Dbbm and I switched up our previews this week; he is an expert in smashmouth spread concepts and I tend explain defensive concepts far better than any on offense, but I simply do not trust myself to write about Kevin Steele vs a spread offense. You likely know very well why. It will suffice to say that his preferred 4-3 under defense is disastrous against any good spread team, much less one with Deshaun Watson.
The Auburn offense is schematically similar to Clemson and we’ve written at length about smashmouth spread concepts. To minimize the redundancy I’ll focus more on what’s different about the ways Auburn employs the same base offense compared to what we see at Clemson; the biggest differences this year stem from personnel capabilities.
Sean White earned the start against Clemson simply because he is the only chance at a competent, two dimensional attack. He is not the run threat Malzahn desires to truly open up his offense. For an offense whose passing attack is based on an established run game and run-pass options (RPOs), this is obviously not ideal for Auburn. John Franklin III will of course see snaps but do not expect more than a few deep balls or screens when he is on the field; he will enter the game to provide the QB run threat Gus Malzahn needs to optimally operate the offense, but there’s a reason he isn’t the starter and it’s because there is no passing game with him behind center. So while he doesn’t fit into the base of Auburn’s attack, White does provide a downfield dimension no other quarterback on the team can offer:
White is a good passer and capable of running the offense adequately, but unlike last year he has little proven talent at running back to help him in the backfield or at receiver to stretch the field and keep Clemson from loading up on the run. The strength of the offense can be found in the interior line, which unfortunately for Auburn is matched by the greatest strength of the Clemson defense: the beautifully deep and talented defensive tackle rotation.
Ian A. Boyd recently wrote a wonderful primer for what Auburn must do to hang with Clemson, and I find it both agreeable and insightful. As you should know from the Gus Malhazn/Chad Morris connection, Auburn employs shotgun, 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) formations the most often but also likes to throw 2 RB or 2 HB looks in for misdirection. As you know, the smashmouth spread offense is based upon simple inside zone, power, and counters:
Since the inside zone is a staple not only for Clemson and Auburn but also the rest of the football world, I won’t rehash the specifics; the gif above does a much better job anyway. Inside zone, and its wrinkle the zone read are Auburn’s “bread and butter” and we will see Auburn attack with it early to try and open up the rest of the offense.
Auburn is far more reliant on its run game than Clemson, not only by preference but by necessity since they don’t yet have a developed, dynamic quarterback or a dangerous passing attack. Along with the staple inside zone and zone read, we will see a heavy diet of power and counter runs; illustrated in the first gif but captured here in the spring game:
With power/counter, the backside guard pulls to the playside to create a numbers advantage and serve as a lead blocker. It may seem simple, but the success of these runs will provide a solid indicator early on of Auburn’s chances against Clemson. There is little chance Auburn can outscore Clemson, so it must control the game on the ground as it is wont to do regardless.
This is where the obvious similarities to the Clemson offense end. Without a capable dual-threat quarterback (each can either run well or throw well but not both) the Auburn offense is handicapped; it cannot force defenses to pick its poison through accurate downfield passing, power runs, and run/pass options (RPOs) all from the same base 11 personnel like Clemson can. And most detrimentally to the Auburn offense, White almost never keeps on a zone read or inverted veer, essentially removing the very play Malzahn rode to two national championship appearances.
Again, Sean White is a good quarterback; he is safe with the football and has arm talent. He is not, however, the ideal quarterback for Gus Malzahn’s offense, which flourishes with the aforementioned zone read, RPOs, or moving-pocket rollouts:
Malzahn has a dynamic running quarterback in Franklin, but Clemson will be able to key on the QB run when he enters the game. This would be troublesome if Auburn had 1v1 deep threats, but with only one receiver over 6 feet Auburn is not equipped to attack Clemson’s biggest weakness: field corner. As such, it is more likely Auburn uses motion and play action to bait a safety into a bust than it is for Mark Fields, Ryan Carter, or Trayvon Mullen to be beaten over the top.
With underwhelming receivers and a heavy reliance on an exotic run game, Auburn’s passing attack has to be creative. It will feature a myriad of play action fakes which penalize a lack of eye-discipline which subsequently leads to coverage busts:
This is an area of concern for Clemson, whose two new safeties sat behind a pair of NFL safeties who weren’t exactly known for eye-discipline. If Clemson safeties Jadar Johnson and Van Smith can read keys properly and play within the system, Auburn won’t find consistent success downfield; the passing game isn’t threatening enough unless they find plenty of success on the ground. There is one particular question mark on Clemson’s defense, though, which Auburn is more than capable of exploiting.
Establishing the Edge
Clemson is perilously thin at defensive end. So thin that one of its star defensive tackles, Christian Wilkins, is the presumed starter at defensive end and will certainly log a heavy snap count outside. This isn’t as big a problem as it would be if Auburn were a threatening drop-back passing team where a pass rush is crucial, but look no further than the 2014 Clemson/Georgia game to be reminded what can happen when your ends are too worn to set the edge on sweeps and stretch runs. In my view, attacking the edge on outside zones and sweeps is Auburn’s best hope to consistently move the ball downfield.
Auburn incorporates far more motion and misdirection in its run game, particularly when it attacks the edge:
In addition to the familiar jet sweep Morris brought to Clemson:
As such, expect to see plenty of jet sweeps and outside runs like these not only to run away from Clemson’s defensive tackles, but to test the inexperienced and thin defensive ends. Auburn will be wise to attack Clemson’s defensive ends in order to wear them down and sustain drives — thereby keeping Clemson’s presumably historic offense on the sideline.
Facing minimal threats through the air, Clemson will happily employ its 4-3 over on standard downs, even against 3 wide receiver sets. Sam linebacker Dorian O’Daniel is athletic enough to split on a slot receiver when needed and keep whomever plays nickel corner on the sideline, but will mostly have the flat in both cover 3 and cover 4 looks. Without a dangerous QB run threat or weapons outside, Clemson will also likely employ plenty of the man cover 1 which handcuffed Oklahoma so effectively in the Orange Bowl.
Look for aggressive bullet and fire blitzes from Ben Boulware and plenty of cover 3 and man cover 1, which will bring a safety down into the box or alley to help shut down the run. Venables will live with a deep completion or two, should Auburn earn them (as in not by cheap coverage busts). As always, he will take away the run and make the opposing quarterback beat him. It’s been a wildly successful formula with personnel turnover before, and Auburn’s offensive personnel and identity play right into Venables’ hands.
Essentially, all Clemson must do to win this game defensively is trust its DTs to take away the inside run and hope the DEs hold up on the edge. Auburn’s passing game becomes forced and ineffective without an inside run game, and Clemson is too strong inside for Auburn to find a living off its bread and butter. Even if they do and all seems to go right for their offense, Auburn still has to outscore Deshaun Watson with Kevin Steele coordinating their defense.
The difference between a close game and a comfortable margin will be Auburn’s success on outside runs. Otherwise, Auburn’s hopes hang on the same Clemson mistakes in the secondary which cost the 2015 Tigers a national championship. It is odd, and quite unnerving actually, to be this confident in the road team against an opponent with equal or better talent at more than a few positions, but rational analysis points to Clemson pulling away after halftime.