Wire: How Auburn can challenge Alabama in Iron Bowl
NOV 21, 2013 1:20p ET
In the abstract, next week’s Iron Bowl will be a game of drastically different personalities.
Alabama is religiously devout in its adherence to Nick Saban’s football catechism. The Crimson Tide dominate opponents by executing game plans meticulously. They are machine-like and highly disciplined in their craft. Sure, ‘Bama is stacked with athletes who are genetic freaks, but after studying them on film, I can tell you many of them have incredibly high football IQs.
Under the tutelage of Professor Saban and his staff, the Tide have produced some impressive graduate-level work by executing “assignment football” with as much precision as any team in the nation.
Auburn, on the other hand, is different. The Tigers are mirroring the path of the 2010 national title team that embraced the chaos theory and benefited from a series of favorable synchronicities – seven of its 14 victories were decided by one possession -- more than following a well-developed blue print for success.
In September, the Tigers beat Mississippi State in the final 10 seconds. In October, they beat Texas A&M by scoring the game-winner with 79 seconds remaining. And, of course, last week’s “Immaculate Deflection” secured an extraordinary victory over Georgia. Five of Auburn’s 11 games so far have been decided by one possession.
Alabama is systematic, striving for perfection with precision. Auburn is dramatic, thriving while being perfectly imperfect and enjoying faith-luck collisions.
However, that’s just the abstract view. When examined closer, there is some method to Auburn’s madness that rests at the center of the Iron Bowl: The Tigers’ ability to run the football vs. the Tide’s ability to stop them. Surely, Auburn isn’t one of the top rushing teams in the nation because of mere luck, and there’s something about its offensive scheme that will test Tide defenders.
I still believe Alabama has the advantage in this area and will mitigate Auburn’s most dangerous offensive weapon, but let’s break down the Tigers’ run game and pinpoint the exact challenges Alabama will face.
The Tigers rank third in the nation with 320 rushing yards per game and fifth at 6.41 yards per carry. Against UGA, the Tigers ran for 323 yards against a defense that entered the game ranking 20th nationally with 126 yards allowed per game on the ground. Regardless of the fact Auburn is one-dimensional and opponents know the run is coming, it continues to churn out games like this on the ground.
How is this possible?
After studying this offense on film, one quickly sees that Auburn uses elaborate blocking schemes and dizzying pre-snap motions that often force defenders to commit mental errors.
One way Auburn runs for big chunks of yardage is by attacking the “alleys” – the parts of the field between the offense’s end men on the line (most often the offensive tackles or tight ends) and the sidelines. This scheme jumped out to me immediately, and I felt a sudden sense of compassion for every defensive coordinator who not only must devise a plan to combat it but has to hope his players can then execute it. I wouldn’t want my squad to fight the Tigers in an alley – their alleys are scary.
The Tigers are sneaky and gash defenses by outnumbering them there. It’s simple mathematics and sort of speedy, slight-of-hand. Harry Houdini and David Blaine would be proud.
Auburn’s theory: If we can move our players before and during the snap faster than your players can count our players, then you will lose. In NFL circles, teams that use quick motions and shifts to confuse defenses and screw up the number count are said to use “window dressing.”
Check the images below from last week’s game against Georgia to see an example of the predicament Auburn’s offense can create:
Before the snap, there are two RBs in the backfield with quarterback Nick Marshall.
The alley on our right has two Tigers -- one of whom is WR Ricardo Louis (labeled ‘1’ and running left), who will eventually get the ball -- and four Bulldogs.
You can see that Louis is already in motion. He will sprint full speed across the formation, quickly leaving the alley on the right.
The alley on the left has only one Tiger before the snap.
Now here’s the second photo when the ball is snapped:
Before we talk about what’s happening in the second photo above, an important point to understand: Defense is a simple game of mathematics and mirroring. I had a defensive coordinator in the NFL who would always yell whenever someone missed an assignment, “If you can count, you can play!”
When an offense lines up in an initial formation, the defense mirrors them and lines up to optimally defend the formation. If the offense moves, shifts or motions (before, during or after the snap), the defense must move, shift or motion accordingly.
Sometimes the motions and shifts happen fast (as they did in the diagrammed play here), but the best defenses have players with high football IQs who can do quick mental gymnastics that puts them in proper position to defend the play.
Back to the second photo: The UGA defenders in this play either weren’t paying attention during meetings when their coach taught them how to defend it, or the coach didn’t teach them. Probably the former, and therefore the Georgia defenders never stood a chance.
As the ball is snapped, the two RBs who initially lined up in the backfield sprint to the alley as Louis ran like a scalded dog behind them with the ball. The problem here is the defense never adjusted. Now, in an instant, the left alley has only two UGA defenders while Auburn suddenly has three players PLUS the fourth player with the ball!
The alley on the right (away from the play) now has only one Auburn wide receiver but, because UGA never adjusted, there are FOUR Bulldog defenders who are defending absolutely nothing. Not. Good.
Now let’s look at the end result when this happens:
This final image shows the manifestation of a beautifully designed run play. The scheme used a fast motion before the snap and sudden shifts and changing of gaps as the ball was snapped. This was a magisterial play drawn up by an artist!
Louis ran for 12 yards before a defender even laid a hand on him. When you look at this image, it’s easier to see why and how Auburn has been able to gash and dash in the run game all year.
Remember, this is just one example of how Auburn can daze and confuse its opponents.
These types of schemes confuse players at the professional level whose full-time jobs are to defend them. So for college players, who have other studying to do outside of football, it can be tough to absorb all the necessary information on film and then execute it.
Auburn’s running attack, with Tre Mason and Marshall and guys like Louis sweeping across formations, challenges you to do that.
I think Alabama is up to that challenge, despite Gus Malzahn being a true gridiron guru, who leads an Auburn team full of heart and passion. Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is one of my favorite college linebackers to watch, and he’s surrounded by a slew of smart, tough, seek-and-destroy defenders.
Not only do the Tide have some of the best athletes in all of college football, they are well-coached, erudite defenders, almost like Jedis who have learned to use the Force through strict discipline as taught by their master.
Auburn’s running attack will present a challenge in this battle, but the Tide’s combination of sheer talent and focus gives them the advantage, thus making them the ones to beat in this year’s Iron Bowl.