This week's installment of our National Title Q&A series looks at the Florida State offense and the Auburn defense. Chris Fuhrmeister gave us his views on this matchup.
TN: Auburn's defense currently ranks 18th in the country by F/+. Do you feel that the Tigers have seen defensive improvement as Ellis Johnson's first season has progressed similar to that of its offense?
C&M: C&M: Without a doubt. We knew the offense would improve under Gus Malzahn, but even if Johnson was the right man to lead the defense, most everyone assumed it would take at least a full year, maybe longer, to undo a lot of the bad habits and techniques taught during the Gene Chizik era. There are still some alarming numbers -- Auburn gives up 259.3 yards per game through the air and 164.2 on the ground for a grand total of 423.5 per contest. All of those stats rank 10th or worse in the SEC. But even though the Tigers are giving up a ton of yards, they look so much more confident at times.
Auburn ranks second in the SEC in tackles for loss (85), third in sacks (28), third in third-down defense (34.0 percent), second in red zone defense (70.8 percent) and first in red zone TD percentage (47.9 percent). So even though they' allowed plenty of yardage, the Tigers are sixth in the SEC in scoring D at 24.0 points per game (36th nationally). That's not an outstanding number, but it's better than it should be because Johnson's unit is making many more big plays compared to a season ago.
TN: How would you characterize Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defensive philosophy, someone for whom AU outbid FSU this off-season? What are the Tigers' strengths and weaknesses on this side of the ball?
C&M: You might have already deduced this after reading the above information, but this year Johnson is focused on avoiding the big play and clamping down in the red zone. He's willing to give up some shorter passes and runs for shorter gains if it means opposing receivers won't be running wild behind the Auburn secondary. Because the Tigers' defenders have been pretty opportunistic, I think he wants to force opponents into longer drives, hoping that will give his guys more opportunities to make a drive-killing play. I know the idea of playing to leave your defense on the field longer doesn't sound like it makes a lot of sense, but Auburn is 12-1, and I'm not arguing with the results.
Auburn's strengths: getting into the backfield with the front four, stout defense in short-yardage situations and downfield pass coverage that is a lot better than the stats would indicate. Weaknesses: linebacker play, which has been better lately but is still a question mark, and contesting with big, physical receivers. Even though the defensive backs have been pretty good at times this year, they've been torched by guys like Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Missouri's Dorial Green-Beckham. I'm afraid of what a guy like Kelvin Benjamin could do. And if Auburn doesn't get the red zone stops or force turnovers, allowing Florida State to slowly march down the field for scores will be almost certain death.
TN: Auburn has been very average on defense on standard downs, but excellent on passing downs. What makes the Tigers so good in passing situations?
C&M: The pass rush from the front four, led by senior defensive end Dee Ford, is excellent. Auburn is often able to get after the quarterback without blitzing, which obviously frees up more players to get back in coverage. The defensive line is deep with eight or nine guys who rotate in and out throughout the game, and that's really paid off later in games. When opposing offensive lines are tired in the fourth quarter, Auburn's D-line is still pretty fresh, which has allowed sacks or hits to the QB that have put the final seal on wins against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia. Line coach Rodney Garner has instilled fire in his players that wasn't seen over the last two years -- and maybe some better technique, too -- and it's really paid off.
TN: Can the Tigers' defensive line, known as a good pass rushing unit, keep the FSU running game in check?
C&M: This has me worried, mainly because Auburn will need support from linebackers Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Like I said earlier, they've been improving lately, but I still fear a total breakdown in their play. Florida State's offense is so good at running and throwing, and the top priority will be slowing down Jameis Winston and his receivers. That could lead some ample running room for the Seminoles' backs. I could see draw plays in longer-yardage situations working well for FSU.
However, Auburn does have all those tackles for loss, and a good number of them (60, 70.6 percent of the 85) have come from the defensive line. Junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright has been the main man when it comes to clogging the middle (30 tackles, 8.5 for loss), and he'll be a major factor in attempting to stop the run. I don't think FSU will be able to run it down Auburn's throat, but I could see the 'Noles getting a few big plays out of the backfield.
TN: How do you feel that the Tigers will choose to defend Florida State in the passing game? Can the Auburn defensive backs cover FSU's outstanding wideouts? We've seen teams like Florida and Duke try to defend FSU by being very physical with the WRs out of their breaks, arguably past the point of legality. Do Auburn's DBs play physically?
C&M: We'll probably see a lot of soft man coverage from Auburn's defensive backs. I think they can hang with Florida State's receivers and avoid getting torched, but when the ball is in the air, it will be all about who can make the play. There have been times when Auburn's corners have been in good position, but bigger receivers have just out-muscled them to get to the ball. And of course, the 99-yard touchdown reception Alabama's Amari Cooper had was pretty nightmare inducing -- he had Jonathan Mincy beat like a drum. But for the most part I think the Tigers can contend with Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw on deeper throws. It's Benjamin who really has me worried. In jump-ball situations, he's going to be awfully tough to handle. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he put up video game numbers in this game.
TN: Would you prefer to see AU try to make FSU dink and dunk its way down the field, or would you prefer to see Johnson be more aggressive with the Noles' offense and force mistakes?
C&M: Winston is a great quarterback, and normally, I'd like to see Auburn try to get after him with some more blitzes and aggressive play calls. Against guys like Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron and James Franklin, the Tigers had much more success when they applied pressure and rattled the QB. But with Winston, I sort of feel like the opposite approach may be better. He seems to thrive in the face of pressure, and when he has time and is forced sit back and wait for things to develop, that's when he might make a true freshman-like mistake. I'd like to see Auburn concede shorter routes and try to avoid giving up big plays. Then in the red zone, the secondary can tighten up and hopefully force the 'Noles to kick field goals. If the Tigers are able to force a few field goal tries instead of giving up touchdowns, I'll feel great about their chances.
TN: How important will star position player Robenson Therezie be in this game? What will Auburn ask him to do against FSU's personnel?
C&M: Barn Family Robenson is definitely an impact player, and if he's having his name called a lot, it's a good thing for Auburn. Therezie is fifth in the team in tackles and leads the Tigers with four interceptions, and for a lot of the year, he's been Auburn's best defensive player. I've been talking a lot about red zone defense here, and I think where Therezie might make the biggest impact is when the Seminoles are inside the 20. He's all over the place, and with a shorter field, he can get to the ball pretty often.
TN: What sort of defensive performance will Auburn need to beat Florida State? (Points, YPP, etc.)
C&M: Well, in part one of our Q-and-A series, I said Auburn would need 40 points to win, so I guess I'll say the Tigers need to keep FSU to something like 38. And if the red zone defense performs like it has for most of the season, I definitely think that's doable. Against Alabama, the Tigers allowed the Crimson Tide to gain 7.7 yards per play. Against Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri, that number was 7.3, 7.2 and 7.5, respectively. I think if Auburn can keep it around 7.0, that should be good enough to let the Tigers' offense have a shot at outscoring FSU.
Thanks to Chris for his answers! Head over to College And Magnolia for Auburn's side of the title game coverage! Our answers to their questions will be up soon.