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Iron Bowl Preview: When Auburn has the Ball

Not another Malzahn offense

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

One of the few teams with much consistency in college football over the past 5 years or so, the Auburn Tigers are still running basically the same offense that they instilled with Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator and then head coach back at the beginning of the decade. They’re one of the most creative teams out there in using multiple TE’s and H-back/fullbacks to execute blocks from unique spots and using pre-snap motion to disguise a fairly simple power rushing attack.

In standard situations, Auburn pretty much always runs some variant of an iso read option, inverteed veer, quick screen, or a vertical shot, with various amounts of deception and motion before and during each play. Ultimately, though, the entire offense is based on the offensive line overpowering the defensive line to gobble up (Thanksgiving pun intended) first downs while launching some occasional deep shots to try and break open a game with a nice pass, and, if not, at least force the defense to back off from playing the line of scrimmage too aggressively.

Basically, think an aggressive power-pro style offense from the 90s-00s, but with the deception and formations of most modern spread offenses.

Oh, and they try to run every single play as fast as they possibly can (though that has slowed down a little in the last few years as the strategy has become more common, and, thus, less effective).

Auburn’s entire offense runs through sophomore running back JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow. At 210 pounds, he’s stout enough to power through tackles up the middle but still has the speed to get chunk gains when given enough space. He’s got 625 yards on 131 carries and a team-leading 9 rushing touchdowns, but has been on limited snaps since early October due to a knee injury.

In his stead, freshman DJ Williams has impressed, particularly with a 130-yard performance against LSU. Williams is a bit bigger than Whitlow and, while not particular dangerous to break a huge play, he is the teams best short-yardage back (81% success rate on short-yardage attempts).

Meanwhile, senior Kam Martin is the smaller change-of-pace back for the team, and leads the other two with 5.5 yards per carry on 60 carries.

All three have consistently stayed around a 45% success rate, which is a little above average nationwide. Whitlow’s 18% explosive rate is significantly better than the other two, though, and it’s obvious that their offense is missing it’s sharpest teeth when he’s not playing.

At quarterback, you’ve all heard of Bo Nix. The freshman was already drawing Heisman hype after his underthrown game-winner against Oregon at the start of the season, and has looked decidedly freshman-like ever since. He’s the team’s second leading rusher with 372 yards (I’m not taking sack yards out of his rushing stats here) on 70 rushes. He’s always a danger to actually pull a read option and take off around the end and can convert plenty of 3rd down scrambles if a defense turns their back.

As a passer, he’s not been particularly efficient, though he does have the ability to complete the occasional deep ball. 57% completion rate and a 41% success rate on passes put him solidly in the sub-par camp, and he’s particularly struggled on 3rd downs, dropping to a paltry 51% completion rate and 5.3 yards per attempt. Though he hasn’t been great by any stretch, the Auburn offense is designed so that his main 3 jobs are to pick up rushing yards, hit the occasional deep ball, and get screen passes out of his hands quickly after a play fake— and Nix can do all three.

At receiver, sophomore Seth Williams is the quintessential #1 target for a Malzahn offense. Big, fast, and really good at running straight down the field and winning jump balls. Auburn clones a new one every three years, and Williams is the current iteration. He leads the team with 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s had some issues with drops, but the 22% explosive rate when targeted is very, very dangerous.

Early on, he was partnered with 20th year senior Will Hastings, but the former walk-on has since had his season cut short due to injury. Picking up the slack has been speedy sophomore Anthony Schwartz. The 180-lb pass catcher is reported to be the fastest player on the team, though it hasn’t really played out in his stats. He has 378 yards, but on a rather limited 11.1 yards per catch.

Then there’s Eli Stove, the 190-lb junior that starts plays in the backfield as often as he does out wide. He’s a do it all player that takes jet sweeps, screens, swing passes, and plenty of play fakes on most any given plays. He lines up at H-back, wide receiver, running back... wherever. He’s only got a little over 300 total yards, but is an integral part of their offense.

Then there’s the fullbacks/tight ends. It’s a nebulous group for Malzahn’s offense, but all have more important roles than they do in most other offenses in the current college football meta. Spencer Nigh is a massive 270 pounds and wears #99, and looks about as intimidating as you’d expect as a lead blocker. He’s mostly a 6th offensive lineman that can go in motion before the snap, but does have one catch on the year. 100% success rate, if the stats are to be believed.

There’s also Jay Jay Wilson, who’s listed as a running back, but is used as a 245-lb receiver out wide or can motion in to lead block as needed. Finally, John Samuel Shenker is more of a true tight end and sees his share of time as a blocker as well.

The matchup between the Auburn offense and the Alabama defense is interestingly one-sided in both directions of the two halves of the game. The Alabama secondary should run laps around the Tigers’ passing game, as they’re the 23rd ranked defense in passing success rate compared to Auburn’s 75th ranked passing success rate, and, even worse, the 88th ranked offense in yards per attempt.

On the other hand, though, Auburn’s rushing success rate is better than Alabama’s defense, and their 17th ranked offensive line in giving up tackles for loss absolutely dwarves the Tide’s putrid ability to get stops in the backfield.

When it comes to explosive plays, Alabama should totally shut down the Auburn passing game, and they’re fairly even matched when it comes to explosive runs. While the Tigers should be able to bludgeon their way for a lot of rushing yards, Alabama’s defense (read: Xavier McKinney) has been fairly solid at cleaning up tackles in the second level before they break into open field.

Alabama has the advantage on first and second down, but it shifts to favor Auburn on third down. For both teams, those 3rd down rates have been significantly affected by QB scrambles. While Bo Nix has struggled to complete passes on 3rd downs, he’s been very effective with his legs, and the Alabama defense has given up what feels like a million scramble yards this year.

So expect the Auburn offense to feel like they control the Alabama defense for big chunks of time, but they’ll often have drives stall when put into pure passing situations. Let’s say 24 points for the Tigers. Can Mac Jones and the offense outscore that?