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December 3, 2013

Not good enough

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AUBURN | Ellis Johnson has been working against an up-tempo offense in practice for the better part of a year, but the Tigers' defensive coordinator still has major concerns about the attack he must stop this weekend.

Missouri, which captured the Eastern Division crown with a win over Texas A&M last weekend, uses an offense that operates similarly to several Auburn opponents as well. Still, that experience doesn't create an automatic advantage.

"You see a little bit of Texas A&M in them and you see a little bit of Georgia," Johnson said. "Their quick game is a little bit like Georgia. Their empty sets and some of the things they do with their route concepts are a lot like Texas A&M -- and then they like to let the quarterback run the ball on draws and things like Texas A&M. A little bit of Ole Miss in it, in the running game."

Missouri runs only slightly less often than Auburn, but rotates three tailbacks into the mix. Starting quarterback James Franklin runs as often as Nick Marshall and backup Maty Mauk, who started while Franklin missed time with a separated shoulder, also has no concerns about making himself part of the rushing attack.

It'll be a tall order.

Johnson is used to them. Auburn's defense hasn't exactly been overpowering this season, finishing 11th in yards allowed, yet finished fifth in points allowed. The Tigers are at their best in the red zone, conceding touchdowns only 21 times in 44 encounters.

Those aren't the only drives Auburn has been stalling.

Opponents have converted just 35.2 percent of their third-down opportunities, which ranks behind only Alabama and Florida among Southeastern Conference teams.

Missouri, for comparison's sake, is in fifth place at 36.5 percent.

Those numbers, though, have done little to soothe Johnson's mind this week. He's still agitated by the Tigers' willingness to concede yardage so willingly outside the red zone. Alabama finished the Iron Bowl with 495 yards.

"It was a gutsy performance and a gritty performance, but frankly we've got a lot of things we've got to do better if we're going to really be a good defense," Johnson said. "I think we're affecting the quarterback, there is no question in my mind. But when you give up 153 yards on two plays it doesn't look like you did. I don't mean to take away from anything in the positive things. But the things that we do during the course of games to create the problems? That's got to stop or we're not going to win a championship."

Johnson believes run defense will be a major key Saturday night.

The wildcard is Franklin. He was a dynamo before injuring his shoulder on Oct. 12, which forced him to the sideline for six weeks. Missouri was careful with Mauk during that time because, well, he became the team's most irreplaceable player.

Franklin rushed just eight times in his return against Ole Miss two weeks ago. He finished with 18 carries in the Tigers' win against Texas A&M last weekend, which seems to signal a clean bill of health.

That's what Johnson is expecting.

"Now they've got both of them and they are both healthy and the championship is on the line," he said. "My feeling is they're probably going to let them run when they need to run and they're not going to worry about it because they know they've got another one."



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