To say that Gus Malzahn's first year as head coach of the Auburn Tigers has been a whirlwind would be an understatement. Just one year removed from his first collegiate coaching gig—a one-year stint with Arkansas State—Malzahn has led the Tigers out of a 3-9 abyss and into a BCS National Championship Game showdown with No. 1 Florida State on Jan. 6, 2014.
How'd he do it?
Malzahn turned around the SEC's worst offense, which averaged just 305.0 yards per game in 2012, into the SEC's second-best offense, averaging 505.3 yards per game. It's an offense that's easy to diagnose but almost impossible to stop. His ability to run the same or similar plays out of different formations and personnel groupings keeps defensive coordinators guessing for a full 60 minutes.
Former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings told AL.com's Solomon Crenshaw, Jr. before the Iron Bowl that he knows how to stop it and that it "wouldn't be a problem" as long as a team has great players.
So, how can it be slowed down?
Win the Line of Scrimmage
Malzahn's offense gets labeled as a "spread offense," but it's really a two-back power rushing attack that thrives on tempo and space. Auburn uses the zone read and mixes in a jet sweep quite often to create three options on every play, which is very difficult on defenders who are forced to play assignment football.
But Auburn has been successful this season due in large part to consistently winning the line of scrimmage. Center Reese Dismukes and guards Chad Slade and first-team SEC All-Freshman Alex Kozan have been fantastic opening holes in the interior and on power plays in which they pull.
It's not surprising to running back Tre Mason.
"I haven't been that much surprised in those guys," he said after the Tigers' 59-42 SEC Championship Game win over Missouri. "They work their tails off every day. Those guys open up some of the biggest holes that I've ever seen, that I've ever ran through."
In the play above, Slade (62) pulls from his right guard position and gets a nice block on Georgia defensive end Ray Drew. Fullback Jay Prosch—who's one of the top fullbacks in college football—falls in behind him and gets a great block on linebacker Amarlo Herrera to spring Mason to the next level. Mason cruises through the hole and takes it to the house from 24 yards out.
This is power football, plain and simple.
If you're a defensive coordinator, you have to find ways to get penetration to disrupt these plays. The nature of Auburn's offense almost forces defenders to sit back and wait to find out where the ball is going, but that's the last thing a defense should do.
In order to beat Auburn, you have to win the line of scrimmage. The way to do that is with stunts and run blitzes that disrupt the play. Mason hits the hole quickly, and forcing him to change direction in the backfield will slow him—and the Auburn offense—down.
Have Elite Cover Cornerbacks
Auburn doesn't throw often, but when it does, it puts a ton of pressure on cornerbacks who are often on islands downfield.
The ability of Mason, fellow running back Corey Grant and quarterback Nick Marshall to constantly find success on the ground forces safeties to come up on run support. When they do, it's up to Marshall and wide receiver Sammie Coates to take the top off.
In the play above, the safety gets drawn in on the play-action fake despite it being 3rd-and-7, and Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel is left all alone to cover Coates, who has a two-inch size advantage on the Razorback cornerback.
It's not even a great pass from Marshall, but Coates beats Mitchel one-on-one, and the result is an 88-yard touchdown that extends Auburn's lead to 28-3.
Florida State has great cornerbacks, including Lamarcus Joyner, who moved to corner before the season. When those corners get put on islands, that's when Auburn will take its shots. Winning those battles is imperative to stopping Auburn's offense.
Set the Edge
Missouri entered the SEC Championship Game with the SEC's second-best rush defense. It left with the eighth-best after giving up 545 rushing yards to the Tigers from the Plains.
What was the reason?
Auburn got to the edge quickly, and when it did, nobody was there. Missouri went with a three-man front at times, and it backfired thanks to the ability of Prosch and those pulling guards to get to the next level in a hurry.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was clearly concerned about Auburn's speed and wanted to get more athleticism on the field, but he outthought the room. Mason, Grant and Marshall are too good in space, and in an offense that is designed to get them into matchups where they need to beat just one man, you can't have that one man be on the edge in space.
When that happens, three-yard gains turn into 20-yard gains in a hurry.
Auburn's offense versus the Florida State defense is going to be a fun matchup in the BCS National Championship Game. The Seminoles have some beasts up front who can win those important line-of-scrimmage battles, including defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and defensive end Mario Edwards.
With a month to prepare, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have plenty of time to draw up a scheme to shut down the Tigers.
The question then becomes whether that is even possible.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!