Florida State certainly has talent all over the field. Its offense is close to breaking the FBS scoring record, three receivers are within reach of 1,000 yards and the defense hasn't given up more than 17 points since the Boston College game on Sept. 28.
Auburn has talent, too, including one of the best offensive lines in the country, especially when it comes to run blocking. This group of five has faced several good defensive lines this season, especially Alabama and Missouri, but Florida State's may be a bit better, and Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards Jr. are big reasons why.
With 9:35 left in first quarter of the ACC Championship Game, Duke calls for a running play with a pulling guard. With the right guard pulling around, the center tries to cut block the defensive tackle who would fill that space. He completely whiffs and the right tackle has to clean it up. Meanwhile, the left guard tries to reach Jernigan, but he is easily avoided. Suddenly, there are two defensive lineman awaiting the running back to his right, so he cuts left.
The left tackle heads straight for the second level leaving Edwards to be blocked by the tight end that motioned across. This does not work very well, though Edwards doesn't blow past his blocker. Instead he manipulates him so that he can be in position to make the tackle when the running back comes his way. By the time the pulling guard gets across and provides help for the tight end, other defenders are there to corral the ball carrier back inside. Basically with only three down lineman, the Seminoles were able to stuff the run for only a gain of 2.
With 3:10 left in first quarter, Jernigan shows off his brute strength and Edwards shows great technique. Duke runs a zone read, and the quarterback decides to hand the ball off as linebacker No. 15 stays put to the right. With one more linebacker and four defensive lineman, the read has given Duke a six-on-five attack, counting the back. This is certainly not some big advantage, but it should be enough to make a decent gain ... if all of the blocks are successful.
Instead, two linemen meet the ball carrier in the backfield. Jernigan simply gets low and bull rushes into the left tackle. He is able to get him off balance and prevent him from getting any push at all. Ultimately, the tackle gets Jernigan on the ground, but it's 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. On the other side, Edwards shows some finesse and slaps the right guards hands down at the snap. Expecting to run into a big body to push but finding nothing, the guard tumbles to the ground. What should have been six-on-five quickly becomes two-on-one in Florida State's favor.
With 6:25 left in the third quarter, Duke runs another inside zone running play, but with a receiver showing a jet sweep motion. This eye candy is good enough to pull one Seminole defender out wide, and Duke is left with five linemen to block three, plus two linebackers at the second level. Normally, this would be a great situation for an offense. The running back should at least make it past the line, and depending on the speed and vision of the back and the ability of the linemen to get downfield, this could lead to a big gain on the ground.
Because of the numbers advantage, Duke throws a double team at Jernigan with the right tackle and guard. The tackle knows he has to get to the linebacker soon, so he doesn't help for long, but Jernigan splits the double team anyway and makes contact with the back only 1 yard past the line of scrimmage.
While that is going on, Edwards is blocked solely by the left tackle. He and the tackle are at a stalemate for a while, but when it is obvious that the back is going into the middle, Edwards sheds the block and scoots down the line to help Jernigan with the tackle.
Clearly, this defensive line is capable of shutting down a running play without much help from the linebackers. They can penetrate the backfield and stop a runner before he gets going. They can even stand pat at the line of scrimmage and wait for the back to come to them, shedding a block just when its needed.
Now, I wrote very similar things about Missouri's defensive line before the SEC Championship Game. Michael Sam and company had stopped opposing running games all season long and were the second-best rushing defense in the SEC. But that all changed Dec. 7 in Atlanta. In fact, the black and gold Tigers' rushing defense dropped to seventh as they gave up the most rushing yards in an SEC game ever. And before anyone exclaims that Missouri poorly decided to stay in a three-man front all game, read this. Nothing they did stopped Auburn that day.
Florida State's defensive line is good. It may be the best Auburn has faced all season. But since the Tigers figured out what they do best, no one has stopped them. Will the Seminole's be the first to do so? Or will Auburn absolutely gash the Florida State defense on the ground? Maybe both units perform well and the game is decided elsewhere. We'll all find out soon.