How Auburn shocked Alabama, and how it might beat Missouri, too
There was a blueprint.
Earlier this year, I wrote a feature in SI on "How to Beat 'Bama," outlining a step-by-step guide for slaying the crimson-colored giant that has won the last two national championships. Let's look at how Auburn fared in completing these steps, which sprang from the minds of several SEC coaches, in the Tigers' 34-28 Iron Bowl win. Then, let's analyze what it all will mean for the Tigers when they face Missouri in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday in Atlanta.
• Step 1: Have a quarterback who can make plays with his feet and complete at least a few intermediate and deep throws.
Auburn's Nick Marshall may be the fastest, most agile quarterback in the nation. A onetime cornerback at Georgia who can run a 4.34 40, Marshall repeatedly beat Alabama defenders to the edge on zone-read option plays, and in the open field he looked more like a shifty tailback than a quarterback. In the Iron Bowl, he broke free for a 45-yard touchdown run and rushed for a total of 99 yards on 17 carries.
Marshall's ability to keep drives alive his feet was one of the keys to the game. The Tigers rushed for 296 yards, which was the most Alabama had surrendered to an SEC opponent since 2007 when Arkansas ran for 301. What's more, virtually half of those yards -- 150 -- were gained outside of the tackles. This trend could continue against Missouri, which ranks 14th nationally in rushing defense (119.1 yards per game).
Missouri likely will do what Alabama did and put an extra safety into the box to defend the run. This should open up the play-action pass game for Marshall, who proved in the Iron Bowl he can make key throws when it matters most. He completed 11-of-16 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns, but two plays stick out. On a 13-yard scoring strike to tight end C.J. Uzomah in the third quarter, Marshall threaded a thing of beauty between two Crimson Tide defenders in the right corner of the end zone. Then, in the fourth quarter, Marshall was running to his left at near full speed when, approaching the sideline, he switched the ball from his left hand to his right and flicked it about 15 yards to a wide-open Sammie Coates, who then sprinted into the end zone for 39-yard touchdown. Both of these plays illustrated that Marshall is much more than a running quarterback, even though he has only attempted 37 passes in his last five games.
"On some plays we messed up on our technique, and (Marshall) made us pay, and some plays he made on his own," Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "He's a good player."
"Nick is getting better every game," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told me a few weeks ago. "He's still learning the position, which is pretty exciting for us."
Indeed, Marshall has emerged as the most electrifying player in the SEC. Can Missouri's defense, unlike Alabama's, slow him down? The answer to that question may very well decide who ends up as the conference champion on Saturday night. But here's a stat to remember: Missouri leads the SEC with 37 sacks.
• Step 2: Play fast.
Nick Saban has never liked playing up-tempo offenses because they limit his ability to substitute, and Auburn plays as fast as any team in the nation. The Alabama defenders appeared out of sorts for most of the Iron Bowl -- Saban's signature of making pre-snap adjustments was seriously impaired by the Tigers' fast pace -- and there's no doubt Malzahn won't slow his offensive attack in the SEC Championship Game.
However, Missouri fared well against Texas A&M's up-tempo style on Saturday night, as the Tigers held Johnny Manziel to 216 total yards. One reason Alabama has struggled in recent years against quick-paced offenses is because the Tide don't practice against it; their offense, after all, is a traditional pro-style that huddles after most snaps. But Missouri also plays quickly on offense, so its defense is conditioned to the frenetic, hurry-up attack.
What does this all mean for Saturday? Most likely that the game will be a high-scoring track meet and that there will be a grand total of zero delay of game penalties.
• Step 3: Slow Alabama's rushing attack.
Auburn didn't exactly smother the Tide's running backs -- Alabama rushed for 218 yards -- but the Tigers made a few significant stops in short-yardage situations. With 5:34 left in the fourth quarter and Alabama holding a seven-point lead, Saban opted to go for it on fourth-and-one from Auburn's 13-yard line. But the Tigers' defensive front manhandled the Tide's offensive line at the point of attack, and running back T.J. Yeldon was stuffed for no gain. This was the moment, in retrospect, that the game began to turn against the Tide.
Yet Auburn is vulnerable against the run. They currently rank 56th in the nation in rushing defense, surrendering an average 157.6 yards per game, which is worse than teams such as Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State and Florida (which has lost seven straight). Missouri, meanwhile, is 18th in the nation in rushing offense (236.9 yards per game). Mizzou's offensive line versus Auburn's defensive line will be one of the key matchups in Atlanta. If Auburn doesn't get penetration to disrupt quarterback James Franklin, then Missouri, which has a more explosive offense than Alabama, could hang at least 40 points on Auburn.
• Step 4: Contain Amari Cooper.
A sophomore wide receiver, Cooper was Alabama's most dangerous offensive threat. For the most of last week's game, the Tigers put a safety over the top of Cooper while also shadowing him with a cornerback. Aside from a 99-yard touchdown catch -- which might have won both the game for Alabama and the Heisman Trophy for AJ McCarron if not for an ending for the ages -- Cooper was relatively quiet. Take away that one long-bomb reception and Cooper had five catches for 79 yards.
Missouri has three quality receivers -- L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas -- who have a combined 143 receptions, 2,106 yards and 22 touchdowns. The most talented is Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit who has accounted for 10 of those scores. Because Missouri has so much talent spread across the position, Auburn likely won't be able to double Green-Beckham the way they did Cooper. So the conditions may be ripe for Green-Beckham to have a big game.
• Step 5: Make AJ McCarron beat you when he's on the run.
Auburn's defensive gameplan for McCarron was clear: When he dropped back to pass, get to his feet and make him move out of the pocket. Previous game tapes showed that McCarron lost accuracy when his legs were pumping. "We felt like we had to make him uncomfortable," said Malzahn. "We felt like we put enough pressure on him." Still, McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns and only missed on 12-of-29 pass attempts.
Enter Missouri quarterback Franklin. So far this season, Franklin has outplayed Georgia's Aaron Murray and A&M's Manziel in head-to-head action. On Saturday against the Aggies, Franklin was a chains-moving machine, passing for 233 yards and two touchdowns and running for 80.
Franklin is as poised as any quarterback in the SEC. The senior has yet to lose this season (Missouri's lone defeat in 2013, to South Carolina, came when Franklin was out with a shoulder injury), and his decisions have been McCarron-esque sound all year. He's completing 66.9 percent of his passes and has thrown only four interceptions.
Still, the edge at quarterback in the SEC title game goes to Auburn -- but not by much.
• Step 6: Force Alabama to kick field goals.
We all know how this turned out. So to all of you SEC coaches who talked to me this summer in that wonderful land of honesty called "not for attribution," take a bow.
• Step 7: Play to make it to the fourth quarter.
"All we talked about [before the game] was getting to the fourth quarter and if we got there we would have a chance to win the game," Malzahn said after the Iron Bowl. "Our guys completely believed in that."
The reason they believed in that is because of one player: Marshall. Last year, Auburn lost two of its first four games by a combined total of nine points, which then caused the season to spiral downward like an avalanche that couldn't be stopped. But then this summer, Marshall arrived from Garden City (Kan.) Community College. In his third start, he orchestrated a last-minute, fourth-quarter comeback against Mississippi State. Five weeks later, he directed another second-half comeback against Texas A&M. A month after that, he threw the fourth-quarter Hail Mary to Ricardo Lewis to beat Georgia.
"Nick has almost single-handedly changed the mindset around here," Tre Mason told me earlier this season. "He's given us all of our confidence back. He's got this attitude where he knows that if it's close in the fourth quarter, he's going to figure out a way to get the job done. We feed off that. Everyone."
If the SEC title game is close in the fourth quarter, the advantage should go to Auburn. It's not that they ARE a team of destiny; it's that they BELIEVE they're a team of destiny, which in the world of college sports is a very powerful thing.