So Gus Malzahn is four games in. What are your thoughts so far about his coaching schemes?
So far, we're seeing pretty much what we expected from Malzahn's offensive scheming, and that's a good thing. Like Hugh Freeze, Malzahn wants to run to set up the pass -- or to set up more running. There's plenty of read option and inside running with Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, and Corey Grant is used on sweeps to get speed to the perimeter. When Auburn passes, Nick Marshall gets to throw a lot of screens and underneath routes to get the ball to play-makers in space, and he throws downfield enough to stretch out opposing defenses. All in all, the offensive play-calling has been pretty solid, and when the Tigers have executed properly, they've been tough to stop.
On defense, Ellis Johnson runs a 4-2-5 -- again, similar to Ole Miss -- and the hybrid "star" position really allows Robenson Therezie to fly all over the field and make plays. Auburn mixes zone and man coverage pretty well, and the only thing I'd like to see a little more of is blitzing from the star/linebackers/DBs. The defensive line can be inconsistent, and it could use help to get pressure from time to time. But overall, I think the coaches have been doing a nice job of game-planning and adjusting on both sides of the ball.
There is a perception that Auburn has tons of talent and just needed a coach to get it done. Can you talk a little bit about talent strengths and deficiencies in general? By that I mean, is there a glaring position need? Positional strength?
That was the most frustrating thing about the Fall of Chizik over the last two years: Auburn had been killing it in recruiting and had a ton of four-star players on the roster, but you'd never know it based on the results. This year, we're seeing some of those highly touted guys begin to live up to their ratings -- especially on defense -- mostly because they're finally being taught proper fundamentals. The statistics leave a lot to be desired right now, but it's Year 1 under Gus. Hopefully the improvement will continue and the stats will begin to show.
The strength of the team is certainly at running back. Between Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant, the Tigers have three solid backs who can take over at any given time throughout a game. They're all averaging at least 4.9 yards per carry, and between them, they average, 196.0 yards per game.
While running back is the obvious strength, linebacker is without a doubt the biggest weakness. Senior Jake Holland starts in the middle, and he gets the defense lined up properly and provides good leadership, but he just doesn't have the talent to be a middle linebacker in the SEC, often getting blocked out of plays or missing tackles. Kris Frost is his backup and is more physically gifted, but he just can't seem to completely grasp the mental aspect of the game, leaving him on the sideline at times when he's talented enough to run the position. Cassanova McKinzy is solid at weakside and has good numbers (21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks), but he seems to disappear from time to time. It seems like week in and week out, opposing offenses are basing their game plans on how to attack Auburn's LBs.
Ole Miss struggled to run against Alabama's wide-set 3-4 defense. Should the Rebels expect to see Auburn space out a lot as well? Have teams been effective at running to the outside?
Auburn has done some wide spacing on the D-line, but it hasn't really worked to the Tigers' advantage. They did it in the opener against Washington State, but the Cougars' gashed the interior for 120 yards and 5.2 per carry. Against Mississippi State, Dak Prescott killed Auburn with his inside rushing (133 yards, 6.0 per carry), often when the Tigers were lined up wide.
So yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if Auburn spaced out after the success Alabama had, but I'm not sure the Tigers would be able to produce the same kinds of results. The interior linemen have been beaten up at times, and like I said earlier, the linebackers are the biggest weakness on the team. I'm a bit worried about what Bo Wallace can do with the inverted veer in this one.
Barber hasn't played yet and appears to be redshirting, but Adams, Lawson and Daniel are definitely beginning to make an impact, and Adams is probably leading the way. When he's in the game, he's often the best defensive lineman on the field, but he doesn't get a ton of snaps because he's still learning the game as a true freshman. But when he's in there, his play makes it pretty clear that he's going to be a star. He uses power to bull rush through opposing O-linemen, and even if he doesn't record a stat, he often gets into the backfield and disrupts the offense's timing. Lawson and Daniel have shown sparks of greatness in limited action at end, but I'd say they're a little behind Adams, who leads the team with five QB hurries.
What's your prediction on the game? Give a final score and how it gets there.
This is really tough to call. I don't think either side will run away with it, and I wouldn't be surprised with any final spread between 1 and 10-14ish points. Ole Miss has the advantage of being in Year 2 under Freeze, but a lot of Auburn players were familiar with Malzahn's offense before this season, and the Tigers are at home. With such similar styles on both sides of the ball and similar coaches who are quite familiar with one another, I think it could come down to which offense executes better and makes fewer mistakes.
That said, I'll take Auburn in front of the home crowd. Nick Marshall was rattled early at LSU, but he settled down in the second half, and he's steadily improved in the Tigers' three previous road games. Against Mississippi State, he proved he can come through in the clutch on the final drive, completing 6-of-8 passes for 66 yards and rushing four times for 19 more. He drove Auburn 88 yards in 1:46, completing the game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds to play.
I think Auburn will struggle to run at times against Ole Miss' front seven, but Marshall will play well enough to get the job done. He'll hook up with Sammie Coates for two or three big gains, and one way or another, the Tigers will get out alive with a 27-23 win.