Lets' get to it. Head editor at College And Magnolia, Chris Fuhrmeister joined TN to discuss the matchup of Auburn's offense against FSU's defense.
TN: Auburn's offense has risen to 10th in F/+ after the thrashing of MIzzou, but is playing even better than that right now as one of the best in the nation. What are the Tigers doing so much better now than they were at the outset of the 2013 season?
C&M: It's all about Nick Marshall's improvement, total grasp of the offense and contributions in the running game. At a recent press conference, Gus Malzahn said Marshall knew about 25 percent of the playbook when Auburn kicked off the season against Washington State, and looking back, it's pretty easy to see when he was allowed to run the complete offense: Oct. 5 vs. Ole Miss. That was the Tigers' fifth game of the year, and it was the first in which Marshall made a big impact in the option game, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Before that, his season-high rushing total was 53 against Arkansas State.
In Auburn's first four games, the Tigers averaged 232.3 yards on the ground. In the last nine, all wins, that number has improved to 381.7, including a combined 841 against the SEC's top two rushing defenses. Marshall's athleticism and excellent reads in the option game have been the major catalyst for the gaudy numbers.
TN: Gus Malzahn is, to put it bluntly, a phenomenal offensive mind. How does this year's offense compare to and differ from the one that Malzahn rode to the 2010 national title?
C&M: The main difference is in the kind of athlete Cam Newton was compared to what Marshall is. Cam was 6'6, 250 pounds, and while he had good speed, Auburn took advantage of his ability to plow through D-linemen and linebackers by running the inverted veer. That's an option play with man blocking where the quarterback can give to a running back, who will bounce outside the tackles, or keep and take it up the middle. With Marshall, who is just 6'1, 210 pounds, the Tigers run the zone read -- zone blocking, running back to the inside or quarterback to the outside. Gus has also added some arc blocking to his option plays in order to counteract scraping linebackers.
Aside from the differences in the option plays, Auburn threw a little more in 2010 than it does this year -- Cam averaged 20 passes per game, Marshall averages 17.7. That's mainly due to Cam being a better passer, but also a result of opposing teams being unable to stop the run. I think if Gus had his druthers, he'd run the ball every single play.
TN: What was Auburn's approach on offense against Alabama, from whom FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt descends schematically?
C&M: I thought Gus was going to throw the kitchen sink at 'Bama, pulling out all sorts of trick plays, but that didn't happen. Auburn ran its base offense all night and waited for Alabama to stop it. The Crimson Tide had some defensive success in the second quarter, but for the most part, the Tigers were able to move the ball. In the running game, it was a heavy doses of zone read and power runs for Tre Mason, and Marshall threw just enough to keep the Tide somewhat honest.
The thing about Gus is that he loves to take advantage of an overaggressive defense, and that's what lead to Auburn's tying touchdown. The Tigers took over on their own 35 with 2:32 left in the game, and they ran it up the middle with Mason six straight plays, moving to the Alabama 39. Then Gus called a zone read, Marshall kept and ran outside, and then passed over the heads of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Cyrus Jones, who were coming up to make the tackle.
Auburn might come out and threw a little more early than most would expect, just to get FSU off balance, but until the Seminoles prove they can stop the run, the Tigers are going to use a lot of zone-read and power plays. And if the secondary starts getting aggressive, that's when we'll see Marshall try to throw it over their heads.
TN: What does Nick Marshall bring to the table for this year's offensive attack? We believe that he'll see a significant amount of man-to-man coverages with single-high safety looks. Will he be able to take advantage of these situations and keep the FSU defense honest?
C&M: In the passing game, watching Marshall -- as an Auburn fan, at least -- can be frustrating at times. He's usually good for at least one bad overthrow on a deep ball per game, and Auburn has missed out on several touchdowns this season due to that issue. It's frustrating because he's also capable of making NFL-quality throws. During the game-winning drive in the final two minutes against Mississippi State in Week 3, he completed 6-of-8 passes, including a perfect frozen rope to C.J. Uzomah for the winning score with 10 seconds left. He made a similar throw to Uzomah against Alabama, fitting the ball perfectly between defenders in coverage. Long strikes when on the run against Texas A&M and Missouri stand out, too.
While he's incredibly athletic and has a big arm, Marshall's greatest attributes are his poise, confidence and great decision-making. Whether he's just run for a 60-yard touchdown or lost a fumble that was returned for a score, he's always on an even keel, never getting too high or two low. He just lines up for the next play and takes care of business. And whether it's making a read in the option game or throwing the pass, he almost never makes a poor choice. In the passing game, that's evident by the one interception he's thrown in the last eight games.
TN: One apparent mismatch in favor of Auburn appears to be that of Greg Robinson against hybrid DE/OLB Christian Jones. How will Malzahn exploit this advantage?
C&M: I'd like to give you some sort of complicated, in-depth answer here, but it's pretty simple: run right at him. Auburn's strengths is already running power and zone read, so I would imagine we'll see a healthy number of plays going over to Robinson's side, which isn't out of the ordinary. He's going to be an NFL offensive lineman one day, and if he sticks around for another year, he could be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Robinson is that good.
TN: Florida State's secondary is very strong and has enjoyed great success against opposing wideouts this season. How do you feel that the Auburn wide receiver corps matches up against the Seminoles' DBs in this game? Who will need to step up for the Tigers?
C&M: Florida State certainly has the best defensive backfield Auburn has seen, and I doubt the Seminoles will make it easy for any of the Tigers' receivers. Auburn's leading wideout is Sammie Coates, who has 841 yards and seven touchdowns this year, and he ranks second in the country with 22.1 yards per catch. He's been able to consistently get behind safeties, and if Auburn makes any big plays through the air, they'll probably be to Coates. But don't overlook Ricardo Louis, either. Everyone knows him as the guy who hauled in the miracle against Georgia, but he's often the recipient of quick swing passes and other shorter throws. He'll really test FSU's DBs' ability to tackle in the open field.
If you're looking for an under-the-radar guy who might have a big catch, it's C.J. Uzomah. The tight end only has nine grabs this year, but three of them have gone for scores. At 6'4, 258 pounds he's a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs, and when Auburn gets down around the 10-yard line, he may get a look.
TN: Can Auburn force the Florida State to play its heavier base package for the majority of the night with its personnel? While still good, the FSU 5-2/3-4 is not as strong as its nickel package, which has been fantastic. When FSU is in nickel, how will Auburn account for frightening senior CB/nickel back Lamarcus Joyner?
C&M: Whatever set Florida State thinks is best for stopping the run, I think Auburn can force that for most of the night. Lots of teams have tried lots of ways to slow down the Tigers' ground game, and they've been mostly been mostly unsuccessful, even when putting eight or nine guys in the box. With a good option game, three solid running backs and a great running quarterback and an outstanding offensive line, Auburn is usually able to find the necessary yards over the course of a game.
One of the major reasons Auburn is able to run so well is that the Tigers adjust formations to create mismatches in their favor, running to areas where every defender is accounted for by a blocker, and sometimes where there are extra blockers. Whether it's from the linemen and H-back Jay Prosch or the receivers on the outside, anyone who takes the field in Gus Malzahn's offense has to know how to block. If the Tigers execute at the top of their game, they should be able to neutralize Joyner by running away from him or having him covered up. I don't know if Auburn can keep him totally quiet, but I think Gus can keep him from having a huge game.
TN: How much offensive output will Auburn need to beat Florida State? (i.e. yards per play, points, all of the above?)
C&M: I think for Auburn to win this game, it'll probably have to be pretty high-scoring. The Tigers have competed against some great offensive playmakers at Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri, and they were able to beat those teams by outscoring them and getting just enough defense late to put the games away. Against the Aggies, Bulldogs and Tigers, Auburn averaged 7.3 yards per play, and 619.3 yards and 49.0 points per game. I don't think it's going to take that much offense -- mainly because I think Auburn can win, but I doubt it can generate those numbers against FSU's D -- but the Tigers will have to fill up the stat sheet. Let's say 6.0 yards per play, 425 yards and 40 points.
Big thanks to Chris for his answers! Be sure to head over to College And Magnolia for all things Auburn! Our answers to their questions will be up soon.