Auburn has a good defense. It's not bad, but it's also not great. I've seen people say it's bad. It's not. Auburn has had to face Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, Johnny Manziel, James Franklin and others on the year. That's a ridiculous slate of college quarterbacks, and it's one that makes Auburn's defense appear in the raw stats to be much worse than it actually is.
How good is Auburn's defense? I'm comfortable calling it one of the best 25 in college football. That its raw numbers suggest it is something much worse is a direct product of playing a ridiculous schedule.
Auburn operates out of a 4-2-5 scheme -- a set that Florida State also plays a lot with its own defense. It has two big linebackers who are thumpers against the run, and a secondary that is really nothing special.
But it all starts up front with a very good defensive line. Some will argue Florida or Clemson, but I believe this is the best defensive front FSU will have faced. It has pass rushers like crazy, and has a lot of very athletic players whom it rotates in to keep them fresh throughout the game. These guys are capable of giving a very good offensive line, like that of Florida State, some trouble.
The linebackers are thumpers as I mentioned, but are not great against the pass. They typically cover backs out of backfield in man coverage, and are almost never manned up on the tight end.
The Goal: Leverage
Situational football and leverage will be very important against the Auburn Tigers. And that means staying out of long down and distance. Auburn is 63rd in defense on standard downs and 9th on passing downs. FSU is excellent at everything offensively, and is on pace to be the highest scoring offense in the history of the sport despite not running a crazy tempo offense. Bill Connelly has more on why it is important to stay in good leverage situations here. To his thoughts, I'll add that turnovers often happen in bad down and distance, so not only does it help FSU's success, but it also helps to reduce the chance of disaster. I'll address the how.
First, get Jameis Winston hit. That sounds crazy, but Jimbo Fisher has said in the past that Winston calms down and seems to get more into the flow of the game once he has been hit. If Auburn plays the soft,reserved coverage that I expect it to play (preventing big plays and then limiting touchdowns in the red zone is Auburn's best defensive plan), then quarterback runs may very well be open. FSU has certain looks against which we believe it has an auto-check to a quarterback sweep play, and I would not be surprised to see some quarterback draw or quarterback power.
Scramble opportunities will also be there. This is particularly true against Cover-2 man, in which two defenders are in deep zones, and five defenders match up in man coverage. With four pass rushers, that leaves nobody on the quarterback. When Winston gets this look, he needs to scramble and take the free yards, then get down without getting hit.
Wait them out
If Auburn keeps with its plan of staying patient and playing conservatively, FSU must match with similar patience. Auburn quite simply does not have the defensive personnel to outright stop Florida State -- it does have the personnel to set up situations in which Florida State is more likely to beat itself.
FSU loves to run deep routes -- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told me this week that Florida State runs more deep routes than any team he can remember. Auburn knows this and will be ready for it. Knowing that, FSU must realize what will be available early -- the short pass and the run. If Jameis Winston wants deep balls later in the game, he must first pick Auburn apart on short routes, and handoffs, gashing the Tigers to set them up for verticals, corners, posts and play action later in the game.
I suspect Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary can have a big game early, as Auburn focuses its coverage on Kelvin Benjamin, the 6'6', 235-pound freak who played like the best receiver in college football over the last month. Shaw, Greene and O'Leary are all going to the NFL, and Winston should be able to find the favorable matchup with that group and take advantage when Auburn is in an umbrella or shell coverage focused on Benjamin. Any time FSU gets O'Leary manned up on Jake Holland or Cassanova McKenzie, it should take it.
One unsung player who might be valuable here is fullback Chad Abram. While the Seminoles are probably better from their 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE), two-back sets could work as well. Abram has the best hands on the team according to Jimbo Fisher, and while that might be hyperbole, Abram can indeed catch. Winston has shown a willingness to throw to any open target, and Abram might be ignored a bit by the Auburn defense -- particularly its linebackers off play and bootleg action.
What Winston and the offense cannot do is get greedy and impatient. This offense is so good, the only way it will falter is if it beats itself. Auburn hopes it will, but FSU should be smarter than that -- at least in terms of things it can control.
Once FSU gets some short passing game working, it can begin to work on double-moves -- something Auburn's corners have been absolutely torched on so far this season as they look to jump routes. In particular, Jonathan Mincy and Robenson Therezie are very aggressive and attempt to jump routes quite often. I can certainly see Shaw having success against Therezie with a shake route against Cover-2 from the slot.
Auburn hopes its pass rush of four or five will be enough to get to Jameis Winston. And while this might be the best pass rush FSU has seen this year, FSU's pass protection from its first team has been solid relative to the amount of deep and intermediate routes it throws. There's little reason to believe that will change, regardless of conference affiliation of the defensive line.
There is reason to believe, however, that FSU's incredible success in long down-&-distance is a combination of amazing skill and luck. And there is no doubt that Auburn is much better in long downs when it knows what it coming. If FSU minimizes those situations, it is extremely difficult to see a Seminoles loss, regardless of what happens with the Florida State defense.
Run through the handy
With a Big Ten officiating crew, I would be very wary of Auburn's defensive backs getting grabby. If I coordinated the Auburn defense, I would grab, grab and grab some more as FSU's receivers come out of their breaks. If the refs call it, then start playing straight defense. If they do not, then Auburn's less-than-stellar defensive backs get a bit of an advantage they would not normally get. If the refs lets Auburn get grabby, FSU needs to run the football even more, and set up play action and verticals.
FSU should be able to run the football with success on Auburn's defense, which is improved, but not great against the run. I expect FSU to stick with its bread-and-butter stretch play. Auburn's response to this will likely be to stick with its conservative plan and hope that one of its defensive linemen can get a tackle for loss to set Florida State off schedule. One extremely important matchup to watch will be Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson, a freshman, but one of the strongest and most explosive I have ever scouted, against tackle Cameron Erving. FSU runs well both left and right, but if Erving cannot consistently block Lawson on the left side, Auburn will be able to cheat more to the right.
Auburn's corners are physically strong, and FSU's receivers must be in top form blocking, particularly on stretch.
I will be interested to see how much Karlos Williams plays in this game. Williams undoubtedly has the most explosive talent of any FSU back, but it's fair to question how much of the offense he learned through the season after moving to tailback from safety. If Williams has improved a lot during the 30 days off, he represents a major potential X-factor for the Seminoles. Of course, Devonta Freeman, the starter, is also very good and is excellent at not being tackled for a loss, thus keeping FSU on schedule.
Be true, do you
FSU cannot get caught up in a situation where it is rushing unnecessarily as a result of Auburn's own offensive tempo. FSU's offense is the most dominant in the history of the sport running a moderate tempo, and while some situational up-tempo is used when the opposition is caught with personnel it doesn't like, FSU needs to maintain its comfort level at its own pace.
FSU is an excellent screen team, and to an extent, screen success depends on the defense being aggressive. I've spoke with Ellis Johnson twice this week, and both times he mentioned how good Florida State is with the screen game. I don't suspect screens will work all that well early on, but if Auburn becomes impatient and tries to blitz Jameis Winston, they may come to be useful.
Touchdowns in the red zone
This is a rather obvious goal, but Auburn's red-zone numbers are so much better than its overall defensive numbers, that it merits its own section. Auburn is very aggressive in the red zone, and its big backers don't have to cover as much space. FSU has been tremendous in the red zone this year, and Jason Staples of Nole Digest told me that Auburn does not cover the back few yards in the middle of the end zone. That's a percentage gamble, and one that often works for them. But with the aggressiveness of the linebackers, and Winston's height and touch, a play action ball to O'Leary over their heads might not be a bad idea at all.
- 7.25 yards/play before garbage time (362 on 50 plays, 435 on 60 plays, 508 on 70 plays).
- No more than 1 turnover
- 60-percent or better touchdowns in the red zone.
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- Jimbo Fisher press conference recap
- The best vs. destiny
- FSU must play blocks with leverage, then rally to the ball
- Should Jimbo be feared like Nick Saban?
- FSU an SEC team? SEC wishes it had a team like Florida State
- Bobby Bowden reviews Florida State practice
- Telvin Smith says preparation is business as usual
- Lamarcus Joyner says defense must do its job