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Better Know An Opponent: Auburn

Auburn comes to Knoxville (at noon, no less) with a nasty rushing attack, an effective passing game, and, um, well, a defense. Yeah.

Kevin C. Cox

So the good news - such as it is after this stretch of games where the easiest game was against a team that's 2-5(!) in games decided by less than a touchdown and every other team was within the top 20 at the time we played them - is that the run ends on Saturday. Auburn - led by the return of Gus Malzahn to the plains and/or eagles and/or trees - is off to a rolling 8-1 start punctuated by a 2-1 record against ranked teams and a road win at Kyle Field. How are they doing it?

No, really, how are they doing it. I don't get it. Let's figure it out.

  • Let's start with what the team does well in aggregate: run the ball. They do a really good job of this, as in 7th nationally at 6.3 yards per carry with a lot of carries - think close to 50 a game as a team.
  • Auburn doesn't pass, but they're effective when they do - their 8.6 yards per attempt is tied for 14th nationally while their pass rate is at about 22 attempts a game. Doing some basic math, that's about 72 plays a game - slightly below what I'd expect from a peak Malzahn team, but still decent enough.
  • That's a passing premium of 2.6 yards, which is shockingly close enough to reason that having a run/pass ratio of near 2.5:1 is actually about optimal. In related news, Gus Malzahn knows what he's doing. Film at 11.
  • Seriously, I'm totally in the tank for Gus Malzahn and hope he takes his high-flying brand of offense to the NFL real soon like, oh, tomorrow would be awesome. Come on, Tampa Bay. Do us a solid.
  • Nick Marshall is yet another running QB; joy. He doesn't pass a ton (19 attempts / game, 8.3 yards/attempt, 7 TD, 4 INT) but is dangerous when he does - roughly, below about 6.5 yards per attempt is bad and above 8 is good. And yes, 11.75 carries / game at 5.8 yards a run qualifies as effective enough to be dangerous against Tennessee trying to defend a running quarterback, which is to say he runs at all.
  • By the way, at this time last year Nick Marshall was a safety. Gus Malzahn is a wizard.
  • Tre Mason is Auburn's most consistent option, which is understating his 5.7 yards per carry (and 17.9 attempts per game). He's also scored a touchdown in every game save Mississippi State. Mason is the workhorse, but of course there are two other guys - Cameron Artis-Payne (7.0 yards per carry, 8.2 attempts/game, 5 TD) and Corey Grant (9.9(!) yards per carry, 5.1 attempts/game, 4 TD) - who will step in. Also, big up to Chandler Shakespeare, who we won't see but nice name, kid.
  • You can probably piece together what this running attack looks like: lots of it, including misdirections (except a healthy dose of zone read) with some various dashes of power, multiple-back sets, motion. The actual plays aren't complex for the offense to execute, but they're hard for the defense to react to. It's a treat to watch, except, y'know, they're playing us so I want them to fail.
  • Sammie Coates has probably the highest yards per reception I've seen with guys who actually catch more than 4 balls all season: 26.6 yards per reception, and at 3 catches a game, that's actually not insubstantial. Quan Bray, Marcus Davis, and Ricardo Louis can also do some damage, but really, Coates aside, none of these guys have production worth writing home about. Passing is a change of pace for the Auburn offense this year, and right now that change of pace consists of Coates.
  • By the averages: 61st nationally in rushing defense in a batch of teams at 4.1 yards per carry and 62nd nationally in passing defense in a batch of teams at 7.1 yards per attempt. (FWIW, 9 TD and 10 INT.) If you haven't heard much about Auburn's defense this year, that's why - they're nearly perfectly average.
  • Don't immediately assume there aren't guys on the defense worth talking about, though. Robensen Therenzie has 3 picks (one of which he ran back 78 yards), Dee Ford (7 sacks, 73 yards) can get to the QB, and there's pretty strong balance below these guys. Stopping Therenzie and Ford will only go so far.
  • Name break! Cassanova McKinzy (note: never get in a fight with a guy named Cassanova), Gimel President, Montravius Adams, and fortunately pretty much all the other awesome names are elsewhere in this preview.
  • Auburn also has a decent punting game (Steven Clark's averaging 42 yards a punt), a good return game with Mason and Quan Bray (Mason's run one back, too), and an experienced, solid K in Cody Parkey.

And yes, this team is 8-1. A strong offense and Gus Malzahn - but mostly Malzahn - will do that for a program. So, based on that, shut down Sammie Coates (is Cameron Sutton up for that?), dump everyone in the box you feel safe with to stop the run game, and hope the offense can do enough against a pretty much average defense.