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Opponent Defense Preview: War Eagle

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It’s game week everybody!

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It’s. Game. Week.

Oh my goodness, how I thought it’d never return. Yet, just like every year, it finally does, and we finally get to write about another real-life team the Huskies are playing.

Have a go at it.

Personnel and What to Expect

So, here’s the thing:

Auburn’s defense is — wait for it — good. Real good. Okay, that’s it for today, bye bye!

No, but really, here’s a little rundown:

From the film I watched (UCF, Mississippi State, UGA in the SEC Championship, and Bama), a few things stood out. For one, they’re quite versatile in their fronts and formations, in a way reminding me of Stanford from two or three years ago.

Against UCF and Bama and, to an extent, UGA, they played a lot of 3-3-5, although I’d be hesitant to call that their “base defense” with the amount they showed differently too, whether it were another nickel look, 4-3, or 3-4. Also in my jottings down after watching them against UCF is the note “dime look wtf?” after seeing that once or twice. And it wasn’t once or twice in obvious, massively long passing downs or anything. They just... played a dime defense on, like, second and six or something. I doubt we’ll be seeing that Saturday but, in case we do, now we know it’s got precedent.

Otherwise, they didn’t play as much nickel against Mississippi State, and it made sense: with MSU’s primarily running, alright-but-not-great-at-passing quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald, Auburn’s goal was clearly to disrespect Fitzgerald’s arm and force him to throw over the front seven which, it’s safe to say, didn’t happen much.

Which, while we’re at it, brings up a common theme: Auburn looked, to me, so good at destroying quarterbacks who were either A) primarily runners or B) statues. Where they looked to have trouble — relatively — was with a guy who is mobile but whose primary strength is as a passer, a la McKenzie Milton from Central Florida. In other words, if Jake Browning was a bit faster, a bit more decisive, with a bit better vision as a runner — Auburn’s defense could actually be on their heels. But he’s not, so they won’t be. Still, Browning’s underrated mobility (when he doesn’t end up accidentally running backwards into a DE), will get a work-out and hopefully come in handy from time to time.

Whether against Jake Fromm, Nick Fitzgerald, or Jalen Hurts, Auburn’s front seven’s game plans were clear and, to be fair, perfectly planned for a classic SEC offense based more on running the ball than airing it out. In other words, exacerbating their linebacking and defensive line’s dominance was the fact that they could put a load of players in the box, easily destroy the opponents’ run game, and then force the quarterback to try throws he couldn’t make.

Really, although their front seven is more physically dominating than UW’s, otherwise their defense reminds me a bunch of the Huskies where it matters; quite a bit of nickel, every guy plays his assignment well, really sound tacklers — in general, just strong fundamentally. Compounding this comparison is that Auburn, too, doesn’t allow many explosive plays. Really the only true threat for those extra yards was, from what I saw, Milton’s ability to extend plays or take off running or, in Georgia’s case, their running back combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who’s slipperiness and power won out at times.

As for the specific position groups, here’s a look:

In the linebackers, their Sam, Mike, and Will starters — Darrell Williams, Deshaun Davis, and Montavious Atkinson — are all seniors. Davis has started every game the last two years and racks up tackles like a monster. Williams, at Sam, is also a multi-year starter known for his versatility and will probably see his production increase this year with the Tigers’ loss of former LB and captain, Tre’ Williams, to graduation. Lastly, Atkinson played safety as a true freshman, converted to linebacker, and has been rotating in heavily throughout his career, although this will be his first season as a full-time starter.

Speaking of rotation on defense, this is a good time to mention that, similar to Chris Petersen, Gus Malzahn and his defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, rotate players in and out of their defensive lineup heavily. With that in mind, a guy like backup linebacker K.J. Britt is likely to also make some plays Saturday as well.

Bridging the gap between linebackers and defensive line is Nick Coe, the Tigers’ starting Buck. He is a monster. He’s 6’5,” 282 lbs, which sounds like a right ol’ fun time for McGary and Adams to deal with. During Coe’s redshirt freshman season last year, he was named to the SEC All-Freshman team, was SEC Freshman of the Week twice, had 4.5 tackles for loss... You get it.

Which brings us to the vaunted defensive line.

Opposite Coe are the rotation of Marlon Davidson and Big Kat Bryant (all-name team, anyone?). Bryant is listed as a backup on Auburn’s depth chart, but we should probably expect to see him around a bunch anyway — he was on the SEC All-Freshman team last year for a reason, as a true frosh nonetheless. Starter Marlon Davidson hasn’t always been healthy, but he’s started since arriving at Auburn in 2016 when he was on the SEC All-Freshman team. Last year, he had lingering injuries that made him less of a monster, but he was still a relative monster on the line. With him healthy this year, I don’t envy whoever has to block his general direction.

Then, in Auburn’s DT three deep, only one, Andrew Williams, is less than 300 lbs. Among them, starter Derrick Brown is considered a first round NFL prospect who can absolutely stuff gaps in the run and, at 6’5” and 320 lbs is almost Vita Vea-ish. Not quite. But almost.

The other starter listed at DT would be fifth-year senior Dontavius Russell, who’s started 37 games in his four year career. It feels redundant at this point to expound on any of these guys; how many ways are there to say “They’re real freaking good?”

I suppose I’ll just leave it at that, where the D-line is concerned — the pass rushers are nuts, the run-stuffers are a bit less nuts per S&P+ but still nuts. There’s really not much more to say.

If there’s one thing that can be even at all exploited, it’s the secondary. They’re a relative “weakness,” but I’m obliged to put “weakness” in quotes here simply because they’d still be a strength on most teams; the fact that they’re a weakness is solely a compliment to the defensive line and linebackers combined with the fact that this unit has the most to replace after losing UDFA safeties Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews plus 2nd round draft pick (and current Vita Vea teammate down in Tampa Bay), CB Carlton Davis.

This year’s Auburn secondary is similar to last year’s Washington secondary: replacing a lot, but replacing that talent with more talent. And again, remember that part previously about how Malzahn rotates the defense a bunch the same way Petersen does? Yeah, so, in other words, a bunch of talented backups with a bunch of experience are not starters. That worked out well for the Dawgs last year and it’ll probably be okay for the Tigers this year, too.

Bottom Line

In the end, Auburn’s a fundamentally sound defense, good tacklers, and disciplined in space, combined with a raw talent level above UW’s by a notch — their 247 per recruit ranking between 2015 and 2018 has hovered around .89 to .91, above Washington’s but a bit below, for a reference point, USC’s. (Yes, recruiting rankings over large sample sizes are useful, before anyone asks.)

It goes without saying, but Washington offensively has to A) be smart and B) execute with precision. Sure, that’s always true, but with a defense that is both this fundamentally sound and where each guy is a monster, it’s true to an even greater degree.

That being said, one thing that struck me while watching the UCF-Auburn bowl film? I kept hearing about how great UCF played, and how Auburn wasn’t motivated, and how, with the Knights having the game of their lives and Auburn not giving a crap, the game barely counted. But that wasn’t, on UCF’s offensive side, anyway, the case at all. They played quite well most of the time but what was surprising was the amount they didn’t do that on offense and still won. Seriously — there were a bunch of sloppy throws, dropped passes, mediocre execution, and a whole heck of a lot of missed opportunities where, had the Knights played better than those mistakes, they could have embarrassed Auburn.

It’s confusing; on one hand, with the eye test and a knowledge of the Tigers’ defense, it’s clear that any opposing offense has to have their best game. On the other hand, UCF had plenty of self-inflicted wounds plus a massive talent disadvantage and still won. Life is confusing sometimes, what the heck.

Regardless of whether the Huskies can win without their best game, if there’s one team this year where they really really really probably definitely should have their best game or they’re screwed, it’s this one (duh). Is that the stupidest, most obvious statement I’ve ever made? Yeah, probably. Whatever.

As for the game plan and execution, obviously the Dawgs need to work Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed but even more importantly, they have to establish a passing threat or else the run game is screwed. A common theme of Auburn’s domination in victories was putting a bunch of their resources to stopping the run and daring an opposing quarterback to beat them with their arm. When said QB couldn’t do it? Auburn destroyed. A lack of air threat for any team playing this defense might as well be certain death.

If, though, Browning and the young receivers can do that, Gaskin and Ahmed should get some more space from the defense and then the Dawgs can get the production out of them that’s so necessary.

Lastly, fun fact unrelated to this: Auburn’s new AD is an O’Dea grad from Bellevue.

As always, any lurking Auburn fans, feel free to let your insights reign in the comments!

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.