This matchup, however, flips the script a bit, as Florida State comes into this game looking more like the Alabama and LSU teams of recent years (and the great Seminole teams of old) while—at least on the surface—Auburn looks more like the typical offense-heavy challenger the SEC has vanquished in recent years.
A closer look, however, shows that Auburn does in fact fit the model of an SEC champion with outstanding lines on both sides of the ball. The truth is that you're not going to win that league unless you can hold your own on the lines, and the Tigers' talent level on the defensive line is a big reason we at NoleDigest felt in the preseason that Auburn would be much better in 2013 than most projected (though we certainly didn't expect them to be a title game participant). This is going to be a war in the trenches, with the victor most likely winning the game.
Auburn's Offensive Line vs. Florida State's Defensive Line
Nasty. Physical. Auburn's offensive line is definitely the best run-blocking unit Florida State will have faced this year, and they are battle-hardened having faced the outstanding defensive lines of LSU, Mississippi State, and Alabama, among others.
This is a big group, collectively tipping the scales at 1531 pounds (Clemson = 1490; Miami = 1584), and they're athletic and mobile. This line pulls and traps more than any FSU has faced, requiring their guards in particular to move well.
On the other hand, Auburn's experience against outstanding SEC defensive lines notwithstanding, FSU's group is the biggest and most athletic Auburn will have seen, as all four FSU starting defensive linemen were five-star recruits according to at least one service.
Key Matchup: LT Greg Robinson vs. RE Mario Edwards, Jr.
Left tackle Greg Robinson (6'5, 320) is probably the best run-blocking tackle in the country, definitely the best I've seen. Robinson bends extremely well at the hips for such a huge man and is able to keep a flat back while driving defensive linemen backwards. As we have already discussed, Auburn loves to run the "Power" play, usually to Robinson's side, allowing him to unload on the defensive lineman on his inside, driving him off the ball and creating space for the pulling guard and H-Back.
Robinson hasn't really been tested as a pass blocker this year because Auburn so rarely runs traditional dropback passes, but there's little reason to think he can't handle himself on the edge.
FSU right end Mario Edwards, Jr. (6'3, 280) is one of the biggest and most powerful ends Robinson will have seen this year. Edwards is most comparable to Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan (6'4, 290) among Auburn's opponents but is more explosive and quicker than Pagan. Edwards anchors extremely well against the run and will limit Robinson's ability to reestablish a new line of scrimmage when matched directly against the big tackle. I don't expect Edwards to give Robinson any special trouble in the pass rush.
One additional factor in this matchup is that Robinson will often be blocking to the inside together with LG Alex Kozan (6'4, 297), leaving Edwards to be optioned or blocked by RG Chad Slade (6'5, 313) pulling from the right side. Edwards should be able to hold the edge against Slade, who is perhaps the least impressive member of the Auburn offensive line.
When coming inside, Robinson will typically have to contend with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (6'2, 300), who will present problems in his ability to anchor and shed blocks to the inside, getting penetration and closing down the running lane. Jacobbi McDaniel (6'0, 295) and Nile Lawrence-Stample (6'1, 305) will also spell Jernigan at that spot, each of whom can also be disruptive in the middle.
I expect Auburn to have their best success inside when Lawrence-Stample is on the field, but I don't think they'll have a great deal of success inside when Jernigan or McDaniel are in the game as their explosiveness on the interior will be a problem even for Robinson and Kozan, who is also a tough, physical player.
If they are indeed able to provide penetration or anchor against the Power play, Jernigan and McDaniel will make life much easier for FSU's undersized linebackers to run to the football without having to run around or take on the big bodies from the Auburn offensive line.
The "Other" Key Matchups
Auburn center Reese Dismukes (6'3, 297) is yet another big, athletic body on the Auburn interior and is among the better interior players FSU will have faced. Dismukes had his hands full, however, against Mississippi State's defensive tackles, led by freshman Chris Jones, and especially against LSU's outstanding duo of Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, who were able to anchor and get penetration through much of Auburn's only loss of the season.
Similarly, Kozan is effective as a pull or trap blocker but struggled at the point of attack against some of the better tackles Auburn faced. Jernigan and his backups are very similar to the tackles that gave Auburn the most trouble on the year, and DT/DE Eddie Goldman (6'4, 310) and his backup (freshly healthy) Demonte McAllister (6'2, 290) are likely to give the right side of the Auburn line a lot of difficulty. Goldman in particular is a load and actually outweighs the Auburn offensive linemen across from him.
Finally, redshirt freshman RT Avery Young (6'4, 297) is solid but unspectacular at this point in his career. He is likely to struggle with the size of Goldman and McAllister when they're lined up across from him, while DE/OLB Christian Jones (6'4, 240) should make it far more difficult for Auburn to get to the edge.
Malzahn was one of the innovators behind the "Wildcat" craze from a few years ago and now is able to run much of that material with a running quarterback rather than a tailback taking the snap, making it much more dangerous. One aspect of the Wildcat that I expect to see in this game is the use of unbalanced lines, with LT Robinson shifted to the right side or another OL shifted to the left in the effort to get more advantageous matchups against FSU's defensive line.
It's a much better matchup for Auburn, for example, to match Robinson up against Jones in the running game than it is to try to run at Edwards. Similarly, Auburn may want to get a third OL at the point of attack when wanting to run to the left, again thanks to Edwards' presence.
I expect FSU to respond by shifting strength (flipping Edwards and Jones) when able, and if Auburn has success with unbalanced sets early, don't be surprised to see FSU go to a "heavy" DL set with Edwards, Jernigan/McDaniel, Lawrence-Stample, and Goldman/McAllister as the four down linemen.
Goldman's size remains a huge trump card for FSU on the right side, as even if Robinson shifts to that side, he'll have his hands full trying to pin Goldman to the inside.
At the end of the day, this should be a very competitive matchup, as the Seminoles have the personnel to match Auburn's physical offensive line but are unlikely to be able to overwhelm the Tigers' outstanding group as they have most of their opponents this year. I do expect Auburn to have more difficulty running the ball inside than they have all season, but Malzahn will have a few key wrinkles specially prepared in this one that are sure to give FSU trouble at least in the early going.
Look for unbalanced sets and watch the FSU interior and Edwards to see how well the Noles hold up on the interior as an early barometer on how this game will go.
One additional factor in this game is Auburn's tempo. As they have success in the running game, they turn up the tempo in the effort to tire opposing defensive lines. A guy like Goldman may be 310 pounds, but a tired 310 pounds ultimately does get pushed around. It's therefore imperative that Florida State win a few early first downs and keep Auburn from being able to run multiple 12–15 play drives at high tempo against the same group of defensive linemen. The Noles will also want to substitute liberally with the best linemen for specific situations wherever possible. Whenever Auburn substitutes, FSU will likely want to rotate defensive linemen. Edwards' fatigue level is particularly important to monitor, as he is the one defensive lineman who doesn't typically get a whole lot of rest.