Auburn Offense Mid-Term Exam

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After seven grueling weeks, Auburn has finally reached its bye week. This seems like a good time to catch our breath and take stock of what the team has done up to this point on the offensive side of the ball. The offense has been the focal point of much of the discussion around this Auburn football team this season as the team transitioned away from Gus Malzahn's increasingly stagnant offense to a new system under Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo.

So, what is Auburn's new offense? Is it any good? And what can it do to improve down the stretch this season? Those are the three questions I'm going to try to answer here. I'm going to get relatively in-depth in terms of Xs and Os, so I'll include some gifs to illustrate the concepts I'm discussing and links to explanations from people who are much smarter than me. That way, we can get down to the nuts and bolts while keeping this accessible for people who don't spend all of their free time watching film. I've mainly drawn from the Arkansas and LSU games for my gifs here; I don't think the OOC games against weak opponents are very instructive and I can't stomach a rewatch of Penn State or Georgia.

I want to add the caveat that I've never played or coached a down of organized football in my life and have no idea what I'm talking about, so you shouldn't take this as gospel. Hopefully it's mostly accurate, though.

What is the Auburn Offense?

When Bryan Harsin was hired and chose to bring in Mike Bobo as his offensive coordinator, many commentators heralded Auburn's transition to a more "pro-style" offense. The problem with describing an offense as "pro-style" is that it doesn't really mean anything anymore. 15 or 20 years ago, when NFL offenses were quite homogenous, you could say "pro-style" and people would know exactly what you meant, but with the NFL finally starting to catch up to college football in terms of schematic diversity, calling a college offense "pro-style" isn't a very useful description. So let's get past the generalities and look at the underlying philosophy of Auburn's offense and the core concepts it's built around.

Bryan Harsin obviously comes from the Dan Hawkins/Chris Petersen coaching tree, having spent the majority of his career at Boise State. Boise's offense developed a reputation as being fun and unique, but Chris Petersen stated that, essentially, Boise didn't run an offense, they ran plays. It was a pragmatic sort of anti-philosophy philosophy, suggesting they'd do whatever they needed to to beat the opponent in front of them. That said, there was a fundamental principle that underpinned Boise's offensive approach: "numbers, angles, and grass", which means gaining a numbers advantage over the defense at the point of attack, giving your players favorable blocking angles, and attacking wherever there's grass (i.e., open space).

The Hawkins/Petersen/Harsin Boise offenses had distinct methods of achieving these advantages. To gain numbers, they frequently shifted multiple players before the snap. They were particularly fond of lining up with a wing tight end alignment (a tight end on the line and another tight end lined up outside of him), which defenses hate because it creates an extra gap in the running game; they would then shift both of those tight ends over to the other side of the line, which defenses also hate because it forces them to change their formation strength and recalibrate their gap assignments on the fly. This use of presnap shifts has been evident in Auburn's offense already.

To create favorable blocking angles, Boise's offense made extensive use of bunch sets and snug receiver alignments; neither of these things is unique, and a lot of teams do them, but Boise had a specific purpose. Often, those snug receivers were going to block down on linebackers in the box (known as a crack block) while the linemen and blocking backs pulled to the outside, creating mismatches with bigger blockers on smaller defenders. This method of engineering favorable matchups through formation and movement is considered a key component of "pro-style" offense. The principle of angles also applies in the passing game, as the bunch and snug receiver alignments create confusion for the defense, particularly when they're in man coverage, because it creates natural "rubs" between the receivers. I'll show some examples of this principle in action in both the run game and the passing game later on.

Finally, to create grass, Boise used a variety of spread formations to stretch the defense horizontally. They used a good bit of empty sets with five receivers, with the purpose of creating gaps in the zone coverage by stretching the defense as thinly across the field as possible. This isn't really unique to Boise, it's the fundamental principle of the spread offense and is ubiquitous at all levels of football, but it meshes nicely with the passing concepts they use to attack zone coverage in particular.

As for Harsin's OC hire, Mike Bobo had a reputation (probably deserved) of being a conservative, old school offensive coach, with a tendency to get under center in the I formation long after it became passé in college football. He also earned a reputation for predictable playcalling, which...more on that later. That said, he also had a reputation (fully deserved) of being an excellent QB developer, having groomed Matthew Stafford into a #1 overall pick and molded other guys like David Greene and Aaron Murray into highly successful college QBs. The hope was that he, along with Harsin, could add some diversity to Gus Malzahn's relatively simple (some would say simplistic) passing game and help Bo Nix progress from an inconsistent, bang-or-bust player into a more reliable, efficient QB befitting his former five-star status. We'll discuss whether or not he's succeeded there later on, but for now, I want to take a look at the core concepts Harsin and Bobo have built the new offense around.

With respect to tempo, despite having literally published a book called The Hurry-Up No-Huddle, Gus Malzahn's late-stage Auburn offenses weren't all that fast, and were generally around the middle of the pack in adjusted pace. Harsin's Boise teams often used tempo, but more situationally, and we've seen that from Auburn this year. They've mixed up the tempo a good bit, sometimes in response to game state (end of the half, etc.), but also as a way to unbalance the defense; overall, Auburn is 52nd in plays per game this year, so about average.

In terms of personnel, Auburn's primary personnel groupings have been 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs) and 12 (1 RB, 2 TEs, and 2 WRs). 11 personnel is probably the most common personnel grouping at every level of football due to its versatility, providing six blockers in the run game and four immediate threats in the passing game; it's particularly well-suited to run-pass option (RPO) schemes, which are the backbone of the best college offenses today. 12 personnel brings in an extra blocker for the run game and allows the wing and bunch alignments I discussed above; according to SEC StatCat, Auburn had 2+ TEs on the field for 63% of its snaps against Arkansas. Auburn has even used some 13 personnel to take advantage of the surfeit of tight ends; you could also call this 22 personnel, but since the "fullbacks" are usually tight ends, this distinction isn't really important.

The formations Auburn has used are similar to the ones Harsin leaned heavily on at Boise; lots of wing tight ends, lots of bunch sets, a good bit of 13/22 personnel I formation, lots of empty. We'll get into the use of these formations later on, but I wanted to briefly mention them here. Let's take a look at the actual concepts Auburn is using, starting with the run game.

Under Gus Malzahn, Auburn's running game revolved around four core concepts: inside zone, power, counter, and bucksweep. These plays were dressed up with option reads, RPOs, misdirection, etc., but the offense relied heavily on those four core concepts. Harsin's Boise teams, by contrast, had a highly varied running game, with several basic concepts presented in many different ways. Let's take a look at the main concepts that make up the run game in Auburn's new offense.

Despite the changes the Auburn offense has gone through this season, inside zone still remains the bread and butter of the Auburn run game. This isn't surprising, since inside zone is the most common run concept at all levels of football, from high school to the NFL. Its popularity stems from the fact that it's a simple concept that's nonetheless very versatile; the blocking rules are easy to understand and allow the offense to block almost any defensive front with only minor adjustments. The blocking scheme is very straightforward: all of the linemen take a step to the playside, then double team the defensive linemen before working off those double teams to the second level. The RB reads the blocks, identifies the open running lane, and cuts upfield into the hole.

There are a number of variations on this play, most of which involve changing the blocking assignments of the fullback or H-back. In addition, there's the zone read play (the backside end is left unblocked, and the QB either hands it off or keeps it based on his action), which also has several variations. Inside zone also lends itself well to RPOs, where the QB is reading a perimeter defender and decides whether to hand off or throw based on what that defender does.

Auburn runs a couple of different versions of inside zone. The most used version is split zone, in which the H-back is aligned on the playside and comes back across the formation to block the backside defensive end, which presents the defense with the eponymous "split" flow (the line blocking zone one way, the H-back coming across the formation in the other direction) and creates a natural cutback lane by sealing off the backside pursuit. This can be run both from the gun and under center.

Here's a split zone from shotgun against Georgia with motion across the formation presnap:


Here's split zone from under center:


Auburn also uses some outside zone, which was one of Harsin's staple plays at Boise (and a play that Gus notably refused to run, even after JB Grimes told him Auburn needed it, go figure). Unlike inside zone, the goal is for the offensive linemen to get outside of the defensive linemen and seal them inside to allow the RB to run outside; the technical term for this is reach blocking. Here's Auburn running outside zone against LSU to open their second drive of the game, which was a successful play.


Here's another outside zone against Arkansas, where the RB cuts back instead of going around the end.


Auburn also runs outside zone as an RPO with a backside screen, which makes sense, as you're now stretching the defense in opposite directions and attacking the perimeter on both sides of the play, as shown here. Bo sees the flat defender hesitate and gets it out to the perimeter where the numbers are favorable for a good gain.


Auburn has also run a sweep play that looks like a version of pin-and pull outside zone (where covered linemen pin their defenders inside and uncovered linemen pull to block on the outside). This may just be a designed sweep, similar to the bucksweep play Auburn ran under Gus. I'm not entirely sure.


Here's another example from the Arkansas. The guard and center both pull, making me think this is a designed sweep rather than a pin-and-pull outside zone.


In addition to zone schemes, there are a few gap schemes that Auburn has used this year. Unlike a zone scheme, where the offensive line blocks defenders in a general area (or zone), in a gap scheme, the offense is trying to create an open running lane in a specific gap (hence the name). The offense should always have numbers at the point of attack, with the tradeoff that gap plays are less versatile than zone schemes in terms of the fronts they can attack. Under Gus Malzahn, Auburn's most common gap schemes were power and counter. These plays are very similar; in both cases, the playside offensive linemen block down (i.e., away from the direction of the play), while the backside guard pulls and combines with the fullback to block the playside defensive end and linebacker. On power, the fullback blocks the end and the guard blocks the LB; on counter, this is reversed. These plays are basically as old as the modern rules of football. I expected Auburn to utilize these schemes quite a bit, but that really hasn't been the case. There were only a few counter plays in the games I analyzed, and they generally weren't successful; I didn't find any power at all, surprisingly.

This is a GY counter play from the series with TJ at QB against LSU. LSU's LBs read the play well and blow it up in the backfield.


Here's another GY counter against Georgia where Auburn executes a bit better, although they still don't do a great job at the second level, preventing this from becoming a bigger gain.


Auburn has made more use of duo, a more recent development that sort of combines gap and zone blocking principles; it's often described as "power without pulling guards". The main idea is to create double teams at the first level of the defense, with less emphasis on working off those double teams than in a zone scheme. Because of the similarities between duo and zone, I can't always tell which one is which, but here's an example that I think is duo from the LSU game.


Auburn's most utilized gap scheme has been toss sweep, another ancient concept that's stood the test of time, although it's less common than it used to be because teams don't spend as much time under center anymore. The idea is simple: you toss the ball to your RB and he runs around the end. The linemen try to seal all of the defenders inside to open up the outside for the RB. Auburn's favorite version of this play is crack toss, where a receiver blocks down on the outside linebacker and an interior lineman (usually the playside tackle) pulls outside to block the corner. The snug receiver alignments make that crack block easier and bring the corner closer for the tackle as well; this goes back to the concept of "angles" I mentioned above. Here you can see Auburn's preferred method of running this play, from the I with a snug receiver split.


I'll also include a clip of a shotgun toss sweep, to illustrate why that play doesn't work so well. This also illustrates my discussion above about the use of wing TEs, bunch sets, and presnap shifting. The idea is to get numbers and angles on the playside, but running a shotgun toss (where the RB is moving almost laterally) into the boundary (where he has no room to stretch the edge of the defense) just isn't a good idea.


One of Auburn's best-designed plays was off of the toss sweep concept: this play in which Auburn aligned in a bunch set and ran toss sweep while faking a flanker around to the other side, complete with a false pull to the backside by the H-back to create misdirection. This is risky since you're taking a blocker away from the playside, but if it works, the misdirection will hold the second level defenders in place for a moment and allow the blockers to get downfield and set up their blocks, which is exactly what happens here.


Finally, I want to look at the QB run game. I've been on my soapbox all year about the lack of QB runs in the new offense, and I think my complaints are justified. Bo Nix was Auburn's most efficient runner the last two years in terms of yards per attempt (YPA) and success rate. He's really good with the ball in his hands and Auburn is wasting a significant component of his skillset by not using his legs more. That said, there have been a few QB draws here and there, most of which have been good plays. Auburn has generally run QB draw from an empty set, either by aligning empty or motioning the RB out of the backfield to create an empty set. I'll look at both versions of the play below.

This is the draw with motion to empty. I don't know if this is a straight draw or an RPO. Pairing a QB draw with a swing pass is a common RPO concept because it's a very easy read: if someone follows the RB out of the backfield, it's man coverage and the draw will be open; if no one follows him, it's zone and the offense should have numbers on the perimeter. Either way, it was a decent play.


And here's a straight draw against Arkansas. Arkansas stunts themselves right out of the play for reasons known only to Barry Odom and God, Bo makes the safety miss, and he strolls in for a touchdown to ice the game.


Auburn has run a fairly limited amount of zone read, which had been a staple of the offense under Gus Malzahn. I really wish we'd run more of it, for reasons that I'll illustrate later. For now, I'll just take a look at how they've used it when they actually run it. This is zone read arc. This play has the H-back go around the end and block the run support defender (the guy assigned to tackle the QB), usually an outside linebacker or safety. This was the bread and butter of the Nick Marshall-Tre Mason era offense. It allows the defense to spring the QB for a big run if he gets a pull read on the option, and eliminates one of the most popular methods of defending the zone read, the scrape exchange (in which the end pinches to stop the RB and a linebacker scrapes outside to take the QB). Auburn used this play from a pistol alignment with jet motion backside for a crucial touchdown against LSU.


And here's zone read with a bubble screen to the backside, another staple play under Gus.


One of my favorite plays of the entire season was a QB run that was used to convert a crucial third down on the final touchdown drive against Arkansas. This is a QB sweep from a bunch formation, with a similar blocking scheme to the crack toss play described above. It uses the same idea of the false flanker around from the toss sweep play above, with the QB faking the reverse action to misdirect the defense. This and the above toss sweep are classic Harsin play design: heavy misdirection and creative ways of getting numbers and favorable blocking angles at the point of attack. (It also helps when the player who was supposed to fill the gap where the play is going runs himself out of the play, like the safety does here.)


Now that we've seen the basic components of the running game, let's move on to the more anticipated part of the new offense, the passing game. Auburn's passing game under Gus Malzahn was very simple. It was basically just quick throws (including RPOs), deep shots off of play-action, and a few bootleg concepts here and there. Harsin and Bobo were expected to bring in a more sophisticated, diverse passing game that would help expand Auburn's offensive horizons. Has that actually happened? Let's see.

We'll start with the dropback game. One of Auburn's favorite dropback concepts is the spacing concept, which is exactly what it sounds like: you spread receivers across the field to flood the underneath zones with more receivers than there are defenders to cover them. Auburn has dressed this concept up a few different ways, but it's been their primary method of attacking zone defenses. I'm primarily pulling from my review of the LSU and Arkansas games for this article and Auburn used spacing concepts heavily in those games. Both opponents had extremely simple defenses structurally: they almost always showed even fronts and played a lot of drop eight coverage on passing downs. These types of coverages are vulnerable to spacing concepts because they commit several players to defend the deep zones, leaving fewer players to the underneath zones that the spacing concept is designed to overload, which can lead to very easy completions, as you can see here.


And here, against Arkansas, Bo finds Shenker for a nice completion and a first down. Spacing was Auburn's money play on third downs against Arkansas.


Here's another conversion off of spacing, this time from an empty set. As I mentioned above, the point of spacing is to stretch the underneath zone defenders, and the empty set facilitates that by presenting five quick receiving threats all the way across the field. I still didn't love Auburn's obvious tendency to go empty on third downs (Chad Morris PTSD, I guess), but there was a concrete reason for it.


Another concept Auburn has used heavily is snag, which is my favorite passing concept. Snag uses a similar principle to spacing, in that it tries to overload zone coverage by distributing receivers across the field. The outside receiver runs the eponymous snag route, which looks like a slant route initially; he'll either settle into a hole in the zone or, if it's man coverage, will pivot and turn back to the outside to get rid of his defender. Meanwhile the inside receiver runs to the flat to create a horizontal stretch on the flat defender, who the QB is reading on this play. There's also a three-man version of this play, where the outside receiver runs the snag, the inside receiver runs to the flat, and the middle receiver runs a deeper route, usually a corner (which is why this version is sometimes called Y corner). Here's three-man snag in action against LSU:


And here's the exact same play five minutes later. Bo hits the snag route both times, and both are first downs. I think LSU was actually in man both of these times, but it was bad enough man coverage that Shenker was able to settle like he normally would against zone and it worked anyway. Snag stays winning.


One of the best things Auburn's new offense has done is getting the RBs more involved in the passing game. A popular way to do that is by running F swing. This is a very simple play. The RB runs a swing route out of the backfield, the receivers on that side block the perimeter defenders, and the RB should be able to pick up a solid gain. Auburn used this play to great effect against both LSU and Arkansas.

Here, Bo finds Shaun Shivers on F Swing for a crucial third-down conversion, one of several conversions Auburn created on F Swing against LSU.


On the opening drive of the Arkansas game, Auburn took advantage of Arkansas' drop zone coverage by motioning the RB to the boundary and throwing F swing with numbers on the perimeter. Mike Bobo really seems to like swing into the boundary, which seems counterintuitive since you're attacking the perimeter and the boundary acts as an additional defender, but in this case, it's about numbers, rather than grass.


Auburn's main method for attacking man coverage is by using crossing routes, which is common throughout football. In the basic version of the shallow cross concept, a receiver runs a shallow crossing route, while a receiver from the other side runs a dig route over the top, giving the QB a high-low read on the LB. If it's man, someone has to beat his man across the field; if it's zone, the dig defender will hunt for a hole in the zone coverage and settle there (sometimes the dig is referred to as a hunt route for this reason).

Here, Auburn uses a presnap shift of both TEs and the RB before throwing shallow cross to the TE. Although this is generally a way to attack man coverage, here Arkansas is in zone, so instead of continuing on his route, the TE settles into a hole in the zone and it's an easy completion.


One of the main variations on the shallow cross concept is drive, where the dig and the shallow cross come from the same side of the formation; generally the inside receiver will run the dig and the outside receiver will run the shallow cross. The read is the same, but it presents the defense with a different look. It's similar to the levels concept that was a favorite of Peyton Manning's Colts. On this play, Auburn has the crosser wide open and it should have been a first down, but King falls down and Auburn is forced to punt.


Here's another example of drive from later in the game. This time, Bo finds the receiver on the deep in route against man coverage for a first down. Note the rub created by the switch release at the snap.


Another important variation on shallow cross is the mesh concept. This is the Rolls Royce of man beater concepts, and has been the staple of the air raid offense for two decades. Instead of one receiver running a shallow cross and one receiver running the dig, two receivers run shallow crosses from opposite sides, "meshing" in the middle of the field. This creates a natural rub between the defenders, as the two crossers are taught to get as close to one another as possible. Someone should end up coming open if the defense is in man. Many teams have attached a zone beater to the mesh concept by having a third receiver run a deeper crossing route and settle into the zone behind the mesh. Auburn has used this play a few times. I'm not sure what they call it, but I know Steve Sarkisian calls it railroad. Jeff Grimes' BYU offenses were also a notable practitioner of this play. The only one I could find in the two games I analyzed for this article is this one, where the protection broke down and Bo was forced out of the pocket; you can still see the pattern develop though, and you can see that Bo knew it was zone and that he should be finding the receiver over the top of the mesh.


In terms of the play-action passing game, Auburn has relied heavily on flood concepts, which should be familiar to anyone who watched Auburn football the last 8 years. Flood is exactly what it sounds like: you're trying to get more receivers into one area of the field than the defense has zone defenders, "flooding" the zone with more receivers than they can cover. This is generally accomplished by running three receivers to the outside of the formation at different depths; a common route combination is a quick out, a deep out, and a go route. The QB has a simple progression read (usually deep to short). Auburn has used this play extensively in a variety of ways. This includes standard shotgun play-action; under center play-action off a bootleg; and even as a dropback concept from a bunch set.

Play-action flood from pistol off an inside zone read look:


Here's flood off of a rollout action (including my #1 playcalling pet peeve: rolling a right-handed QB out to the left):


And, on the very next play, flood off of a five-step drop from a bunch set; this is a good case study of what I talked about above with bunch formations in the passing game, and how the "rubs" create problems for the defense. The end zone angle shows that the middle receiver was wide open and Bo probably should've gone to him, but Auburn scored a few plays later anyway (more on that in a moment).


Auburn has also used a fair amount of smash, both off play-action and as a dropback concept. There are a few different ways to run smash, but it revolves around the same principle as flood: get one more receiver into the area than they have defenders. Smash is generally designed to work against cover 2 with zone under; it's a high-low read on the corner, who is responsible for the flat zone. You might remember this famous smash play from Bo's dad.

Auburn honestly hasn't been that successful with smash; teams don't play a ton of pure cover 2 zone anymore (most two-high-safety teams are playing quarters or 2-read), so its utility has sort of waned. Auburn has run a few variations on this play, including running smash with a switch release between the receivers (inside receiver goes outside, outside receiver goes inside). Here, Auburn uses motion to change the outside receiver, with the original outside receiver becoming the slot, who runs the corner route in smash. Arkansas is in man here, so there was nothing there, but Auburn gets bailed out with a pretty soft DPI call.


Another variation is fade smash, where the inside receiver runs a fade instead of the usual corner route. Unsurprisingly, Auburn hasn't executed well on this version of the play.


The other major component of Auburn's play-action passing attack is deep shots, particularly shot post. Auburn ran quite a bit of this under Gus Malzahn, particularly the famous "Little Rock" (post-dig) play. Shot post is generally a bang or bust play; either the safety bites and the deep post route is open, or he doesn't and there's nothing there. Auburn's inability to hit deep balls consistently has been one of its biggest problems on offense the last two years, but last week against Arkansas they exorcised those demons: Mike Bobo dialed up shot post twice, and both plays resulted in long touchdown passes.

This is the first of those two touchdowns. Interestingly, the play Auburn fakes here is the exact same play that Bo scored on against LSU, which I discussed above. The safety bites on the fake, Johnson cooks the CB, and Bo drops it right into his breadbasket.


After a big fourth down stop, Auburn goes for the jugular. You could argue that taking a shot after a sudden change situation is predictable in its own way, and that the idea of "momentum" isn't statistically valid and you shouldn't make decisions based on it. But sometimes, you gotta unleash the dragon. Auburn motions to a stack alignment, shows a fake gap scheme of some sort, and Robertson goes over the top on the deep post. The safety bites, it's another dime from Bo, and Robertson actually catches it to put Auburn up by two scores.


Finally, I want to look at Auburn's RPO game. Auburn was a high-volume RPO team the last two seasons under Gus Malzahn, which I thought was a good use of Bo's skillset. Auburn hasn't run nearly as many RPOs this year, which I think is a shame, given our struggles in the interior run game. The goal of an RPO is to isolate a perimeter defender and read him. If he tries to get into the box to stop the run, he leaves the pass open; if he stays at home to defend the pass, the offense should have numbers in the box. No matter what he does, he's wrong, and the offense won't have to account for him.

Auburn's RPO game has been very simple this year, mainly consisting of a few variations of the same concept: inside zone with a single receiver route to the backside. This is probably the most common type of RPO in football, and was the core of Alabama's dynamic offense under Steve Sarkisian, as well as many of the guys off of the Baylor tree (such as Jeff Lebby at Ole Miss and Kendall Briles at Arkansas). The QB is generally reading the flat defender to see if he should hand off or throw the ball. Auburn uses a few different routes on the backside of this, but the principle remains the same.

Auburn opened the game against Arkansas with an RPO that paired split zone with a quick out to the backside, using a new formation we hadn't seen before featuring Tank and Jarquez on the field at the same time (this is very much a Harsin play). The flat defender (in this case the inverted safety) comes down into the box on the run fake and Bo finds his man on the quick out for a good gain.

Auburn has also paired the inside zone with a glance route; this looks like a slant, but generally the receiver is given a little more freedom to "break to daylight". Bo hands it off to Tank, who cuts outside when he probably shouldn't have (running toward the defender you're reading eliminates the conflict you're trying to put him in by reading him), but it works anyway because he breaks the defender's ankles.


I haven't gone through every single play that Auburn's offense has run this year because that would take forever and no one would read it, but I hope I've given you an idea of the core plays in the Auburn offense and how they're used to attack the defenses Auburn faces. It's less cohesive than Gus' very systematic approach, which was based on the "series football" of the Wing-T offense, but it's a more diverse offense that's able to attack the defense in a greater variety of ways. There are times when it's come across as incoherent and stagnant, but at other times, it's proven to be a dynamic and well-orchestrated offense that's identified and attacked defenses with precision. Which has Auburn done more of on balance? Well, I'm glad you asked!

Is Auburn's Offense Any Good?

This is the $64,000 question. All the nerd stuff up there doesn't matter if it's not actually working on the field. To find the answer to that question, let's look to a different kind of nerd stuff: the advanced stats. I'm not going to go super in-depth on Auburn's statistical profile, but I want to at least take a general look at how effective and efficient Auburn's offense has been.

If you ask the advanced stats whether Auburn's offense is any good, the answer is a resounding "eh". In most measures of offensive efficiency, Auburn is slightly above average. Auburn's offense ranks 32nd in F+, 36th in offensive efficiency, and 42nd in S&P+. Not bad, but nothing special either. For the record, Auburn finished 2020 45th in offensive F+, 36th in offensive efficiency, and 46th in offensive S&P+, so the advanced stats suggest a slight improvement over last year, but not a great leap forward by any means. Auburn's solid overall F+ and S&P+ ratings (17th and 19th, respectively) are mainly based on the strength of the defense.

In terms of raw statistics, Auburn ranks 30th in total offense, with 447.7 yards per game and 6.48 yards per play. Auburn has only turned the ball over five times (three fumbles, two interceptions) in seven games, which is quite good (although Auburn only ranks 66th in turnover margin because the defense only has six takeaways).

Auburn is converting just under 46% of its third downs, which puts it 28th in the country (I expected that ranking to be much worse, honestly). Auburn is 38th in fourth down conversion percentage with 63.6%, but T-18th in conversion attempts with 11, which is good. One of the most important lessons analytics has taught us is that teams are way too conservative on fourth downs, probably because coaches undervalue possessions and overvalue field position. Harsin made some bad fourth down decisions early in the season (most notably the field goal on 4th and 1 from the 20 down by 4 at Penn State), but made up for it with balls-to-the-wall aggression against LSU, which paid off in large part thanks to Bo Nix doing Bo Nix Things.

Auburn is 24th in red zone offense, scoring on 91% of their red zone possessions, and has a red zone touchdown percentage of 63.6%, which is a welcome sight after years of feckless red zone offense under Gus Malzahn.

Auburn is actually 7th in yards per rush attempt, which surprised me, given that Auburn's rushing success rate and yards before contact in the games I charted were pretty bad (34% against Arkansas, which has a pretty bad run defense). I think this is heavily inflated by the Akron and Alabama State games, particularly Jarquez Hunter's school-record-setting 94-yard run. Auburn is 36th in overall rushing offense and 49th in overall passing offense.

Auburn is a nice 69th in yards per completion with 12.15 YPC, and a paltry 87th in passing efficiency. Bo is 76th in yards per attempt with 7.05 YPA. These figures suggest Auburn's passing game, while it has progressed over the last few years, still has a lot of work to do. Of course, these stats are skewed by the fact that Auburn's receivers have been horrible for most of the season, with Auburn ranking near the top of the leaderboard in drops (as of last week they were T-2nd with 23).

Here are Auburn's lines against P5 opponents:

Penn State: 39 rush, 182 yards (4.67 YPC), 37 att 185 yards (5 YPA); 4.6 YPP

LSU: 27 rush, 163 yards (6.04 YPC), 48 att 290 yards (6.59 YPA); 5.9 YPP

Georgia: 29 rush 46 yards (1.59 YPC, yikes), 43 att 272 yards (6.33 YPA); 4.4 YPP

Arkansas: 33 rush 135 yards (4.09 YPC), 26 att 292 yards (11.23 YPA); 7 YPP

Total: 128 rush 526 yards (4.11 YPC), 154 att 1039 yards (6.75 YPA); 5.55 YPP

Those are some pretty grisly stat lines, especially against Georgia. Yes, they're the country's most efficient defense by a wide margin, and that does weigh down the overall stats, but Auburn didn't exactly light the world on fire against Penn State or LSU either. Auburn managed a solid 7 YPP against Arkansas, but they were coming off a game where they gave up 52 points, and they're obviously the weakest P5 defense Auburn has faced. Thankfully, Auburn's next game is against an equally dreadful defense in Ole Miss, so maybe the offense can come off the bye week with another big performance. For now, the overall statistically profile suggests Auburn's offense is slightly above average.

A qualitative evaluation yields similar results to the quantitative analysis. Auburn has been able to move the ball and score when they need to against most opponents, but after reviewing the game film, it's hard for me to pinpoint any specific thing I could say Auburn is really good at. In the wins against Arkansas and LSU, Auburn got excellent QB play from Bo Nix, both in scripted and unscripted moments. However, he's had his struggles too (particularly against Georgia State) and has gotten very little help from his receivers prior to the Arkansas game. However, he's strung together three good performances in a row (undermined by double-digit drops against Georgia), including an adjusted completion percentage >80% in each of the last two games and zero(!) uncatchable passes against Arkansas, and I think there's legitimate hope that he's turned a corner. Pass protection has improved and he's done a better job of standing in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield even when he's on the move. I still think there's more the offense can do to help him, and I'll get to that in a moment.

Schematically, Auburn has moved the ball well through the air using its spacing and crossing concepts in the dropback game and its flood concepts in the play-action game. Arkansas finally showed the quick-strike potential for the offense if they can actually connect on their deep shots too. I hope this is a turning point, rather than a blip on the radar, but we'll see. Auburn's offense will be much more dynamic if the deep passing threat is there on a consistent basis.

Obviously, Auburn has a ton of talent at RB, but the running game really hasn't been a strength of this team. Auburn has been almost completely unable to run the ball between the tackles against top opposition (and less-than-top opposition like Georgia State) and has relied heavily on toss plays and bouncing zone runs to the outside for its rushing yardage. Auburn's success rate and yards before contact on its inside runs in the games I charted (two of the offense's better games) were terrible. The offensive line is clearly a major weakness on this team, and all the talent in the world at RB doesn't mean anything if you're giving them no push and no running lanes.

Unfortunately, I found it easier to identify concrete things that the offense is bad at than I did to find specific things the offense is good at. That doesn't mean the offense is all bad necessarily, just that it doesn't have any true standout qualities and has a couple of major flaws (which we already knew about before the season started). Qualitative evaluation lines up pretty well with Auburn's slightly above average but generally unspectacular statistical profile.

How Can Auburn's Offense Improve?

So, we've identified what the offense is doing and evaluated what they're good at and what they're not so good at. Now for the constructive part of my criticism: how does Auburn's offense improve and make a run down the stretch? Some of the core issues with Auburn's offense, namely the lack of talent on the offensive line, can't really be fixed this season and will have to be taken care of on the recruiting trail. The receivers were better against Arkansas, and there's some hope they can keep improving week-to-week, but they need long-term development to become truly consistent. However, I think there are things Auburn can do to compensate at least somewhat for these issues in the short-term.

In the running game, Auburn has struggled to move the ball between the tackles. Part of the reason for this is linemen losing individual matchups. Maybe Auburn could run more duo, which creates double teams by design and could help get more movement at the first level. Auburn's duo runs weren't that great in the games I analyzed, but it's at least an idea. Another issue is the lack of a constraint on the edge defenders, which allows them to play aggressively against inside runs. Here's an example from the Arkansas game, where the defenders on the edge of the box are able to immediately crash down on this inside zone play because there's no perimeter constraint. If this is a zone read, it's probably a first down.


Here's another example from later in the game, just to show that the preceding play wasn't cherry-picked. The lack of a perimeter threat on our gun runs is a consistent, recurring issue. If this is a zone read, it's a walk-in touchdown. Instead, Auburn settled for a field goal on after failing to pick up a first down on the next two plays.


There are two obvious solutions to this: more zone and more perimeter-oriented action on inside run plays; note the decent gain on that split zone play above against Georgia where Auburn at least threatened motion to the perimeter. Zone read plays create constraints on the edge defenders by threatening a QB keeper around the end. This alone would do wonders for the inside running game, as well as getting Bo more involved in the offense as a runner, which needs to happen. Auburn could also incorporate more jet sweep and orbit action on its inside run plays. The orbit action has been used to great effect on outside running plays, as illustrated above; why not add it to some inside runs as well? Auburn could also use more bootlegs from under center to at least threaten the edge on inside runs. Holding the edge defenders at bay would at least give the offensive line more favorable numbers on the interior and give them a fighting chance, even if they can't win one-on-one very much.

Auburn has been doing a lot of this stuff in early drives, when they're still on script; it's during those phases of the game that Auburn feels most like a Boise-style offense, and Auburn has only failed to score on its opening drive once (against LSU). However, after the end of the opening script, Auburn falls into a more predictable pattern, frequently run on first down, run on second down, pass on third down. This isn't an especially efficient way of calling plays; pass plays have more value on early downs than later downs, and run plays have greater value on third downs. Auburn's I formation runs in particular haven't been great, with a 38% success rate against Arky, almost all of which were outside the tackles on tosses. The predictable playcalling has at times been mitigated simply by good execution, but as the late-stage Gus offenses showed, we can't rely on execution alone to overcome a predictable offense on the biggest stages. More creative playcalling and play design throughout the game would help immensely.

In the passing game, I think Auburn's main struggle has been its inability to attack man coverage. They've generally been pretty successful against zone coverage with their spacing and flood concepts, but man beaters have been a mixed bag. Part of the problem is that when you're facing man coverage, at some point you just have to be able to beat the guy across from you, and our receivers have struggled to do that consistently. Here's an example from the Georgia game of a play where Bo has time to throw, at least initially, but nobody gets open downfield against man.


I don't know how much of this is fixable by scheme, but using more shallow crossing concepts, particularly mesh, could help. Auburn has made some creative use of switch releases as well, and more of that could help too. Anything to help create separation through alignment or post-snap action instead of depending on the receivers to just win one-on-one matchups on a regular basis.

Essentially, the gist of my suggestions for improvement is to do things to either avoid forcing the OL and WRs in to one-on-one situations or to engineer those situations to be more advantageous. I think the core components to do those things are already present, and they're very much in line with the overall philosophy Harsin has built his offenses around in the past. Better uses of numbers, angles, and grass could give our players more advantages, or at least fewer disadvantages. Hopefully we're doing some good self-scouting on the bye week and identifying these issues so that they can get fixed. If a random internet idiot can find this stuff, I'm sure the guys who have been around football longer than I've been alive can too.

Auburn has it all to play for in the final five games of this season, and it's going to be the offense that determines this team's ceiling. Maybe we can revisit this discussion at the end of the season, hopefully to answer the second question with a yes and to check off the boxes under the third question. Anyway, that's enough of my rambling. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my analysis and feel free to share your own in the comments.

We're all just trying to have a good time here. Don't be a jerk, and we won't have a problem with you. War Eagle!