Though there have been minor adaptations and evolutions to the Gus Malzahn offense over the years, the offensive philosophy is still the same thing we’ve seen every year since 2013. The entire scheme is based off of four main plays: the inside zone run, the inverted veer, the QB draw, and the back-shoulder fade. From there, there all all sorts of WR and TE motions coming across the formation before and after the play, and those guys are often involved on getting quick catches after the play action to the running backs.
It’s an offense that is an absolute nightmare when they’re playing on schedule and holding the lead, but, at the same time, is severely limited with the lack of more nuanced passing concepts when trying to come from behind and convert 3rd downs.
They’re averaging 29 points per game, which is pretty much dead-average in the NCAA, and, after a couple of rough weeks against Kentucky and Georgia to start the season, are averaging north of 200 rushing yards per game and right at 200 more passing yards per game.
Freshman running back Tank Bigsby is a powerful runner averaging 5.7 yards per carry and leads the team with 527 yards. He’s one of those backs that isn’t particularly big or fast, but has a knack for slipping through the line of scrimmage and wiggling his way through a bunch of tackles to turn those 3-yard gains up the middle into 9-yarders. He’s the engine that drives the offense and keeps them in 2nd and short, where the playbook is open to all kinds of plays all game long. However, he’s dealing with a hip injury from the Tennessee game and may be a bit limited in the Iron Bowl this week.
His backup, Shaun Shivers, is a diminutive junior who runs with a ridiculous quickness and power. He’s not as good in traffic and struggles a bit on inside plays, but is nearly impossible to tackle one-on-one, as he can juke any linebacker and will truck any defensive back that comes up on him. D.J. Williams, the 3rd back, also gets his fair share of carries and is regularly involved in the passing. He’s probably the fastest of the three.
QB Bo Nix famously won the 1st-game-of-the-season-Heisman-Trophy as a true freshman last year, and has since been a very consistently inconsistent passer, sporting a 61% completion percentage. Nix is proficient scrambler, and is the team’s second leading rusher. He’s used quite often on 3rd down QB draws, and a significant chunk of his passes come on either quick rollout plays after a play action where he throws to a receiver coming across the back of the formation, or after he goes full sandlot and runs around in the backfield for a little while before trying to thread in an ad-lib 10 yarder.
His passing accuracy is a bit scattershot. There are times where he makes some jaw-dropping throws, but he also has a bad tendency to severely overthrow receivers on easy passes, and his downfield accuracy leaves a bit to be desired. He’s a frustrating player who’s going to make some big plays... And he’s going to ruin a few of his own drives.
The Auburn receivers all have specific roles that they play. Seth Williams is the leading guy, and the 6’3” junior is used mostly as a sideline back-shoulder fade and jump ball guy. He’s one of the best in college football at body positioning to out-jump a defensive back, but he’s a limited threat after the catch, and has a bad habit of not always hanging on to the ball after he catches it.
Anthony Schwartz has more catches than Williams, but less yards. He’s considered one of the fastest players in college football, and usually gets about one shot per game to try and just outrun everyone deep. Other than that, though, most of his catches come on quick tosses out to the flats after a play action or on screens. If he gets the ball with any open space, he eats up yardage before the defense can blink.
Eli Stove, like Schwartz, is primarily used on short passes in the backfield, and is the Tiger’s main threat to take the ball on a jet sweep. He’s not as fast as Schwartz, but is a more natural runner that can elude tackles and fight his way forward to pick up 1st downs that he shouldn’t.
The tight end group uses three guys— John Samuel Shenker, Luke Deal, and J.J. Pegues in a regular rotation. They’re an important part of the offensive blocking scheme and are moved all around in the backfield to get creative in how they leave certain players unblocked at the line for the TE to pick up.
Pegues, a 300 pound true freshman, is a little less trusted as a blocker, but is the designed target in a few pass plays each game, trying to get the massive, athletic man a mismatch down field. While he’s gotten a lot of hype from fans and media alike for his offensive contributions, he only has 16 yards rushing and 40 yards receiving on the season. So, as of now, he’s mostly just been eye-candy for the offense, rather than actually being an effective offensive weapon.
While, in theory, this Auburn team is a few significant steps behind Alabama in terms of talent, there is one particular aspect that worries me: the Alabama defense has struggled on and off all season with defending off-tackle running plays... And Auburn runs a LOT of them. The strength of this Alabama team is their cornerback play, and Auburn’s offense rarely challenges them anyway. Seth Williams may get a few chances, but expect Pat Surtain and Josh Jobe to limit him to no worse than 50% on his targets.
However, those two will likely also be critical in run defense, as the Alabama linebackers are likely to let a few of these outside runs and jet sweeps get outside of them. The safeties will also need to be on their game to keep the 5-yard off-tackle runs from turning into gashing 10-15 yards gains.
While the Auburn offensive line is a solid run-blocking unit, they’ve been absolutely atrocious at pass blocking. To compound that, Bo Nix has a tendency to hold the ball, ready to scramble, even before pressure arrives. So if Alabama can keep the Auburn offense from getting big runs on 1st down and force them into passing the ball downfield, expect the defensive front to really harry Nix into making some errant throws.
This is really one of those matchups that I think is going to be volatile. Either Alabama absolutely smothers them, or they have the Tide defense on the ropes all game long. And there’s no in between.