Auburn Defensive Line vs. FSU Offensive Line

SEC teams have won the last seven national titles due primarily to dominance on the lines. We look at Auburn's defensive line and evaluate how they match up with Florida State's offensive line.

We've already looked at the matchup between Auburn's outstanding offensive line and Florida State's defensive line. Now we turn to the other side of the ball. Yet again, each group is as good as one would expect from a team playing in the national championship game. In fact, each group may be the best the other will have seen all year.

Auburn's Defensive Line

Deep. That's the first word that comes to mind when watching Auburn's defensive line on film. They rotate as many as eleven guys on the defensive line—perhaps the only team in the country with a deeper rotation than FSU's defensive front, which typically rotates eight.

Auburn's first unit is quite similar to the group at Clemson. 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). Ford is especially adept at the Dwight Freeney move of getting low, dipping his shoulder pad below the tackle's hands, and turning the corner to the quarterback with leverage.

Size-wise, Auburn's starting defensive line is slightly smaller than Clemson's (1055 lbs. vs. 1095 lbs.), largely because senior DT Nosa Eguae (6'3, 269) is a bit undersized, though he is very quick. His ability to use that quickness to get penetration in the middle will be a challenge for FSU's massive interior somewhat similar to the problems presented by Wake Forest tackle Nikita Whitlock.

The other starter at defensive tackle is Gabe Wright (6'3, 296), who can play both one-gap and two-gap roles (the latter meaning he can play head-up on an offensive lineman, covering the gap on each side) and regularly flashes NFL ability.

Auburn has some size in the second unit, including stud freshmen DT Montravius Adams (6'4, 305), who can two-gap due to his bulk.

True freshman phenom Carl Lawson (6'2, 258 DE) is a huge factor on passing downs, as he is explosive off the edge and carries more size than Ford.

Florida State's Offensive Line

Florida State has a huge offensive line, probably the biggest (1587 pounds; Alabama = 1539; LSU = 1535) and most athletic line the Tigers will have seen on the year. All five of the Seminoles' starters will be drafted in the first three rounds, which is remarkable. Florida State will have a significant size advantage across the board against Auburn's mostly undersized front.

The first thing to note is that Florida State tackles Cam Erving (6'6, 320) and Bobby Hart (6'4, 315) have been outstanding against speed rushers all season, and there is little reason to believe Auburn's edge rushers will present significantly more problems in that department than those of Clemson or Florida did.

If there is a problem, it is likely to come off the right side with Ford matched up against Hart, but FSU can keep Nick O'Leary on that side to chip on his release if needed. Although not a defensive lineman, Tiger linebacker Cassanova McKinzy has also flashed good pass rush ability and may also be used in that capacity on passing downs. Given the strength of Auburn's pass rush in general, I expect to see a lot of Devonta Freeman in the backfield on passing downs, since he's FSU's best back in pass protection.

If there's a real advantage between these two lines, it should be Florida State's huge interior three, LG Josue Matias (6'6, 322), C Bryan Stork (6'4, 300), and RG Tre Jackson (6'4, 330) against Auburn's defensive tackles in the running game. The Seminoles should be able to mash Auburn's interior at times in much the same way LSU (5.18 YPC, 4 TDs), Alabama (6.23 YPC, 1 TD), and Missouri (6.79 YPC, 1 TD) did.

That said, Auburn's quickness and depth at defensive tackle will give that interior three all they can handle in pass protection, adding to the strain the Tigers' edge rushers present in that department.

Conclusions

Florida State should have a small edge here in the running game, while the matchup should be about even in the passing game.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson emphasized on Saturday the importance of being able to get to Winston with four pass rushers, but it is unlikely that Auburn will be able to do that with any sort of consistency.

Neither team really has a weakness across either front here, but FSU's size and experience with quality defensive linemen all season—ranging from Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald to Clemson's Beasley to the Florida defensive line—should ultimately carry the day here. I would expect FSU to give up a couple sacks in this one due to Winston's propensity to hold onto the ball looking for the big play, but I do not expect him to be pressured beyond what he saw against Clemson or Florida on the aggregate.

Thanks to their depth, Auburn is unlikely to wear down the way other teams have so far, however, so if the game remains close deep into the game, don't expect FSU to suddenly break through against the Auburn front.

An additional factor that should be mentioned here is the impact of Florida State's running backs on the line matchup. Freeman's ability in pass protection will be crucial in this game, as will Karlos Williams' explosiveness in the running game. Expect to see more Williams in the running game early to take advantage of FSU's size inside, with Freeman serving as Winston's security blanket against the inside rush.

It will be very important for Jimbo Fisher and Winston to commit to the running game early and often in this matchup and not get gamed out of run calls. If FSU is able to run the football the way the matchups suggest, it will open up the play action passing game and downfield throws Winston likes best.

Finally, don't be surprised if Florida State runs Winston more in this game, as the Auburn rush defense really struggled against the QB Power at the end of the season due in part to their propensity for man coverage. That threat of the quarterback in the running game should also have the impact of slowing down Auburn's pass rush.


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