's typical blend of elite athleticism, developed ability, and willingness to mix it up.
- Javarius Davis: 5'10, 173: A blazing fast athlete from Jacksonville whom Robinson intends to mold into a cover corner.
Perhaps most importantly, Muschamp was able to bring Florida pass rushers in No. 1-rated defensive end Byron Cowart and Jeffery Holland. Cowart figures to serve as the buck end/linebacker hybrid. Holland may serve there or as the strongside linebacker who often has a similar purpose.
Xs and Os problems
Johnson's designs at Auburn were simple. There was enough in the playbook to allow the team to present two-deep coverages, single-deep coverages, and blitzes, all disguised in the same pre-snap alignment.
Auburn relied on man coverage and struggled when playing zone. Up front, it played a lot of under-shifted fronts and relied on versatility. Defensive ends and tackles both had to be able to play either side, to keep things free from manipulation by offensive motion.
Since they wanted linebacker Robenson Therezie in coverage on slot receivers outside, they'd often use a safety as the 9-technique sam linebacker in the under defense.
Here you can see free safety No. 15, Joshua Holsey, dropping down and forcing the edge. Auburn would play a variety of fronts to bring extra numbers from all over.
Auburn seldom struggled up front, but the design of its defense was reactive. It looked to get numbers from different places to allow them to beat opponents through superior athleticism, which they enjoyed thanks to a large and fast front seven.
However, when they didn't have those advantages, they could be attacked.
Xs and Os solutions
Muschamp's first goal is to use fronts that create matchup wins for his line.
One goal is to get the buck matched up with a tight end or other overmatched nemesis off the edge.
Tons of breakdowns
Tons of breakdowns
Muschamp attacks the weakest part of your line with his best athletes. He covers for it with a defensive backfield chosen for speed and coverage. He wants to be as versatile as possible, and he has a particular eye for using aggression to deny the chance to target his backfield.
The SEC West offenses that like to spread the field and attack weak spots will find that more difficult, with Muschamp attacking their reduced protections with elite athletes and overload blitz schemes. Auburn has upgraded in a way that will make it a nightmare for opposing coaches.