Auburn's offense has clearly made the most improvement from 2012 to 2013 in comparison to the defense, but the defense has also improved. The most glaring concern on defense is the team's national ranking of No. 90 in total defense. This is why many question how the Tigers match up against the Seminoles' offense. Auburn possesses the lowest ranked total defense of any team that has reached the BCS title game.
Though Auburn has allowed too much yardage this season, it is the only major statistical category the Tigers failed to improve on from 2012. Of the nine major statistical categories on defense, Auburn improved in eight from last season. The 2012 defense had a statistical average of No. 88 from the nine major categories and this season the Tigers have improved to No. 48. They improved scoring defense from No. 65 to No. 37 and third down defense from No. 68 to No. 22.
The Tigers improved from No. 78 in tackles for loss to No. 26 and No. 76 in red zone defense to No. 7. Last season Auburn was No. 105 in passes defended, improving to No. 33 this season.
When it comes to statistical rankings, the most important are the categories related to scoring. For the season Auburn is No. 37 in scoring defense, No. 36 in touchdown ratio allowed and No. 16 in yards-to-points ratio. Though these are not dominant rankings, they are sound, which is why Auburn won 12 of 13 games this year.
Regardless of the yardage allowed, Auburn's defense has made critical stops throughout the season, something that pleased defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. "I tip a hat to our players," the veteran coach said. "When they really had to get it done, they got it done."
However, Johnson quickly added that the Tigers are not playing at the level he wants. "We're putting a lot of yards out there and a lot of time of possession and there are a lot of things we could do to be a better defense," he said.
The most glaring weakness this season is the number of big plays surrendered to the opposition. Auburn is currently No. 106 nationally in allowing a combination of runs of 20 yards or more and pass plays of 25 yards or longer. Most of the damage has come on pass defense where the Tigers have allowed 27 plays of 30 yards or more. This is nearly equal to the 28 pass plays of 30 yards or more allowed by the 2011 and 2012 defenses combined.
Auburn has allowed 1,503 yards on 34 plays this season, which means that 3.7 percent of the plays defended have accounted for 27.3 percent of the yards surrendered. During Auburn's last three games more than 30 percent of the yardage allowed came from nine of 209 snaps defended.
Auburn's defensive coordinator summed up the team's success on defense by rising to the occasion. "Well, the bottom line is we have gotten some takeaways at critical times, we have made some key fourth down stops, we have been good inside the red zone and we have been good on third down for the most part, and this is why we have kept people off the board to some degree."
Until Auburn can tighten up the yardage allowed the Tigers must continue to rise up during critical moments of the game. This will be essential against a big-play Florida State offense. "We have given up way too much yardage to think we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in key situations," Johnson pointed out.
During the four seasons before Johnson arrived at Auburn the Tigers had a stop percentage of 55 percent. This means that 55 percent of the possessions defended by the Auburn defense resulted in a punt, turnover or loss on downs. This season the Auburn defense has improved to 61.5 percent, slightly below the 63 percent average by Auburn defenses during the past 20 seasons.
If the Tigers can maintain their current stop percentage against Florida State, it means the Seminoles will likely score four or five times out of 12 possessions. Holding FSU to 28-35 points would make Auburn's offensive challenge manageable enough to win. The key on defense will be applying pressure on quarterback Jameis Winston and limiting Florida State's ability to generate big plays.
Auburn's constant rotation of their front four has been the primary key to success on defense this season. The Tigers have doubled their quarterback hurries from 55 during 2012 to 110 this season. The defense has improved over the course of the games, which is evident by its production on third down defense and points allowed.
Auburn has allowed a third down conversion rate of 44.7 percent during the first quarter, 35.2 percent in the second, 32.5 percent in the third and only 23.4 percent during the final period. Auburn has allowed 66 points in the first quarter, 113 points during the second quarter, 75 during the third and 58 points during the fourth quarter. Auburn has shut out its opponent only eight times during the first three quarters of the 13 games this season, but has done it seven times during the fourth quarter.
If the Auburn defense is to make a significant contribution towards a victory over Florida State, it will likely come on third down and inside the red zone where the Tigers have been solid all year long.
Placing the Seminoles in third and long will be pivotal for the defense because that is when the Tigers have thrived this season. Opponents have converted only 25 percent of their third downs of seven yards or more and only 18 percent with at least 10 yards needed when throwing the football. During the last three games Auburn's opponents are 0-13 on third downs of 10 yards or more needed. During the last four games Auburn has scored touchdowns on 75.0 percent of its red zone trips while holding their opponent to 55.5 percent.
Auburn's front four and safeties must play well to limit the big plays Florida State has been accustomed to making in its pass offense. Even if Auburn steps up on third down and inside the red zone it will primarily be nullified should the Seminoles score on big pass plays.
This will be a significant challenge for the defense, but it is a challenge Tigers are familiar with this year. They have already faced seven teams that averaged more than 30 points per game and nine teams averaging more than 400 yards per game. As Coach Johnson pointed out, Auburn must simply make plays when they have to for an opportunity to win, which they have accomplished all season long.