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The Match Up in the Trenches - Auburn vs Mississippi State

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Auburn’s got the edge on both sides of the offensive line against the Bulldogs.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Texas A&M John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old cliche that in football that games are always won on the line of scrimmage. Sure, the skill position players get all the attention, but it’s really the big uglies that affect the outcome the most.

I generally think that’s an outdated concept. The explosion in offense in the sport has allowed good coaches to scheme around any perceived weaknesses, and dynamic athletes, particularly in college, can dominate a game in ways that used to not be possible.

That’s not to say an imbalance in line quality can’t be exploited, though. Elite pass rushers and behemoths on the defensive line can make lives hell for an overmatched offensive line. On the flip side, talented, experienced offensive lines can push around weaker opponents and create holes big enough for a truck to drive through. But, it’s just one of a multitude of things teams can exploit in a given game.

This week, Auburn will be playing one of those games. The Tigers own a considerable advantage over Mississippi State both in pedigree and performance on both sides of the line of scrimmage. After a big win on the road at Kyle Field last weekend, there’s a lot of buzz among the Auburn faithful that the Tigers could rout the Bulldogs this Saturday. If they do, it will be because Auburn beat State up front.

NOTE: Zane Murfitt over at CougCenter, a sister SBNation site, has put together some sweet data graphics via Tableau, and they’re something I want to introduce more to the site.

RECRUITING RANKINGS

On the pedigree front, Auburn simply has better talent than the State does in this matchup on both sides of the ball.

You can take a look at the players in each unit sorted by recruiting ranking.

While Auburn has a moderate recruiting advantage with the offensive line over State’s defensive line, the difference is most notable in Auburn’s defensive line over State’s O-line.

It should be worth noting that several of the defensive players for Joe Moorhead’s team may be sitting out this weekend’s game due to academic suspensions.

But, recruits don’t play football. Let’s see how the two units have performed so far this year.

AU OFFENSIVE LINE vs MSU DEFENSIVE LINE

Admittedly, the offensive line isn’t one of the strengths of this Auburn team. But we got a glimpse of the unit starting to come together last weekend, and, along with play-calling designed to highlight what the unit does well, the unit may be starting to gel.

As you can see above, Auburn and State are both in the bottom half of the country in yards per play. What’s really dragging Auburn down is the passing offense, though, as the run game ranks #34 in the country in ypc.

What sticks out to me in judging the offensive line, though is the stuff rate. Stuff rate is the percent of carries stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, which is usually the responsibility of the offensive line. If the running back is getting hit in the backfield, there’s nothing they can really do about it in most cases. Here, Auburn ranks 36th in the country, allowing stuffs on roughly 16% of running back carries.

Comparatively, the Bulldog defense struggles with this. They’ve record a stuff on 17% of the opponents’ rushes, good for 86th in the country, and it’s not like they’ve played a bunch of juggernauts on the ground. This gives me some confidence that the Auburn offensive line should be able to generate decent push against the State defensive line, leaving it up to the Auburn running backs to correctly diagnose which holes to hit.

AU O-Line vs MSU D-Line

Team Power Success Rate Rank Sack Rate Rank
Team Power Success Rate Rank Sack Rate Rank
Auburn 84.60% 28 3.70% 36
Mississippi State 50.00% 15 5.80% 89
Football Outsiders, 2019

I also pulled the above data off of Football Outsiders, showing that Auburn’s line is able to get push when needed, ranking 28th in the country in Power Success Rate. Football Outsiders determines PSR by “percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown”. However, State has actually been pretty good at this, ranking 15th in the country at making those 3rd/4th and short stops, making them basically a coin flip. Again though, this isn’t opponent adjusted.

Where I really would like to see Auburn succeed is in pass blocking. Part of Auburn’s good sack rate numbers are due to Bo Nix being able to scramble effectively, but after fielding a dominant pass rush in 2018, State has struggled bring down passers so far this year. Gus has to keep feeding Bo opportunities in the intermediate to long range passing game, and a clean pocket will go a long ways.

AU DEFENSIVE LINE vs MSU OFFENSIVE LINE

This is where Auburn should feast Saturday. With multiple NFL talents in Brown, Davidson, and Coe, breakout star Tyrone Truesdell, and a handful of guys at the buck starting to figure things out, Auburn should be able to key in nicely on the Mississippi State ground game and allow the linebackers to rack up the tackles against Kylin Hill and (presumably) Garrett Shrader.

As you can see, Auburn and Mississippi State rank similarly in several categories, specifically on the ground. While the Auburn line has allowed just under 4 ypc, State is racking in well over 6 ypc. You can also see that both teams do a good job with run stuffs, with Auburn recording a stuff on 26% of carries and State allowing stuffs just 13% of the time. The Auburn defensive line has racked up the TFL’s so far this season, with 8.5 non-sack TFLs through four games, with contributions from all of the main players on the line.

But the State offensive line is no slouch, either. They’ve paved the way for the leading rusher in the SEC in Kylin Hill, and their 13% stuff rate is good for 12th in the country. The best defensive front they’ve faced, Kansas State, was able to slow them down, however. Hill totaled 111 yards on 24 carries (4.6 ypc compared to his 6.6 ypc in his other three games), and Mississippi State was forced to try to throw the ball some. This led to Stevens and Shrader going a combined 11-27 for 151 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INT. Clearly, Moorhead is going to want to establish the run in this game, because the Auburn secondary will have a field day against this passing game.

Auburn D-Line vs MSU O-Line

Team Power Success Rate Rank Sack Rate Rank
Team Power Success Rate Rank Sack Rate Rank
Mississippi State 0.667 81 0.078 95
Auburn 0.667 42 0.071 61
Football Outsiders

Another interesting factor to look at is State’s inability to convert on 3rd and 4th and short. Despite a solid run game and ability to prevent run stuffs in most cases, State only carries a PSR of 67%, putting them 81st in the nation. I imagine the struggles in the Bulldog passing game have allowed opposing defenses to key in on the run and stuff the box in obvious rushing situations, whereas Hill has picked up most of his rushing yards on first and second down.

Auburn, as we’ve seen several times in key situations this year, has been pretty good and having the defensive linemen neutralize the opposing defensive lines in short conversion situations, allowing the linebackers free shots at the running back to prevent the conversion. They actually have a similar PSR as State does, but that number looks a lot better on the defense than the offense. Auburn, for comparison’s sake, is over 85%.


Auburn should be able to own both lines of scrimmage in this game, and with the styles of offense run by both coaches, that is a huge factor to consider. There’s a discrepancy in both talent and performance, and with key playmakers hitting their stride for Auburn (Brown, Davidson, Wanogho) and several key pieces potentially missing for State, this matchup could turn into a rout for the home team.