You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it. In fact, I probably have.
I couldn't come up with a good way to start this week's preview of the opponent's offense. I can't explain it, except to say that I'm not 100 percent over what happened in 2013.
For the life of me, I can't explain what occurred last season at Auburn. Alabama's defense, the best in the nation, gave up nearly 400 total yards to Auburn, nearly 300 on the ground (5.7 yards per rush!). An Alabama squad that Gary Danielson recognized as "the best tackling back-7 in football" repeatedly whiffed on open-field tackles and blew easy assignments in the back end. An Alabama defense that was one of the best at smelling blood and finishing opponents when they were at their weakest, yielded at the end of the second and fourth quarters, when they were needed most.
And even with all that ... Alabama still should have won the game.
I'm unlikely to get over that anytime soon. I'm guessing Nick Saban feels a similar way.
Anyway, here's the 2014 version.
When it is humming, Gus Malzahn's offense feels like a rock rolling down a graded incline; you can hold it in place for a few minutes, but eventually you'll get tired, you'll lose your footing, you'll weaken for a second ... and there's no way to stop the downward momentum. Against Alabama last year, it felt as though Auburn was a step ahead from the time began until it ended, and even when Alabama held them, it seemed like a struggle.
For the bulk of 2014, it seemed Auburn was operating at Peak Malzahn - the Tigers come to Tuscaloosa with an average over 70 plays per game, 5.7 yards per rush (266 per game), 8.7 yards per pass (210 per game) and over 35 points per game. They were probably at their best vs. Ole Miss - on the road against one of the nation's best defenses, Auburn racked up 507 yards (7.5 per play!), balancing 253 rushing yards with 254 passing in a 35-31 win*. The moment the Ole Miss game ended, I was pretty sure Auburn was damn near unstoppable (in fact, I tweeted as much).
Gawd, Auburn's gonna run us out of the building.— will (@firewillheath) November 2, 2014
* - They almost certainly would have lost if not for poor Laquon Treadwell's disaster, but this is a preview of Auburn's offense, not a rant about how they're PROBABLY THE LUCKIEST BUNCH OF (EXPLETIVES) ON THE PLANET.
In any case, the world changed two weeks ago when Auburn went to Athens. A Georgia defense that had surrendered 418 yards of rushing offense to a Florida team that wasn't even pretending to pass, for reasons that could not be quantified, simply would not yield to Auburn. After a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to open the game, UGA limited the Tigers to 222 total yards, a measly 4.2 yards per play, and 0 points. For good measure, the 'Dawgs forced three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception).
Some of that probably is a statement about Georgia, a hot-and-cold football team capable of shutting out Missouri on the road, getting clobbered by Florida and dominating Auburn all in the same season. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that opposing teams are figuring out ways to defense Auburn.
Here's an odd example: Remember Paul Johnson? He came to Georgia Tech* with a quirky triple option offense that came right out of 1973, torched his biggest rival - the Jackets' only win over UGA since 2000 - in their building, then came back the following season to claim a conference title and BCS bowl berth. When his offense is humming, it looks pretty unstoppable, as well.
* - OK, so admittedly I included Tech in this preview as a favor to one of my college roommates who is now a pastor, as well as the only fan of Bama and Tech I have ever met.
But that can't last forever; Tech's offense has become increasingly defensible, and the Jackets haven't sniffed those heights since then (to be fair, they won whichever division of the ACC they're in this year and received the honor of playing FSU in the championship game in two weeks ... so, congrats?). Not saying that's happening to Auburn, but defenses do eventually catch up, particularly at the most elite levels.
Until the disastrous affair in Athens, much of the 2014 narrative surrounding Nick Marshall - the former UGA defensive back turned triple option master at Auburn - was his progression as a passer. Auburn's passing game is rudimentary, but Marshall has found ways to make it lethal - entering this Saturday, he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws, for an average of 169 yards per game, with 15 touchdowns. He was, like the rest of his offense, terrible in Athens: 11-of-23, for 112 yards and an interception.
His greatest threat, obviously, remains on the ground - Marshall is Auburn's second-leading rusher, with 5.5 yards per rush and 11 touchdowns. Watching him execute the option, even to a layman, is poetry in motion, when it's done right; probably the most impressive thing about him is that no one ever seems to hit him hard.
And when it's not done right? Auburn fans openly wonder whether his backup, Jeremy Johnson, isn't a better option.
How long with will Gus continue to ride the train wreck that is Nick Marshall?— Drew Weaver (@drewski334) November 23, 2014
Now, it's entirely possible that Auburn's recent offensive struggles actually have their root in their loss to Texas A&M, when receiver(38 catches, 16 ypc, 5 TDs) went down with a knee injury*. The injury barely affected Auburn vs. the Aggies - A&M's defense is what it is, and Auburn wins that game easily if not for two killer turnovers - but Marshall was off the following week at Georgia.
* - As of this writing, Williams is expected to return this Saturday.
As with any option offense, the Tigers run through their two top backs: Cameron Artis-Payne (126 yards per game, 5.6 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns) and Corey Grant (5.9 yards per carry, 2 TDs), as well as Marshall.
For receiving threats, look for Sammie Coates (20 yards per catch), Quan Bray (30 catches) and Ricardo Louis (he ... well, he did this). And also don't forget about tight end C.J. Uzomah, a big body who may be in his 7th year of eligibility in orange and blue.
Hear it from the Family (and my family)
Because this week is oh so personal for me, I couldn't resist reaching out to a few relatives and close friends for their thoughts.
From @zalsobrook, the person I used to drive home on Friday nights:
Duke Williams is unbelievably imperative to this offense. I would argue exactly the same import as Amari is to Bama's offense. Duke catches everything. And he runs slant routes likeruns slant routes...he completely boxes out the defender. I realize that is putting a lot on one player...
Before A&M, I was very confident with this matchup. ... If Duke plays it will go 4 Qs. If not Bama will win by 2 or 3 TDs.
From my cousin's husband (cousin-in-law?) Jamie, who is nearly as pessimistic about his team as I am about mine:
People are going to find out very fast that Nick Marshall was not the best quarterback on this team this year. I know I know things go south, backup qb is the savior blah blah. Thing is, when your only chance to move the ball through the air rests on a heave and a prayer it's not good. Our running game will have off days as it did in Athens. You must have a passing game that can convert 3rd and 9. Currently, we don't have that. I don't think people fully realize the magnitude of how we won games last year. Yes, we ran because we could but make no mistake, we ran because we had to., and helped things a bit. I fully believe if Gus were not concerned with the backlash he would have made that move this year. He knows how handicapped he is with his qb. Marshall is a great athlete and has been clutch for the most part, but half of the offense is removed because of his inability to successfully play the position. ...
And from @drewski334 (also a cousin-in-law):
The overarching story for football nerds - hi, nerds! - is Nick Saban and Kirby Smart vs. Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, or, Alabama vs. the HUNH. We've discussed this before, but Alabama doesn't really struggle vs. no-huddle opponents - they haven't always played to the standard we set for them (or they set for themselves), but they're not exactly sieve-like in these games. For everything Auburn did accomplish in 2013 - and we've covered that in the goriest detail at this point - Alabama still outgained Auburn by more than 100 yards, and only a wash of special teams mistakes and untimely lapses were the difference between comfortable victory and horrific loss.
The most comedic football cliche is this one - "Just do what we do" - but in this case, if Alabama does what it does, it should prevail.
*is suddenly terrified again*
Hope for the best.