It's not exactly a hidden secret I love writing about Oregon. (Heck, half the reason I wanted to start writing the X/O previews was so I could get an excuse to write about the Ducks' offense.) The student in me wished we would've played Auburn; I spent the offseason poring over both of their offenses and wanted to find some kind of venue to talk about them in length. We've been there before with Oregon, but it's probably fortunate we didn't get subjected to Cam Newton decimating our front seven. As for me, I'm fortunate there's a matchup that actually puts these two teams facing off, which means y'all are in for a treat. I'm excited.
We've talked about Oregon a bit previously, and independent of us ESPN quickly figured out Oregon likes to a) keep it weird and b) keep it fast. As it happens, Oregon isn't the only offense in this game that wants to emphasize tempo. Auburn OC Gus Malzahn has two main focuses on offense - formations (and, by extension, pre-snap motion) and tempo. His total play set isn't terribly complex when it comes to his base stuff, but how they get there looks like it to most defenses. For one, it's easy for his offense to run the same play out of 12 formations. It's much more difficult for the defense to recognize that it's the same play (except possibly after the fact, which isn't of much use).
If Auburn can run the same small set of plays from a bunch of different formations quickly, it will end up confusing the defense. Now, best-laid plans certainly applies here - Auburn didn't get to 80 plays in a single game this year (compared to twice in 2009), although they did notably slow it down against their two most overmatched opponents of the season, which gives their seasonal per-game play averages a bit of a tweak below what they were against competent opposition. That doesn't mean they didn't occasionally come close - 78 and 71 against South Carolina, 73 against Kentucky, 71 against Mississippi.
Granted, there's a very good reason Auburn's average plays per game went down - their run/pass balance was massively altered, and Auburn didn't always make an effort to snap with plenty of time left on the clock. Oregon, for comparison's sake, topped 80 plays in 7(!) games - and yes, we weren't one of those games. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
There's finally been the realization over the last couple of college football seasons that the spread isn't all about the pass - and, Air Raid, Petrino, and our Purdue revival aside, that's a fair assessment. (We're charitably ignoring whatever Florida's offense was this year, which can't really be categorized as an offense. And you thought we were done with random digs at Florida. Charlie Weis hasn't called a play there yet.) Rather, the successful spread-type offenses at the moment allow for a theoretical run/pass balance. Malzahn's offense is a perfect example of that, even if this season's run/pass balance has been completely skewed for reasons that anyone with a pulse can guess (and we'll cover later).
Formational Variance and Logical Extremes
Most spread-type formations can be broken into two main categories: 2x2 and 3x1. The nomenclature is a reference to the number of receivers on either side of the formation. We've seen these before, but here's a refresher - the first image is 2x2, the second is 3x1, both out of shotgun. (I've used a lot of 2x2 formations in my previous posts; I haven't used nearly as many 3x1 formation examples but the idea is the same; it's just a different way to stress a defense. I may get into that more in the offseason if people want that kind of thing.)
Malzahn takes that basic idea to its extreme conclusion, sticking receivers in any type of formation and organization you can imagine. Malzahn will experiment with the occasional super-imbalanced formation off an empty set (think 4x1 type formations) and isn't afraid to stick multiple RBs in the backfield, resulting in occasional heavy-type formations with an RB to either side of the QB. (Oregon will do this as well, although we'll get into how they use that specific formation in a bit.) More importantly, Malzahn isn't afraid to take pre-snap motion to its logical extreme either. This is the first major difference between the offenses, and only Boise State (now Texas) and a few select others will use as much pre-snap motion. Constant pre-snap motion will wear defenses down mentally over time, and once they slip, Auburn can strike. Auburn in effect uses a bit of game theory here; they know that you know they use a bunch of formations, and rely on the defensive response of "uh-oh, now what?" to force defenders to respond slowly - and with a little bit of play action or a read, the defense is frozen and it's all over.
Oregon, on the other hand, uses relatively few formations, but makes up for this formational similarity by taking tempo to its logical extreme. They don't always reach their sub-15 second offense peak, but when they go at that speed aren't many teams who can keep up with them. Their 23 second per-play average was one of the fastest in the NCAA (compared to the average of 34 seconds per play); I suspect only Oklahoma was faster, although finding that metric is difficult. (If any Oregon fans are lurking around here, I'd love to know.) Oregon uses tempo to wear a defense down - this, coupled with their well-publicized propensity for bizarre signage to distract college kids, wears defenses down mentally. (Assuming they don't counter by flopping in style. Thanks, Cal.)
The QB's The Thing
It's just easier to start talking about Cam Newton now. He makes this version of the Auburn offense go, and while on some level it's not that hard to run an offense with a QB who can run into the line and fall forward three times for a first down, Malzahn does get plenty of credit for tweaking his offense a bit to play to Newton's ground strengths. Again, Malzahn doesn't do anything complex here - counter, power, some zone read (although not the hyper-complex reading that Oregon will do, including finally closing the thread on one thing I didn't have time to address earlier) with a bit of constraint plays here and there. However, Malzahn isn't afraid of running power with Newton instead of a RB, which creates a running threat out of an empty backfield. In other words, it looks a lot like this:
In Newton's case, it's a legitimate, dangerous running threat, which forces the opposition LBs to respect his run threat (even as they give up a few inches and a couple dozen pounds to him) and in theory should open up the short passing game. In reality, it doesn't quite work that way for Auburn this year - maybe they're absent a true possession threat, maybe Newton opts to tuck and run more than he should (hint: it's this one), maybe something pops open deep as the safeties slip just enough out of position, but Newton's more of an accurate passer than he is a dangerous one, if that makes sense. He will go over the top a few times per game, but that's not the Tigers' preferred method of operation.
Newton's obscene frame - 6'6", 250, in case you've forgotten - really doesn't give Malzahn much of a reason to go pass-happy. It's easy to rely on Newton to move the chains (and Auburn's ridiculous 53% third down conversion percentage, which is in the mind-boggling 70% range below 6 yards; thanks to Doc Saturday for finding that piece), and the comparatively higher-risk passing game doesn't seem too useful when a guy can fall forward for 5 yards a pop.
Wildcat QB play is less of a strength than you'd expect for Auburn. WR Kodi Burns is a converted QB (granted, converted because he was awful at passing), but he's typically left out of receiving the snap in Wildcat in favor of Mario Fannin, who's a poor man's Percy Harvin (minus about 6 touches per game).
Darron Thomas offers a much different threat for Oregon. Oregon abuses the zone read play - inside, outside, varying the player being read, using 2-RB sets to further confuse the read - but Thomas makes it happen, and he consistently makes the correct read. That, more than LaMichael James' emergence or Kenjon Barner's explosiveness, makes Oregon's offense go. Incorrect read plays can destroy a drive, and Thomas does a much better job than Nate Costa of ensuring that happened, hence he gets the snaps.
Like Newton, Thomas isn't a particularly explosive passer, but while Cam Newton's 28/6 TD/INT ratio gets all the press, Thomas has a 28/7 ratio with very similar yardage numbers. However, Oregon will actually pass a bit more than Auburn (you have to figure that the playcall numbers are probably pretty similar in terms of called passes per game, but Newton's a bit more likely to tuck and run than Thomas).
The Rest of the Offense
The talent balance is similar for the rest of the offense on either side, but the deployment is much different. Oregon isn't afraid to use James and Barner in plenty of designed runs, absent any read-type characteristics. (They do adhere to zone principles consistently, which makes the blocking schemes easier for the Oregon linemen.) Auburn has tended to use Michael Dyer and Ontario McCalebb in designed runs, but much less than Newton; Dyer and McCalebb combined for 7 more runs on the season than Newton.
Let's come back to the 2-RB zone read. Pre-snap alignment looks something like this:
If the defense is keying on a scrape-exchange type play, this completely destroys that plan, as four guys would get caught up in the scrape (one LB and one DL on each side). In addition, anyone on the line is a threat to be read. That means, in that scenario, everyone has to be concerned they'll get read, which slows reaction time.
Auburn has one primary receiver / deep threat (Darvin Adams) who isn't used quite as frequently as Oregon's primary receiver (Jeff Maehl), but Auburn tends to opt for bigger passing plays than Oregon, averaging 15.7 yards per completion to Oregon's 12.7. This is where total play calls come into, well, play; total receiving yards by both teams are within 50 yards of each other. There isn't much to say beyond that; Maehl feels like he's a bigger piece of the offense compared to Adams, but yardage totals are shockingly equal. In addition, TE David Paulson is used a bit more by the Ducks as compared to TE Phil Lutzenkirchen, which opens up some interesting matchup issues for the Auburn pass D.
It's a size issue, really; Paulson is a quality TE as these things go, but there's been some press lately that the next wave of the spread offense is in TE deployment. Athletic TEs are matchup nightmares in the NFL; it's the same problem in college. It's really an offshoot of the "how do you tackle Cam Newton" issue, except he'd be catching the ball in space behind the guys who are his equal in size and weight.
On balance, this similarity bodes well; two similar-ish offenses who operate as effective cousins of each other, even if their sources are much different. It may come off as a surprise that this ends up helping both defenses.
Consider teams defending the triple option; it's very difficult to prepare and practice against a triple option team given a week to prepare. Preparing for the Auburn or Oregon offenses is a similar problem for most teams, although not as extreme. However, it's not like either defense is going to see much they're patently unfamiliar with; sure, Auburn hasn't seen a defense that will run similar calls off a play tree (think zone read with the DE unblocked, followed by zone read with the DT unblocked, followed by zone read with 2 RBs and the DE unblocked, and repeat as necessary but only as fast as possible) and Oregon hasn't seen a human tree like Newton (I have no clue how you run a scout team for him, short of pulling a power forward off the basketball team for a few weeks, and that doesn't give you any clue how hard it is to take him down), but the general shapes are similar.
As a result, this may not be the offense-dominated festival most pundits are expecting. In addition, neither offense opens up super-aggressive. I'm not necessarily sure I ascribe to this theory, but it's worth noting. Regardless, both offenses are designed to wear you down; the first half may not be the most exciting, but the second half will make up for that in spades.
At The Margins
It's a natural offshoot to expect both teams to look to maximize possession efficiency, which means this game may come down to the margins. That's when things like turnover margin (Oregon: +1.08 / game; Auburn: +0.38 / game), punting - when it happens (Oregon: 3.2 punts per game, 42.5 yards / punt; Auburn, 2.8 punts / game, 37.5 yards / punt), field goal kicking (both teams at 75% on the year; Auburn's attempted 20 and Oregon 16), and - of course - kickoffs (similar numbers, but Oregon has 12 touchbacks to Auburn's 7) matter. So do the return games, and Oregon's been death on punt returns this season with nearly 19 yards per return (and 5 TDs to boot); Auburn's been a bit better on kickoff returns, but not staggeringly so with a couple more yards per return. Oh, and Oregon will at least threaten a 2-point conversion on every TD. Good luck.
It's the margins that define this game, along with a question of what you trust more. Oregon has a clear advantage at the margins in a game where a one-possession break could easily be the game. That's half the battle; the other major battle is Oregon's ability to tackle Newton against Auburn's ability to cope with the multi-read offense of Oregon. I trust Oregon just a bit more than Auburn here; Auburn has a strong run defense, but they haven't faced anything like this all season. While they may be able to stop it for a quarter or two, they won't be able to stop it all game, and one big run by LaMichael James may be all the difference. I don't like making predictions (for one, it's easier to describe an offense's bread-and-butter than it is to call a winner), but I can't see anyone stopping Oregon. Not this year.
Oregon 41, Auburn 35.
(For the record, I pretty much pull stats exclusively from cfbstats.com, and they like the trackback action, so ...highly recommended. Similarly, Smart Football is a fantastic, fantastic site I can't recommend highly enough. Just don't do what I've done before and spend three hours going through articles there while a game is on.)