First things first: You can't force Auburn to pass.
It's easy to look at Auburn's strengths and stats and suggest that the key is building an early lead and forcing them to come from behind through the air. It's typecasting for a reason. But in Gus Malzahn's offense, it's also inaccurate. Even if behind, Auburn can and will try to score on you running its hurry-up, run-first, probably-run-second offense.
Case in point: Auburn's final drive against Alabama. Tasked with going 65 yards in 2:32, the Tigers ran the ball between the tackles for six straight plays before throwing a touchdown pass with 32 seconds left. And the touchdown pass, like so many other plays Auburn runs, was a run-pass option, meaning even when you "force them to pass," you might not actually be forcing them to pass.
Auburn's offensive structure is sound, but of course it is; Gus Malzahn's been doing this thing for a while. He knows how to create numbers for his offense (two on one, three on two, etc.), and he can pretty quickly adapt to what a defense is doing. Go all in to stop the run, and Auburn will roll Nick Marshall out and create easy passing situations. Struggle with your assignments on the zone read, and the Tigers might zone read you so much that Marshall doesn't even throw 10 passes. In the end, beating Auburn means making plays and winning one-on-one situations. Where might Mizzou have one-on-one advantages?
Nick Marshall (6'1, 210, Jr.): 119-for-201 (59%), 1,627 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT, 16 sacks (7.0 yards per pass attempt); 124 carries, 1,026 yards (8.3 per carry), 10 TD
Jeremy Johnson (6'5, 219, Fr.): 29-for-41 (71%), 422 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT (10.3 yards per pass attempt); 7 carries, 47 yards (6.7)
He's built like Brad Smith and shows some Brad-esque jets at times. (He kind of passes like Smith, too.) He has grown more polished as the year, but like just about anybody (especially run-first guys), he does struggle a bit when Auburn falls behind schedule. He made a couple of nice plays on passing downs against Alabama, but only a couple; Auburn still had only a 27 percent success rate on passing downs.
Tre Mason (5'10, 205, Jr.): 237 carries, 1,317 yards (5.6), 18 TD; 11 targets, 10 catches (91%), 113 yards (10.3 per target)
Cameron Artis-Payne (5'11, 210, Jr.): 88 carries, 573 yards (6.5), 5 TD; 1 target, 1 catch, 4 yards
Corey Grant (5'11, 205, Jr.): 60 carries, 585 yards (9.8), 5 TD; 4 targets, 4 catches (100%), 8 yards (2.0)
Jay Prosch (6'0, 258, Sr.): 8 targets, 5 caches (63%), 95 yards (11.9 per target), 1 TD
Gage Batten (6'0, 235, RSFr.)
Auburn runs a ... we'll call it a power spread. The Tigers will spread you out, then pummel you between the tackles for as long as you let them, and blocking back Jay Prosch is a big reason for that. He and Andrew Wilson will be colliding a lot; if Wilson wins these battles, as he has frequently in his career, that could prevent Auburn from generating too much of a numbers advantage. Very few teams have been able to run consistently between the tackles against Missouri -- have any, actually? -- and if you can clog up the middle and force Auburn outside, you've won one of about three battles you need to win.
The Auburn running backs play their role perfectly. Tre Mason is easily the least explosive back in the backfield, but he follows blocks and can carve out 6-10 yard gains all game if you let him. Artis-Payne and Grant, meanwhile, are more big-play guys. For that matter, so is Marshall. But Mason will get about five carries per quarter, more if you aren't stopping him.
Sammie Coates (6'2, 201, So.): 64 targets, 32 catches (50%), 747 yards (11.7 per target), 6 TD
Melvin Ray (6'3, 213, So.): 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 58 yards (8.3)
Quan Bray (5'10, 186, Jr.): 27 targets, 20 catches (74%), 191 yards (7.1), 3 TD
Ricardo Louis (6'2, 215, So.): 39 targets, 25 catches (64%), 290 yards (7.4), 2 TD
Marcus Davis (5'9, 176, Fr.): 30 targets, 22 catches (73%), 191 yards (6.4), 1 TD
Trovon Reed (6'0, 190, Jr.): 9 targets, 8 catches (89%), 75 yards (8.3)
C.J. Uzomah (6'4, 258, Jr.): 16 targets, 9 catches (56%), 146 yards (9.1), 3 TD
Brandon Fulse (6'4, 263, Jr.): 4 targets, 1 catch (25%), 5 yards (1.3)
It's pretty easy to see how Auburn uses its receivers, yes? Sammie Coates is the guy out wide, the one most likely to take advantage of either a play-action pass downfield or (in the case of Auburn's game-tying touchdown on Saturday) a run-pass option on which the defensive backs bite on the run. He's an all-or-nothing guy, with an iffy catch rate and all sorts of explosiveness (23.3 yards per catch), balanced out by the underneath and screen options, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis. Ricardo Louis, recipient of Auburn's miracle touchdown against Georgia (amazingly only the second-craziest Auburn finish this year), is used in either role. Take away his Georgia miracle, and he's averaging just 9.0 yards per catch. But Auburn sent him deep at least once against Alabama, too.
(Get close to the end zone, and C.J. Uzomah becomes an option from the tight end position as well.)
Greg Robinson (6'5, 320, So.) -- 23 career starts (12 in 2013)
Shon Coleman (6'6, 299, RSFr.)
Alex Kozan (6'4, 297, RSFr.) -- 12 career starts (12 in 2013)
Devonte Danzey (6'4, 282, So.)
Reese Dismukes (6'3, 297, Jr.) -- 35 career starts (12 in 2013)
Tunde Fariyike (6'2, 305, Jr.)
Chad Slade (6'5, 313, Jr.) -- 34 career starts (12 in 2013)
Jordan Diamond (6'6, 315, RSFr.)
Avery Young (6'6, 304, RSFr.) -- 7 career starts (7 in 2013)
Patrick Miller (6'7, 283, So.) -- 14 career starts (5 in 2013)
Auburn's line is really, really good at what it's supposed to be good at. The Tigers are third in Adj. Line Yards, fifth in Opportunity Rate (getting runners at least five yards downfield), fifth in Power Success Rate (exactly what it sounds like), and second in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). They're also 105th in Adj. Sack Rate -- as is frequently the case with these types of attacks, Marshall gets sacked more than seven percent of the time -- but that's only so much of a concern. That would be like the Washington State line not being very good at run blocking: You'd prefer for the line stats to be good across the board, but style dictates which stats are more important.
The line is still really young, too; there are three juniors, three sophomores, and four redshirt freshmen on the two-deep. That's indicative of Auburn's season as a whole, really: In my 2013 Auburn preview, I pretty clearly declared that I thought Auburn was a year away because of youth. I stand corrected. This is basically what I thought Auburn could become in 2014. The future's pretty bright.
(Missouri's defensive stats, by the way? Twelfth in Adj. Line Yards, 42nd in Opportunity Rate, 45th in Power Success Rate, and 34th in Stuff Rate. Only Adj. Line Yards are adjusted for opponent, though, so it's a good sign that that's Missouri's best ranking.)
Across the board, Auburn's defense is ... pretty good. The Tigers are lights-out on passing downs (12th in Passing Downs S&P+) and will absolutely close out drives if given the opportunity, but they are only so-so otherwise (56th in Standard Downs S&P+). If you stay on schedule, you can run and pass on them.
If you can't tell so far, first downs are going to be absolutely enormous in this game. They're big in every game, but considering the strength of the Auburn defense and the makeup of the Auburn offense, the team that falls behind schedule the most becomes a pretty definitive underdog.
Dee Ford (6'2, 240, Sr.): 19.5 tackles, 12 TFL (8 sacks), 1 PBU, 2 FF, 16 QB hurries (10 games)
Elijah Daniel (6'2, 264, Fr.): 5.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL (2 sacks), 11 QB hurries
Nosa Eguae (6'3, 269, Sr.): 15.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 6 QB hurries
Montravius Adams (6'4, 305, Fr.): 13.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1 sack), 7 QB hurries
Gabe Wright (6'3, 296, Jr.): 21.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL (3 sacks), 1 FR, 8 QB hurries
Ben Bradley (6'1, 295, Jr.): 9.5 tackles, 2 TFL (1 sack), 4 QB hurries
LaDarius Owens (6'2, 250, Jr.): 20.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL (2 sacks), 9 QB hurries
Carl Lawson (6'2, 258, Fr.): 16.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL (3 sacks), 2 FF, 6 QB hurries
Auburn's defensive line is fast, active, and light. The four starters average just 264 pounds, but they can use speed to their advantage at times. Their line stats spell this out pretty clearly: 84th in Opportunity Rate (bad), 81st in Power Success Rate (bad), 14th in Stuff Rate (excellent). And actually, this is clear in situational pass rushing stats, too: Auburn is 122nd in Standard Downs Sack Rate ... and 14th in Passing Downs Sack Rate. They're going to try to get into your backfield before you can get downfield, but they can be taken out of the play quite a bit, too. The Stuff Rate on Mizzou runs will be huge on Saturday.
Robenson Therezie (5'9, 204, Jr.): 44.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry
Mackenro Alexander (5'11, 192, Fr.): 3.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL
Jake Holland (6'1, 240, Sr.): 29.5 tackles, 1 TFL (0.5 sacks), 2 PBU, 1 FR, 2 QB hurries
Kris Frost (6'2, 238, So.): 35.5 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 QB hurry
Cassanova McKinzy (6'3, 246, So.): 44.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL (1.5 sacks), 1 INT, 4 QB hurries
Anthony Swain (6'2, 239, So.): 17.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU
This is a nice, diverse linebacking corps. (And I'm including the STAR as a linebacker here, though it's more of a LB/safety hybrid.) I'm not sure I see any outright stars here, and this isn't the best LB unit Mizzou has faced in 2013, but the unit does a solid job against the run and in pass coverage. This sounds more tepid than I intend, but you could do worse than Auburn's LBs.
Jonathon Mincy (5'10, 200, Jr.): 44.0 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PBU
Jonathan Jones (5'10, 180, So.): 11.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU
Ryan Smith (6'2, 194, Sr.): 46.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry
Ryan White (5'11, 196, Sr.): 36.5 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR
Jermaine Whitehead (5'11, 201, Jr.): 46.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FR
Trent Fisher (6'1, 200, Jr.): 8.0 tackles
Chris Davis (5'11, 200, Sr.): 55.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 12 PBU, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry (10 games)
Johnathan Ford (6'0, 186, Fr.): 3.5 tackles, 1 PBU
Thanks in part to an active pass rush on passing downs, Auburn's corners make a lot of plays on the ball. As young as parts of this team are, the secondary is nicely seasoned (and stacked with all of the Jonathon/Jonathan/Johnathans and Ryans you could want!) and pretty aggressive. That Chris Davis leads the team in tackles tells you a) this is not necessarily a defense designed to filter the play to the middle linebacker, b) Davis is unafraid to get close to the line of scrimmage, and c) the man Davis is covering catches some passes.
Cody Parkey (6'0, 190, Sr.): 54-for-55 PAT, 13-for-17 FG (8-for-9 under 40)
Steven Clark (6'5, 230, Sr.): 47 punts, 42.7 average, 21 fair caught, 18 inside 20
Cody Parkey (6'0, 190, Sr.): 83 kickoffs, 64.2 average, 59 touchbacks (71%)
Corey Grant (5'11, 205, Jr.): 4 returns, 34.8 average, 1 TD (long: 90)
Quan Bray (5'10, 186, Jr.): 12 returns, 23.4 average (long: 40)
Tre Mason (5'10, 205, Jr.): 15 returns, 26.3 average, 1 TD (long: 100)
Chris Davis (5'11, 200, Sr.): 12 returns, 20.5 average, 1 TD (long: 85)
Quan Bray (5'10, 186, Jr.): 12 returns, 5.1 average (long: 28)
We'll talk more about this in the BTBS preview on Friday, but this game will come down to some pretty basic things: First downs, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. At first glance, I'd say finishing drives is a push, turnovers are more likely to go to Mizzou (just because of styles -- again, I'll get more into this on Friday), and first downs are a push. But if one team is likely to derive a big field position advantage in this game, it's Auburn, and it's because of special teams.
Auburn is seventh in special teams efficiency: 15th in punt return efficiency, sixth in kick return efficiency, and 27th in punt efficiency (and, of course, first in late-game field goal return efficiency, ahem). They simply do not allow returns -- Cody Parkey parks almost three-quarters of his kickoffs in the end zone, and while Steven Clark isn't booting 50-yarders with regularity, only five of his punts have been returned all year. Meanwhile, they're pretty scary in the return game; so is Marcus Murphy, yes, but Mizzou opponents are still more likely to get return opportunities than Auburn opponents. This would be a good game for Christian Brinser and Andrew Baggett to be lights out in their kicks.
BTBS preview coming tomorrow. Like I said, the keys to the game are pretty simple (and listed above), and while I accept that Auburn might have a greater than 50 percent chance of winning in these key areas and taking the game, Missouri isn't exactly far away from pulling this off.