When last seen on a football field, Auburn’s offense looked unstoppable.
The Tigers mowed through Missouri for an SEC championship game record 677 total yards to pull away for a 59-42 victory. Missouri had a hard enough time finding the ball that day in Atlanta, much less slowing down Auburn’s running game.
Auburn piled up 545 rushing yards in that contest and enters Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship with an astonishing 1,608 rushing yards in its past four games.
Several of the defensive coordinators who faced Auburn’s offense this season told ESPN.com that clamping down on quarterback Nick Marshall’s ability to run the football was a must if you’re going to keep Auburn from revving up that offensive machine.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when the Tigers are playing at breakneck pace and Marshall is averaging 9 yards per carry on zone-read plays.
“You’ve got to account for Marshall, which means you better have athletic safeties who can tackle him,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “That’s where we got exposed because he’s exceptional at taking off and making athletic plays in space.”
Jancek saw Marshall toward the latter part of the season, when he was playing his best football. So did Georgia, and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Marshall was much improved as a passer.
“Nick has really grown into the position and is much better now than he was at the start of the season,” Grantham said. “He’s got a cannon for an arm and can make plays. He’s really an NFL cornerback. That’s what he is, but he can throw the deep ball, and he’s really good in that offense and gives them another dimension because it truly is 11-on-11 with his ability to run the football.”
Marshall and junior running back Tre Mason both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, a telltale sign that the Tigers were doing something right up front.
Both Grantham and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Auburn’s offensive line was the best one they faced all season.
“You’ve got to be ready to play the tempo game and tackle well, but don’t let anybody kid you,” Chavis said. “They’ve got a lot of really good football players in the offensive line. We didn’t play against a better offensive line this year, and I don’t think people are giving that offensive line enough credit.”
LSU was the only team to beat Auburn this season after jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead and then holding on for a 35-21 rain-soaked win back in September.
“You have to be able to handle all their different looks on the perimeter,” Chavis said. “It will look like the same run, and they’ll end up throwing it. They’re not going to let you cheat and get an extra guy in there. They’re going to put you in a lot of one-on-one situations, and you have to be able to tackle. If not, you’re going to have a hard time with them.”
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said one of the things Auburn coach Gus Malzahn does best is disguising what he’s doing.
“He’ll use motion and shifts and those types of things, and it doesn't give the players enough time in their heads to recognize it,” Wommack said. “He’ll create the same play over and over again, but it won’t necessarily look the same on the field.
“I’m anxious to see this game. Gus is going to run his offense, but it won’t look the same to Florida State. That’s why Gus is so good. He’ll have some special things.”
Grantham could see Florida State being more multiple in its defensive line and using some three-man fronts.
“An odd front gives Auburn more trouble than an even front,” Grantham said. “I think they’re much better at blocking an even front than they are an odd front. But Auburn is multiple enough to find something it likes and sticking with it.
“Their tempo didn’t bother us. I think that’s a little bit overrated. It’s more their formations, movement, skill of their players and that offensive line. Florida State will have more things in [its] arsenal to stop them and may be able to create more negative plays and get them into third-and-6 or more, and that’s when you’ve got them.”
Even though Auburn doesn’t throw it much, Grantham said sophomore receiver Sammie Coates can change the game in a hurry. Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions.
“He’s going to be a steal in the NFL draft,” Grantham said. “With Marshall, you've got to commit extra people to get to the quarterback, which leaves you one-on-one outside with Coates. He’s got the physical skill set to win most of those battles.”