Auburn is counting down the days until its national-title bout against Florida State, and considering the gravity of the game, we're eschewing our normal one-off Q-and-A for a three-part series. We've teamed up with DKfromVA of SB Nation's Florida State blog, Tomahawk Nation, and this round of questions and answers concerns the Tigers' offense against the Seminoles' defense. You can find our answer's to DK's questions right here.
College and Magnolia: Auburn's running game has been pretty ridiculous this year, especially later in the season. Florida State's run defense is great, but the Tigers put up 296 yards on the SEC's top run D and 545 yards on the conference's second-best squad. How will the Seminoles go about trying to stop the run, and how confident are you in that working?
DKfromVA: As the battle of the Auburn rushing offense against the FSU rush defense goes, so does the entire game, probably. Auburn has certainly been incredible on the ground of late. 545 yards against a Missouri team that had been very good against the run to that point is very impressive, regardless of the utterly perplexing game plan that Mizzou attempted to throw at Auburn. AU's 296 yards for 5.7 yards/carry against Alabama was the best rushing performance against the Tide in the Nick Saban Death Star era (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/one-foot-inbounds/2013/ofi-muscle-behind-auburns-madness), and is likely the better comparison for a matchup against FSU, as Noles' defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is a Saban disciple and former coach. Pruitt is in his first year at FSU, and this game presents another matchup of the Malzahn offense against the Saban school of defense, which qualifies as football porn for us CFB nerds.
BCS Championship Game 2014
One thing that has to be discussed from the FSU perspective is the Boston College game. FSU fans hear more about this game than any other from opposing fans, mostly because it was the only one in which an opponent had a glimmer of hope for any period of time against this team. Frankly, the FSU defense that Auburn will see is nowhere near the same group that BC did in FSU's fourth game. I know that Auburn fans understand progression through a season since I've never seen such evolution in a football team that I have in 2013 Auburn. Anyway, Jeremy Pruitt realized that Christian Jones was not a middle linebacker in the wake of the BC game, as well as that FSU needed to be a base nickel team whenever possible. He moved Jones to defensive end and started Terrance Smith at inside linebacker, keeping the ‘Noles in nickel as much as possible. Since BC, the Seminoles' defense has been absolutely suffocating. In 9 games, nobody has scored more than 14 points against the FSU first team defense, and almost all of the games have been effectively over after the first quarter. The ‘Noles have risen to #2 on defense by F/+.
While the FSU defense is modeled after Bama's in a lot of ways, there are some key differences. Florida State is more talented than Alabama on defense, with all 11 starters likely to be drafted, but the Tide has been in its system for many years. Bama is better coached because of this and likely more disciplined. Another is the amount of nickel FSU wants to play, while Alabama is very comfortable with its base 3-4. FSU's defensive backfield is much better than Bama's, and the nickel package allows Lamarcus Joyner to play a huge role in the nickel corner spot without giving up size or talent by bringing on another corner. For this reason, a key question is whether Auburn will be able to force FSU to play heavier packages and get the ‘Noles out of the favored nickel. Even this heavier 5-2/3-4 group is much better now than it was when it was the featured defensive set against BC, but we haven't seen as much of it. It gets into the LB depth rather than DB depth, and FSU is much deeper in the latter position group than the former. To stop Auburn's option attack, I expect FSU to play a lot of man coverage and involve its defensive backs, who will also play some combination man/zone coverages. They'll blitz from the safety and corner positions to try to force Marshall's hand on some reads and try to take away the free yards on the outside. This opens up the possibility of some big plays for the Tigers, particularly if Marshall breaks contain with the DBs' backs turned. While Pruitt gets a month to plan for the Tigers, Gus gets the same amount of time to prepare for him. It's going to be a phenomenal matchup on this side of the ball.
CaM: Based on the numbers, FSU defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and linebacker Telvin Smith appear to be the big playmakers in the Seminoles' front seven. What do they bring to the table? Why are they able to get into opponents' backfields so often?
DK: Timmy Jernigan is a key player at nose tackle for the ‘Noles against Auburn. He's a big, nasty, freak of a player capable of holding up at the point of attack against the run and getting into the backfield in passing situations. He'll be asked to do the former against the Tigers and will be huge in defending the A-gap runs. Life gets tougher for option offenses if the A and B gap runs are well defended, and FSU will rely heavily on Jernigan to try to accomplish this. For all of Jernigan's play-making ability in the backfield, a key attribute that will be on display against AU is his discipline. Jernigan is rarely out of his lane, and this was true even earlier in the season when many on the FSU defense were playing selfishly while still learning the new system. The FSU linebackers are Terrance and Telvin Smith (no relation) and will be huge against the Tigers as well. FSU asks a lot of these guys in its nickel set, and they are not huge guys. I wouldn't call them small at around 230 (particularly after a month in the weight room using the Bama bowl prep regimen), but they are asked to take on blocks that typical 3-4 linebackers are at 240-250. Both are very fast and physical, and Telvin especially has excellent football instincts. He's always around the ball. The Smiths have got to read their keys and take on Auburn blockers, cleaning up plays when necessary. With the DBs likely engaged in blitzes and single-high, man coverages, a bust from the linebackers could lead to big plays very quickly.
CaM: Florida State has absolutely dominated everyone this year, leading the nation in scoring defense and ranking second in defensive F/+. But there have to be at least a couple of weaknesses, right? In what areas does the FSU D struggle?
DK: The thing is, we really haven't seen many after the changes made following the game against Boston College. Though this is still Pruitt's first year, I think this team is pretty comfortable in the system by now and any growing pains we'd have seen have probably passed at this point. While Miami ranks as the best offense the ‘Noles will see this season at #4, I think Auburn is playing better than its 10th ranking right now and have much more respect for Gus Malzahn as an offensive mind than I do for Al Golden or James Coley, particularly with a month to prepare. The Tigers also present a challenge that FSU hasn't seen this season in a true run-first spread-option attack than can play along the line of scrimmage. Clemson is known for abandoning the run before it should, though to be fair, CU didn't have much of a choice after getting down very quickly against FSU. They were also demolished on the offensive line. While FSU fans want to see this game as an analog for Clemson, I don't quite buy it.
I think Gus will have to be great to expose the weaknesses of this FSU defense because I don't think there are many. But I certainly think that's possible. He's really good at creating leverage through formations and motion, and I expect him to be able to out-flank FSU a few times with numbers. I also expect that he'll have some creative shot plays drawn up. However, I don't think Jeremy Pruitt will be unprepared either. FSU's weaknesses early in the season were playing selfishly outside of its lanes trying to make the big play rather than trusting roles in the system and, relatedly, a lack of discipline. Have these issues been resolved if FSU is forced to play its 5-2/3-4 group against heavier personnel from Auburn? I think they have, for the most part, but we just haven't seen it tested too much. So, maybe for Auburn the hope stems from creating situations in which we haven't seen the FSU defense placed on many occasions. These will certainly show up in January 6, but it's hard not to be fairly confident in an FSU defense that has been playing lights out for the better part of three months.
CaM: "If Florida State holds Auburn to fewer than _____ yards rushing, I guarantee the Seminoles will win." Fill in that blank. Also, if Auburn is forced to throw more than it would like, do you think there's any chance the Tigers win?
DK: I think I'll go with 225 here. That would be a huge accomplishment for this defense and I don't see any way that FSU loses if it happens. I think for Auburn to win, period, Nick Marshall will have to be very, very good. Both in terms of making the correct reads in the run game and keeping the FSU defensive backfield out of the run game to the greatest extent possible by keeping it honest horizontally and vertically. As I mentioned previously, FSU will probably try to force Auburn into certain reads through blitzes and pre-snap looks. Marshall needs to recognize these and get the ball to the right place, and probably break a big play or two against them in the run game. In the passing game, Marshall needs to be accurate with his throws to the outside to stretch the FSU defense. Getting the ball to the edge effectively can go a long way to keeping Lamarcus Joyner out of the Auburn backfield, somewhere Tigers' fans would prefer not to see him. Marshall is also going to have his chances to throw the ball vertically against Florida State. The ‘Noles will trust their corners, who, while extremely talented, are young. Marshall will probably have to hit a couple of big plays downfield, and I almost expect a few to come on wheel routes. Seems like that's the form they most often take for AU. I'm also pretty sure Sammie Coates is averaging about 80 yards a reception, so that's something for FSU fans to watch out for. I think Auburn CAN win if it is forced to throw more than it would like, but it would need multiple big plays downfield and a herculean effort from its defense to do so. Either way, the play of Nick Marshall is going to be pivotal in this game.
CaM: Considering all factors -- the matchup against Auburn's offense, big-game scenario, players improving later in the year, etc. -- which Florida State defender is most likely to make the biggest impact?
DK: I think that a prime candidate is senior defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. As I've discussed, he's in the role of nickel corner in the Seminoles' preferred personnel group and is a terror for opposing offenses. He loves to blitz from the slot and is really, really good at it. He can also cover as an outside corner and was a safety up until this season, when he decided to return to FSU to bolster his skills at CB and draft status. Jeremy Pruitt loves to move #20 around, and I'm sure that Nick Marshall will want to find him before every snap. Another key player is Mario Edwards, Jr. The former #1 over all recruit has emerged as a fantastic defensive end, especially against the run. He weighs over 280 and has done very well in the new system. I'm interested to see how much he'll match up against Auburn's excellent LT, Greg Robinson. While I think Robinson has a significant edge when facing Christian Jones, I think his night will be much tougher if he sees a lot of Edwards. Will Jeremy Pruitt want to match those two up frequently? I'll be watching that closely. Loved this article on Robinson, by the way. http://www.footballstudyhall.com/2013/12/12/5201262/greg-robinson-left-tackle-auburn-unsung-heroes
CaM: Opposing defenses are usually shredded if players aren't disciplined in their individual opportunities, and Auburn thrives on taking advantage of overaggressive defenders. Will this be an issue for the Seminoles, especially against the option? How disciplined is the FSU defense?
DK: Discipline was a problem for FSU in its new system early in the year, particularly against Boston College. Play like that against Auburn will result in a yardage total that might come close to the one the Tigers' put up against Mizzou. However, I think that FSU has come a long way since that game. Aside from the position changes, the Seminoles started preaching "eye discipline," a mantra that has stuck since that game and one I'm sure we'll hear no less than 40,000 times in the run up to this game. Words are usually just words, but FSU has really been better in its discipline on defense ever since. The ‘Noles destroyed Clemson and weren't bothered by all of its orbit motion and option concepts. The throwback plays that succeeded for Boston College were wholly unsuccessful for Miami, Florida, and anyone else who attempted them, for the most part. Now, the Seminoles haven't seen a run-first option attack with an offensive line like Auburn's, so it remains to be seen if FSU can defend such an offense with discipline. But all indications are that it can. Will the big stage affect Florida State and cause its defenders to play too aggressively and abandon its discipline? Certainly something to watch.
CaM: Do you think Florida State can contain -- or, dare I say, shut down -- Auburn's offense, or is this going to be a shootout that will have to be won by Jameis Winston and his offensive comrades?
DK: Shut down? I doubt it. But I do think that FSU will be more successful against the Auburn offense than many believe. The effects of the layoff are intriguing, and something I'm sure we'll get into later on. Here we have the 10th best offense in America (though I believe they're currently playing better than that) against the 2nd best defense in the nation. Conventional wisdom has it that the Tigers have the advantage in this matchup. I think that FSU can keep Auburn in check, relatively speaking. I think that Auburn will be faced with the task of keeping pace with an incredible FSU offense while playing against the most talented defense it has seen this season, and that will be a tough row to hoe. I do believe that the Tigers will achieve big plays against the Seminoles on a few occasions and I do think they'll move the ball. But I also think that they'll have to play an outstanding football game against a great defensive unit to keep pace with what FSU should do to the Auburn defense. Anything is possible in a single game setting, but I think this matchup is closer to a stalemate than most would believe.