Auburn vs. Ole Miss: The Biggest Difference Between the Spread Offenses

Justin Lee@@byjustinleeContributor IOctober 5, 2013

Sep 14, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn speaks to players from the sidelines during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The story all week leading up to Saturday's matchup between Auburn and Ole Miss—and head coaches Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze—has revolved around the similarities that the two coaches share, both in the paths their careers have taken and in the offensive schemes they employ.

Perhaps it comes with good reason.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 28:  Head coach Hugh Freeze of the Mississippi Rebels questions a call during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Both coaches have enjoyed meteoric rises through the ranks of the football world in just a few years, starting from the high school level to where they stand now, as head coaches in the best conference in college football.

And indeed, both coaches have used similar hurry-up, no-huddle offensive schemes to garner that success.

Both coaches like to play with a fast tempo. Both coaches use spread formations to stretch defenses. Both coaches have a run-first mentality.

But Saturday's matchup won't be a battle between two mirror images—at least not quite.

The differences start with another similarity: Both Malzahn and Freeze tailor their offenses to their respective personnel—and therein lie the differences between Auburn and Ole Miss in 2013, in the personnel.

It begins at quarterback. Freeze plays Ole Miss junior Bo Wallace in much of a different way from how Malzahn plays Auburn junior Nick Marshall.

Statistically speaking, the two have had similar starts to the season. Wallace has thrown for 807 yards and four touchdowns with a 61.9 completion percentage, while Marshall has passed for 809 yards and four scores with a 58.3 completion percentage.

And yet, they have gone about getting there in completely different ways. For Ole Miss, the offense flows through Wallace, with much of the Rebels' success dependent on their quarterback's play and consistency.

At Auburn, Marshall is still only getting his feet to the ground in his first year on the Plains and as a starter in the SEC. Through the first four games—and the first two, especially—the Tigers have made a concerted effort to protect the junior and not put too much on his shoulders at one time.

The more experienced Wallace has been able to keep care of the ball better than Marshall as well. Missing from the above stat line are Marshall's four interceptions this season to Wallace's zero.

Both Wallace and Marshall add an extra dimension to their respective offensive attacks with their feet, but thus far this season, they've gone about churning upfield in different ways.

Wallace's greatest strength on the ground has been the read-option, making plays on designed runs between the hash marks. Most of Marshall's success on the ground has been on improvised plays and scrambles, outrunning defenders sideline-to-sideline.

October 13, 2012; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels running back Jeff Scott (3) tries to get away from Auburn Tigers defensive back Jermaine Whitehead (9) during their game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook - USA TODAY Sports
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

But the differences go far beyond just the quarterback position.

At running back, Malzahn and the Tigers have used a by-committee approach, with juniors Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne each taking carries from out of the backfield. Each has tallied over 200 yards rushing this season, and each have scored multiple touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the Ole Miss backfield begins and ends with senior Jeff Scott. Scott has amassed 358 yards and two scores through the first four games of the season—while no other Rebels running back has reached 100 yards.

Mason has garnered the most carries at Auburn with 65, while Artis-Payne has 42 and Corey Grant has 26. Scott leads the way for Ole Miss with 43 carries, but no other Rebels running back has as many carries as Artis-Payne or Grant, with the next most being Jaylen Walton at 22.

The two offenses have seen different types of production out of their respective wide receiver positions as well.

Wallace has done well for Ole Miss to spread the ball around and find a number of receivers in a balanced, mid-ranged attack. The Rebels' top-five receivers each average between nine to 14 yards per reception, with Donte Moncrief leading the way in yards with 233 on a 13.71 per catch average. Behind him, Laquon Treadwell has 205 yards receiving, and Evan Engram has 189.

Nov 17, 2012; Auburn, AL, USA: Auburn Tigers receiver Sammie Coates (18) catches a touchdown pass as Alabama A&M Bulldogs defensive back Derrick Harris (21) applies pressure during the second half at Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA T
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall's different targeting tendencies have been much less consistent, as the Tigers appear to now have much more easily defined roles for their receivers, from deep-threat to mid-range to short-play.

Sophomore Sammie Coates leads the Tigers far and away in total yardage, with 306 on the year. The statistics then take a plunge to second-most: junior Quan Bray with 114 yards. Coates, the Tigers' deep threat, is averaging 27.82 yards per reception. After Coates, a set of mid-range targets seemingly appear in three receivers averaging between 15 to 16.5 yards per catch. Finally, three more receivers average between six to 7.5 yards per catch.

Those numbers show a clear difference in how the Tigers play their unit as opposed to the Rebels' more well-rounded, do-it-all receiving corps.

In fact, the numbers and tape alike both show that Auburn and Ole Miss have put two different variations of the uptempo spread attack on the field—despite the kindred spirits that Malzahn and Freeze share.

In the end, it all means that the offenses featured Saturday night won't quite be perfect reflections of one another.

Instead, one will be more successful than the other. The world will just have to wait and see to find out.



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