It must be at least a little frustrating to Gus Malzahn that No. 2 Clemson has been taking off with his own offensive system while he’s sat on the hot seat in Auburn.
Years ago, as a Texas high school coach, former Clemson coordinator Chad Morris got tutelage from Malzahn in developing his own smash-mouth spread system. Now Morris is the head coach at SMU, but many of his principles are still in place at Clemson, with a few tweaks to suit the uniquely gifted Deshaun Watson.
For Clemson, the teams’ opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium (Sept. 3, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN) must feel like a tuneup against a talented-but-struggling Auburn squad. If Clemson wins and Auburn gets better, it could look nice. For Auburn, the hope is that this game is a trap for Dabo Swinney’s team.
The matchup is more intriguing than many might suspect, and it could make for one of Week 1’s most compelling games – if Malzahn can get his offense rolling again.
1. Sean White’s reward for winning the Auburn QB job is a date with a brutal defense.
The redshirt sophomore saw a lot of action in 2015 and brings something very different than the mobility that’s become typical of Malzahn’s best quarterbacks. White’s not really a runner and instead fits better in the Auburn passing game, which is mostly built off the threat of the run game via run-pass options and play action.
The difficulties for a White-led offense taking on Brent Venables’ Clemson defense are myriad. One issue is that Auburn doesn’t really have any receiver who should encourage Clemson to do anything other than attack the run game with numbers and blitzes. Another is that War Eagle doesn’t yet have a feature back to emphasize, even if White can throw well enough to prevent a loaded box.
There’s little doubt that Clemson’s inexperienced defensive end rotation has some real athletes. The linebackers regularly join the pass rush in Venables’ extensive blitz packages. They're trouble.
Auburn doesn’t want to find itself in a position where it’s looking to win the game by asking White to regularly drop back and throw down the field.
2. Does Malzahn have an ace up his sleeve?
Auburn’s inability to recruit and develop its own quarterbacks is at least slightly alarming to its own coaching staff. It definitely is to the fanbase. However, if you are regularly a destination for running QBs from the junior college level that struggle to find a fit elsewhere, that’s not exactly a dry pipeline.
Malzahn’s two previous best Tiger signal callers were SEC East athletes who were kicked out of their initial schools, tore things up in JUCO and took Auburn to the national title game.
The Tigers aren’t completely in on this approach for 2016, at least not yet, as they’ve named White their starter to begin the year. But in the addition of former Florida State quarterback and JUCO transfer John Franklin III, Malzahn might have another mobile signal caller to go to in specialized spots.
Franklin is lightning quick, perhaps faster than any QB that Malzahn has put on the field before, and at 6’1 and 186 pounds, he’s better running on spread-out defenders like Johnny Manziel than going downhill like Cam Newton or Nick Marshall.
He’s also got a cannon arm, although his ability to reliably read defenses and work through progressions is very much in question at this point. Like Manziel, he’d be at his best in wide-open sets, perhaps accompanied by RB/FB Chandler Cox and operating a simple, quick passing game paired with QB run options.
The classic "y-stick/QB lead draw" run-pass option play is exactly the sort of concept where he’d be a bear to handle, even for SEC defenses:
At East Mississippi Community College, Franklin was at his best on draws such as this, or on outside zone runs running behind a lead blocker.
Outside zone runs don’t figure prominently in Malzahn’s playbook. But with an injury-depleted backfield, Auburn would benefit a ton from finding ways to use Franklin's running prowess. That would help the Tigers make the most of a solidifying line.
3. Auburn’s defense against Watson will be strength on strength.
The best bet for Auburn this year, other than Franklin figuring out what he’s lacking, is in fielding a strong defense. In 2015, the Tigers began the process of Saban-izing their defense under Will Muschamp, and that will continue now with retreaded SEC coordinator Kevin Steele.
In its spring game, Auburn showed a lot of Saban-style quarters defenses. It used star pass rusher Carl Lawson as a stand-up end-outside linebacker hybrid, safety Rudy Ford as a nickel cornerback and a healthy Tray Matthews at strong safety. He’s dealt with shoulder injuries, but he’s hopefully confident enough not to make any "business decisions" against some of the country’s bigger runners.
The War Eagle line should be a team strength, with Dontavius Russell and Montravius Adams returning inside, while a cast of impressive young ends compete for the spot opposite Lawson.
4. Where the game could get out of hand for Auburn
If Auburn can hold its own at the point of attack against Clemson’s run game, then Auburn can simplify the game into a question of whether it can corral Watson and friends well enough in the passing game to give its own offense a chance. But that’s a really, really tall order.
Clemson’s spread passing attack is possibly the most dangerous in all of college football. In addition to returning Watson, the Tigers bring back left tackle Mitch Hyatt and most of the offensive line, star inside receivers Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow, tight end Jordan Leggett and outside receiver Mike Williams.
There’s a lot of speed, size, reliability and experience, to say nothing of Watson’s ability to create opportunities with the scramble. Clemson got after Saban’s quarters defense in the national title game by targeting the linebackers from its spread sets. To that point, Auburn is likely to rely on a green pair of linebackers in T.J. Neal and Darrell Williams.
The play for Steele may be to try and make the most of Auburn’s fearsome line with some dime packages that avoid matchup problems in the passing game. The threat in that look is always that the defense will get run over, but Auburn may as well force Clemson to prove it can run the ball, because Clemson’s already proven that it can throw it.
While he coordinated the defense at LSU in 2015, Steele’s defense made great use of a 4-1-6 dime package to stifle the Texas A&M spread in a 19-7 win that saved Les Miles’ job. This Auburn defense doesn’t have a defensive back like Jamal Adams to line up anywhere on the field (although Ford is a promising candidate to play near the box as a dime back), but Auburn probably has a stouter D-line than did the 2015 LSU squad.
Question marks abound for Auburn. Malzahn’s team gets a crack at one of the nation’s fiercest offenses just as it’s sorting out its own defense. For Auburn, the goal is to find enough answers to trap Clemson in a surprisingly tough fight.