Similarities to Clemson
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris learned the basic principles of his hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) attack from Malzahn while Moris was still a high school coach in Texas. Although the two offenses have different emphases, most notably Clemson's pass-first tendency behind quarterback Tajh Boyd this year, the basic schemes and philosophies are the same between the two offenses.
Like Clemson, Auburn typically eschews zone running schemes in favor of power blocking schemes that feature combo blocks (double teams) at the point of attack and lots of pulling linemen. Both offenses also feature multiple ball carriers along with lots of motion and play action in the backfield to slow the defense down and create seams.
Both Tigers teams use a heavy dose of jet and orbit sweeps and play action off those looks to create seams in the interior running game and down the field in the passing game.
Differences from Clemson
Despite the schematic similarities between the two offenses, Auburn has a run/pass ratio more similar to Georgia Tech than Clemson's pass-first attack, thanks in large part to the differences between cat-quick quarterback Nick Marshall and Boyd, who is a much better passer. In this sense, Auburn is truly a throwback triple-option team that simply does it out of the shotgun formation.
On the year, Auburn leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 335.69, ahead of Navy (322), Ohio State (317), Northern Illinois (312), and Georgia Tech (311), with its passing attack coming in at 109th nationally (169.6 ypg).
More significantly, Auburn is tied with Alabama at fourth in the nation in yards per rush against BCS AQ competition, averaging 5.97 yards per carry, also coming in third in Rushing S&P+. For the sake of comparison, FSU comes in 25th at 4.81 ypc (11th in Rushing S&P+). Auburn is also sixth in rushing attempts per game against BCS AQ competition (52.4), while Clemson is 25th (42.1) and FSU 72nd (35.7).
Very Physical on the Lines
Auburn's emphasis on the running game has helped forge a very physical identity, especially on the offensive line. The Tigers have a nasty, very physical offensive line on par with any FSU has seen this year in the running game, especially on the left side of the line.
This is a team committed to doing what it does best, and it aims to impose its will over the course of the game, eventually wearing the defense down with a combination of physical play, misdirection (mental pressure), and high tempo. Fighting constant combo blocks in the running game is exhausting for a defensive lineman, and because the Tigers so rarely find themselves behind the sticks, fatigue can quickly snowball over the course of the game.
A Very Limited Passing Game
As good as Marshall is as a runner, he is still very raw as a passer. He does, however, throw a very good deep ball, which is the one thing this sort of triple-option offense really needs. Despite their low overall yardage output, the Auburn passing game is 30th nationally in passer rating vs. AQ opponents (140.2), largely because of Marshall's success hitting big-play threat Sammie Coates (22.13 YPC) downfield after the defense cheats to stop the run.
Nevertheless, Marshall is inconsistent in the intermediate zones, particularly over the middle, where his passes tend to sail, thanks to a mechanical flaw where his elbow drops in the throwing motion.
As a result, the Auburn passing game boils down to a few simple concepts aside from the omnipresent screen threat: verticals (take-offs), PA deep post, quick outs, and dig/skinny post. Florida State's secondary basically needs to avoid getting caught looking in the backfield and force Marshall to throw in the intermediate/short zones all game.
Expect defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to avoid potential double-bind situations in which a player responsible for a deep zone feels any need to come up against the run. As long as the deep coverage players don't find themselves peeking or coming up too early against a scrambling Marshall, there is little in the Auburn passing game that should threaten the Noles.
If one were to design an ideal defense to stop what Auburn does best, it would look an awful lot like this year's Florida State defense. Without a doubt, the Auburn offense improved as Marshall and his compatriots got more comfortable in Malzahn's system and were able to turn up the tempo later in the year. But the defenses that gave the Tigers the most trouble shared several key aspects with the Seminole defense.
Size on the Defensive Line
The first key element the Seminoles have in their favor is size up front. Auburn's only loss came at LSU in their second SEC contest; although it was early in the season before the Tigers hit their stride, Auburn's difficulty handling LSU defensive tackles Ego Ferguson (63, 209) and Anthony Johnson (6'3, 294) is still significant, as Florida State the best set of defensive tackles Auburn will have seen in Timmy Jernigan (6'2, 305), Eddie Goldman (6'4, 315), Jacobbi McDaniel (6'1, 300), Demonte McAllister (6'3 295), and Nile Lawrence-Stample (6'2, 310).
Florida State's ability to rotate five highly athletic 300 pounders is highly significant given Auburn's aim of wearing down the defensive front. Add 6'4 280 pound defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr.—similar to but further along than Mississippi State Chris Jones, who gave the Auburn OL fits, and the Seminoles have the biggest and most athletic defensive line Auburn has faced.
When he chooses, Pruitt will be able to put four players over 280 pounds on the field at once (Edwards, Jernigan, McDaniel/Lawrence Stample, and Goldman/McAllister) to clog the interior running game.
This should allow FSU to do the first thing necessary to stop every option attack: defend from inside-out, first taking away the A (center-guard) and B (guard-tackle) gaps and forcing everything further outside.
Without a doubt, Auburn's outstanding offensive line and Heisman finalist Tre Mason—whose patience is very impressive on film—will have some success at times, but it's sure to be tough sledding between the guards for the Tigers against Jernigan and the Seminole defensive line, much like it was against Mississippi State, LSU, and Alabama.
Length on Defense
The ability to defend inside-out should make the second factor that much more significant: Florida State is not only fast in the back seven but is exceptionally long.
This is important because Auburn wants to spread the field and force teams to tackle its outstanding athletes in space. One broken tackle can lead to a big play, as the defensive seams are larger due to the extra space caused by spread formations.
Although it was Auburn's first SEC game, Mississippi State's length on defense gave the Tigers trouble throughout, both in the open field and in making it difficult for 6'1 Marshall to pass over its defensive line.
Both of FSU's starting linebackers are over 6'4 and have unusually long wingspans. Starting safety Jalen Ramsey is 6'2 and likewise freaky long. All-American nickel corner Lamarcus Joyner is only 5'9, but has over a 6'2 wingspan. Defensive backs P.J. Williams (6'1), Ronald Darby (5'11), and Terrence Brooks (6') are also long for their positions. The Noles' defensive line is likewise long across the board.
All those long arms are a huge advantage when trying to tackle in space, as it allows the defender to reduce the amount of space available much more quickly without fear of getting out of position. It works much the same way as all those long athletes Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim has made use of in making his matchup zone scheme a nightmare to play against.
Speed and Coverage Ability in the Back Seven
FSU also has arguably the fastest back seven in the nation, which—together with its length—will make it difficult for Auburn to use its jet sweeps and receiver screen game to flank the defense. This is one place where Clemson's failed efforts to do just that the past two years stand out.
FSU's ability to single cover across the board in the back seven is also a huge advantage here, as Auburn's deep threat is less concerning to the Noles thanks to their outstanding corners and safeties, allowing FSU to put an extra player or two in the box if they feel the need to do that.
Clemson averaged 6.14 yards per play and scored 38 points against a full-strength Georgia team in the first game of the season. Removing the fluke Hail Mary play, Auburn averaged 5.94 YPP and scored 36 against a hobbled Georgia team (6.74 and 43 if including the Miracle).
Auburn did, however, rush for 323 yards against Georgia, while Clemson managed 197, which makes the Auburn performance somewhat more impressive.
Based on what I've seen on tape so far, Auburn will likely have some early success in the running game; Clemson had some success running power at the Noles early in their game, and Auburn runs it significantly better.
The fact that the Noles will have over two full weeks of preparation for Auburn's offense (led by lightning-fast John Franklin at scout team QB) is sure to make a difference, however, and the Noles' ability to shuffle big, fast athletes onto the field throughout the game is likely to be the difference here.
At the end of the day, absent major special teams plays or key turnovers, I think Auburn's offense probably scores somewhere between 17 and 24 in this game, with its ceiling probably around 28 or 31. Next up: evaluating the Auburn defense.