From the day Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn in December as head coach, he has repeated a very familiar theme.
"We had to get our edge back," Malzahn said.
The Tigers weren’t going to do that with snazzy new uniforms, a gimmicky offense or by pretending that 2012 was simply a fluke.
“We went back to doing what Auburn has always done best and what fit the players we have here now, and that’s spreading you out and coming at you until you can’t take it anymore or don’t want it anymore,” said Auburn junior running back Tre Mason, one of the main cogs in an Auburn running game ranked second nationally in rushing (320.3 yards per game).
Yes, Malzahn likes to play at warp speed and views huddling the way most of us view Sasquatch sightings. And, yes, the Tigers’ goal is to snap the ball before the defense is ready, and they’re always going to show you different formations with a lot of motion, misdirection and even a few trick plays.
But the biggest misnomer with Malzahn’s offense is that it’s more finesse than physical.
There’s a reason that he has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in all eight of his seasons in the college game after making the move from the high school ranks.
And in six of his eight seasons as either a head coach or offensive coordinator his teams have averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game.
“That is what we harped on when we first got here,” Malzahn said. “We felt like we needed to get our edge back, that physical, hard-nosed, blue-collar edge back that starts up front. We are a run, play-action team. A lot of times, you hear 'spread' and think pass to open up the run, but we run to open up the pass.”
More times than not, the Tigers have run to open up the run this season and haven’t had to pass.
Quarterback Nick Marshall’s development in the zone-read part of the Tigers’ package has helped take this offense to another level. He’s a dynamic athlete and has carved defenses apart as he has become more and more comfortable in the offense.
Auburn has used the zone read on 43 percent of its designed rushes this season, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. The Tigers lead the SEC in yards (1,589), yards per rush (7.2) and touchdowns (18) on zone-read rushes.
When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he has gained 657 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per rush on zone-read keepers, best among quarterbacks in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences with at least 25 such rushes.
So Marshall’s athleticism has obviously been critical to Auburn’s success. But going back to Malzahn’s original point, it has all started up front for the Tigers in their offensive line.
According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, they’re averaging 209.5 rushing yards per game before first contact, which leads all teams from automatic-qualifying conferences. To put that number into perspective, 97 FBS teams do not average 209.5 total rushing yards per game.
“We don’t care if you put all 11 in the box. We’re still going to run the ball,” said Mason, who has rushed for an SEC-leading 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
“We’re going to figure out a way to block it all up and figure out a way to be successful. With that mindset, we feel like we can’t be beat.”
And even though Auburn has attempted fewer than 20 passes in four of its past seven games, Mason invites Alabama this week or anybody else, for that matter, to sell out against the run.
“If you want to stack the box, we’re going to throw deep on you,” Mason said. “We feel like we have so many weapons in our arsenal.”
The obvious question heading into Saturday’s Iron Bowl is whether Auburn can make a living running the ball against an Alabama defense that specializes in making teams one-dimensional.
One stat to watch is big plays.
Auburn has 64 rushes of 15 yards or longer this season, second most in the FBS. By contrast, Alabama has allowed three rushes of 15 yards or longer all season, which is on pace to be the lowest total in the past 10 years.
The Crimson Tide have allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season and are the only FBS team that has not allowed a team to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game.
Mason, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, has great respect for Alabama on defense. But the way he looks at it, the Tide are the ones who will need to make the adjustments Saturday on the Plains.
“We don’t have to do anything different or try to be something we’re not,” Mason said. “We just have to do what we’ve done all season, and that’s play Auburn football.”