A good defensive front is football's ultimate equalizer. Even though Auburn's is the second-best in its state, it's still better than 99 percent of the teams in the entire country.
The Tigers have some nice pieces in its back seven, but frankly, offensive success for the Sooners in this game will start and end with how they handle the Tigers' nasty defensive line. Unfortunately for coordinator Lincoln Riley and the rest of OU's offensive staff, there's not just one Myles Garrett to scheme around. It's a talented group up and down the line.
Needless to say, my novice scouting report on the matchup between OU's prolific attack and the Tigers' stingy D focuses on mitigating the impact of AU's DL.
*Count on the Tigers to play almost exclusively in nickel personnel against OU to counter the Sooners’ heavy use of three- and four-receiver sets. Practically speaking, that means playing senior Johnathan Ford at nickelback and keeping linebacker Deshaun Davis on the sidelines.
*The Tigers will run hybrid fronts with either three or four down linemen. Carl Lawson, who plays Auburn’s BUCK defensive end/linebacker, gives defensive coordinator Kevin Steele flexibility, especially when it comes to blitz packages. Lawson’s ability to play both standing up and with a hand in the dirt enables Steele to move him around the line of scrimmage and attack from different angles.
*In his own way, big Montravius Adams (6-4, 309) on the interior is as much of a disruptor as Lawson. I actually worry more about the ability of center Erick Wren and guards Dru Samia and Ben Powers to corral Adams than I do about Lawson coming off the edge.
*I don’t know if Auburn’s linemen truly are bigger than the vast majority of DLs OU has seen this year or if it just looks that way. I do know that their length and athleticism will make life a bitch for Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Here’s an example of how:
In the clip above, Ole Miss lines up in trips left with quarterback Chad Kelly (No. 15) in the shotgun. Immediately upon receiving the snap, Kelly pumps to tight end Evan Engram (No. 17) in the flat. The outside receiver runs a deep route, drawing the cornerback with him. Nickelback Johnathan Ford (No. 23), who is lined up across from slot receiver Van Jefferson (No. 12), bites on the fake to Engram, opening up Jefferson on a wheel route to the sideline.
The extra second or so needed to execute the fake simultaneously gives Adams (No. 1) enough time to drive his blocker into the backfield. He gets his hand into Kelly’s throwing lane to bat the ball away.
Keep in mind that Kelly probably has two or three inches on Mayfield. Hopefully, Riley is devising a plan to help his star quarterback get some decent throwing lanes. Straights drops will be tough.
*Assuming Mayfield does get those looks, there's reason to believe he and the rest of OU's receivers could do plenty of damage.
A cursory glance at the numbers says Auburn is one of the best defenses in the country against the pass: 15th nationally in passer rating (112.79), 11th in yards per attempt (6.1). A deeper dig tells a different story, though. The Tigers rank 32nd nationally in Passing S&P+ and and 62nd in Passing Downs S&P+.
In reality, although AU locked down the numerous putrid aerial attacks on its schedule this season, spread offenses had some success throwing on the Tigers. For example, Ole Miss passed for 7.9 yards an attempt using spread passing concepts.
I suspect OU could find some holes in the coverage in the middle of the field with stick and seam routes. Joe Mixon and Mark Andrews should get more than just a few looks.
*I'd recommend going uptempo early and often. Try to keep AU's linemen and linebackers off-balance, rather than giving them a chance to get set and find their keys.
Additionally, the more plays they face, the more likely the Tiger defenders are to wear down in the second half.