Not an "SEC Defense"
The term "SEC defense" has become almost synonymous with "good defense" in typical media parlance the last few years, but this Auburn team certainly does not live up to that stereotype, coming in at a reasonable but certainly not elite 18th nationally in Defensive F/+. By way of comparison, Clemson—who is underrated in the metrics due to Georgia's injury-laden collapse—comes in at 13th in Defensive F/+.
On the season, Auburn is giving up 6.27 yards per play against AQ competition, good for tenth in the SEC. That would put the Tigers ahead of only NC State (6.29 YPP) in the ACC, though the Tigers' defensive strength of schedule (UGA, Bama, LSU, Texas A&M) certainly impacts the numbers.
Another way to look at it, however, is that Auburn's defense makes the average AQ team it plays look like LSU (6.43) or Clemson (6.28) on offense. Against AQ opponents, Auburn gave up more yards per play than its opponent's average in every game but one (Ole Miss). Those numbers are not outstanding by any measure, and if Auburn manages that against FSU, which leads the nation with 7.79 YPP vs. FBS competition, they will have a very difficult time keeping the game competitive. That the Auburn defense has also given up more yards per carry (4.92) against AQ competition than the Seminoles' potent offense has averaged on the year (4.81) is certainly not a good sign for the Tigers going into this game.
Again, Similar to Clemson
On film, Auburn is quite similar to Clemson on defense, as both are strong on the defensive line but weaker in the back seven. Each is solid at the defensive tackle spots but keyed by undersized and explosive edge rushers with 6'2 240 pound Dee Ford (12.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks in 11 games) playing the part of Clemson's Vic Beasley (19 TFL, 12 sacks).
Size-wise, Auburn's starting defensive line is slightly smaller than Clemson's (1055 lbs. vs. 1095 lbs.), though Auburn is deeper, rotating as many as eleven linemen over the course of a game, including stud freshmen Montravius Adams (6'4, 305 DT) and Carl Lawson (6'2, 258 DE). Lawson in particular provides another explosive pass rush specialist off the edge.
Nevertheless, Florida State's tackles have been outstanding against speed rushers all season, and there is little reason to believe Auburn's front will present any special problems, as it is not as good as Florida's and about on par with Clemson's line.
Auburn's defensive numbers against a weakened Georgia offense were also remarkably similar to those put up by Clemson against a full-strength Georgia team in the first game of the season, giving up 7.19 yards per play and 38 points vs. 7.79 YPP and 34 points allowed by Clemson.
Auburn gave up about 8% fewer yards per play than Clemson (again, against a weaker UGA offense), but the composition of those yards was somewhat different, as Auburn had jumped out to a large early lead, meaning Georgia needed to throw more to catch up.
Aside from Todd Gurley's 75-yard run in the first quarter against Clemson, each defense gave up about the same results against the Georgia running game, while UGA was a bit more efficient in the passing game against Clemson (passer rating of 155.63 vs. 147.88) but had significantly more yardage—and two touchdowns—against Auburn.
Struggles Against the Run
The Tigers showed significant weaknesses against the run on film, particularly between the tackles. LSU ran almost at will against the Tigers (5.18 YPC, 4 TDs), as did Alabama (6.23 YPC, 1 TD) and Missouri (6.79 YPC, 1 TD), forcing Auburn to commit an extra player to the box and play single coverage through most of each of those games.
On tape, much of this difficulty appears to be the result of Auburn being a bit undersized at the defensive end position and lacking a dominant defensive tackle, meaning bigger lines have been able to mash the Auburn front at times. Florida State will need to ensure that they run when they have numbers, as Auburn has given up nearly five yards per carry on early downs.
Major Weaknesses in the Back Seven
Neither Auburn nor Clemson is outstanding in the back seven, but the SEC's Tigers show more serious weaknesses in the back seven on film than the ACC's version. Like Florida State, Auburn plays out of a base 4-2-5 set, but with very different results against the pass.
Unlike the Seminoles' rangy athletes at linebacker, Auburn's linebackers are a serious liability against the pass, as they have size but lack fluidity and tend to bite heavily on play action. The film shows them to be especially vulnerable to drive, dig, or over routes against play action, and the intermediate middle is often wide open.
Middle linebacker Jake Holland (6'1, 240) is the weakest member of the Tigers' defense (wouldn't be on scholarship at FSU), as he looks about 15 pounds heavier than his frame should carry and struggles mightily in coverage and the open field.
Holland played less late in the year against the passing attacks of Georgia and Missouri, giving way to sophomore Anthony Swain (6'2, 239), who is quicker and more fluid in coverage, (though still not outstanding), and I expect that to continue in the title game. Whenever Holland is on the field, however, FSU needs to check to anything that will isolate him against tight end Nick O'Leary.
Cassanova McKinzy (6'3, 246) mans the other linebacker spot and reminds me of Christian Jones at inside linebacker early in the year for FSU, though a bit less fluid and with a bit more pop against the inside running game. Like Jones, McKinzy is most dangerous when lined up outside as a pass rusher. Unlike Jones, McKinzy does not possess the fluidity to line up over a slot receiver in single coverage.
Robinson Therezie (5'10, 204) plays the "Star" position analogous to Lamarcus Joyner's role for the Noles. Therezie is a decent coverage option underneath and is solid in run support but didn't really stick out on film and will struggle if manned up against one of FSU's receivers.
To put it bluntly, O'Leary and Kenny Shaw should have a field day against Auburn's interior coverage, as gaping holes were consistently present against LSU, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. Later in the week, we'll highlight some of the concepts we expect to see the Noles use to take advantage of what might be the biggest matchup edge in the game.
But the Noles' edge against Auburn's back seven doesn't end there. Auburn's corners, particularly Jonathon Mincy (5'10, 200), showed a significant vulnerability to double moves, giving up big plays off double moves multiple times against LSU, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.
Auburn is, however, actually quite good on passing downs (9th in S&P+), thanks to one of the best pass rush units in the country led by ends Ford and Lawson. The Tigers have struggled much more on standard downs (63rd in S&P+), struggles likely tied to the Auburn coaching staff deciding to play more man coverage in the second half of the season due to their inability to stop the run.
That inability to stop the run has also allowed offenses to exploit the linebackers' weaknesses in pass coverage, particularly against play action. The Auburn pass defense quite simply looks much better when the defensive front can pin their ears back and rush the passer while the secondary sits deeper and tries to prevent the big play.
The Tigers' defensive backfield has also struggled with bigger receivers (e.g., Dorial Green-Beckham, Odell Beckham, Jr., Amari Cooper, Michael Bennett) all season, at least in part due to lacking length in the secondary and partly due to their safeties lacking ideal range and having to provide support against the run and against the intermediate pass.
Put simply, this is a mismatch. Florida State's offense has been outstanding across the board, while Auburn's defense has really done only one thing well all year: rush the passer and defend in long yardage situations. FSU is not only by far the best team in the nation on passing downs but has been also been dominant on standard downs, when Auburn has struggled.
FSU has big receivers and outstanding targets in the intermediate middle, both areas Auburn is weak, and Winston has been dynamite throwing downfield off play action all year, while Auburn's struggles against play action are perhaps the biggest weakness of any unit in this game.
Finally, the Seminoles have a huge, athletic offensive line with two outstanding tackles in pass protection, likely neutralizing the effectiveness of Auburn's ends, who provide the Tigers' best chances to make plays in this game.
As long as Winston and the FSU offense come out focused and execute reasonably well, there is little reason to think the Auburn defense will hold the Noles below their season averages. FSU simply has an edge at every spot against the Tiger defense, and Auburn has allowed nearly everyone they play to exceed their season averages on the offensive side.
As a result, I expect FSU to average over 7.5 yards per play and score a minimum of 38 points in this game and would not be surprised to see the Noles hit 50, depending on turnovers and the number of possessions in the game. Auburn's best chances in this game center on being able to control the ball with their offense, minimizing the number of possessions Florida State's highly efficient offense has the ball and playing for turnovers on defense.
In our upcoming Insider series, we'll look more closely at specific tendencies in the Auburn defense and evaluate how FSU will attack those tendencies.