But as with any championship team, the Tigers have earned their position in this game in all three phases of the game, and that includes defense. Despite giving up more yards per play than their opponents' average against all but one AQ opponent (Ole Miss), Auburn has been among the best in the nation at keeping those yards from turning into points.
Nowhere was this more evident than against Alabama, who racked up 495 yards on 7.7 YPP but could only manage 28 points despite moving the ball well through most of the game. The Crimson Tide ultimately lost the game in large part because they came away with zero points on three trips inside the Auburn 25 yard line, including two missed field goals and another that was blocked.
The Alabama game is not an aberration, however. In ten games against AQ competition, Auburn is ninth in the country in defensive red zone percentage, giving up a score on only 69.77% of opponent's red zone trips. That ability to bend and not break has been a key component in Auburn's success in close games and is one of the biggest reasons Auburn is in the title game while a team like Oregon played in the Cotton Bowl.
The comparison is fruitful; like Auburn, Oregon runs an uptempo offense that puts more pressure on their defense by increasing the number of plays they have to face. Both teams have faced around the same number of red zone possessions vs. AQ competition: 44 for Oregon in 12 games, 43 for Auburn in 10 games. But Oregon gave up a score on 36 of those possessions (82%), while Auburn has given up six fewer scores, with the difference between a loss against Stanford and a win against Alabama largely being red zone performance in those two games.
One big reason that Auburn seems to be better defensively in the red zone is that their defense, despite starting from a 4-2-5 base, benefits even more than usual from the compressed space in the red zone. The Tiger linebackers have struggled in coverage on the year but are big and physical against the run, which is more important as the field gets shorter.
Similarly, the Auburn secondary has been susceptible to getting beaten over the top, but that is not a worry in the red zone, where the end line serves as an additional deep defender. Once the field compresses, Auburn's physical safeties are able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and better able to help the linebackers in the intermediate zones—and the Auburn corners can jam without worrying about losing the matchup deep.
Finally, the Tiger defensive line is the strength of the defense, and nowhere is that more important than in the red zone, where the battle up front is all the more important. All told, these factors are similar to the reasons the Auburn defense is so much better on passing downs than on standard downs. When it doesn't have to cover the whole field, this is one of the more physical defenses in the country.
It should be noted, however, that some of Auburn's defensive success in the red zone also seems to be due to an unusual number of missed field goals on the part of Auburn opponents, as the Tiger defense's red zone TD% is a more modest 53.49% (26th). Touchdown percentage is typically a better measure of defensive quality in the red zone, as scoring percentage depends more on luck (e.g., opposing teams having poor field goal units) than TD percentage.
The FSU defense, for example, trails Auburn in red zone scoring percentage (84%, 59th) but vaults ahead of the Tigers in TD% (52.63%, 18th), largely because the Seminoles' opponents were more efficient in the kicking game.
Red zone numbers are also affected a bit more by variance than many numbers because the number of possessions is limited—especially for a dominant defense like FSU, which has allowed so few red zone possessions (19 in ten games).
Nevertheless, it is telling that Auburn's defense's red zone TD% is comparable to that of FSU's defense. It is true that over half the Noles' scores have been given up by the second unit, but Auburn has also played a tougher group of offenses. There is no denying that Auburn's defense tightens significantly inside the red zone, going from a flawed defense that gives up a ton of yards to a legitimately good defense.
Auburn's strategy in this game is likely to be very similar to the approach Miami took, playing more cover-3 and soft cover-2 to protect their deep zones, forcing FSU to execute in the intermediate zones and play the red zone dice game in the hopes of getting a few key stops, which could be hugely significant with respect to the outcome of the game—as it was with Alabama. Florida State will need to make the most of its trips deep inside Auburn territory to avoid Alabama's fate. Nevertheless, even here Florida State has the statistical edge, as the Noles lead the nation in red zone conversions with an absurd 100% conversion rate (50/50) against BCS AQ competition, coming in sixth in TD% with an almost equally absurd 80% clip (40/50). Something's going to have to give in this department, and one key thing to watch early in this game is whether FSU is able to score touchdowns rather than field goals early in the game, as Auburn is going to rely on its ability to force the latter.
Fortunately for the Seminoles, they also have a luxury at kicker that the Crimson Tide didn't: the leg of Groza Award winner Roberto Aguayo should a drive stall in the red zone.
In an upcoming Insider piece, we'll also break down one weakness Auburn has shown in their red zone defense and how Florida State will likely attack it.