NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Ellis Johnson has spent 23 seasons as a college defensive coordinator at high-profile programs like Clemson, Alabama and South Carolina. Some years he's overseen dominant units. Others, he says, "we're just not very good."
The word Johnson, 62, uses to describe his 2013 Auburn defense, which on Monday will play for a national championship: "Confounding."
"We have got terrible-looking overall statistics," said Johnson, "and some of them are not misleading. But they've made some critical stops in critical times. .... If you go and look back at some of the critical plays that have given us a chance to win ballgames, a lot of those plays have been made by these defensive kids."
Johnson is not exaggerating when he says word "terrible" -- at least not by traditional metrics. Heading into Monday's showdown with undefeated Florida State, 12-1 Auburn ranks 95th nationally in yards per play allowed (5.96), by far the worst of any team ever to reach the BCS Championship Game. The Tigers rank 98th nationally in 10-plus yard plays allowed (195) and last in their own conference in passing defense (7.4 yards per attempt).
"We have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year," said Johnson.
And yet they're here, one win from cementing themselves as the best team in the country for the 2013 season. Which, with all due respect to Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and the rest of Auburn's high-octane offense, means the Tigers' defense must not be nearly as bad as the numbers suggest.
For one thing, all those opponents' yards have not necessarily translated into points. The Tigers are a much more respectable 38th in scoring defense (24.0 points per game), nearly the exact same as Auburn's 2010 national title team (24.1). While giving up far too many big plays, the Tigers seem to lock in when it matters most -- they rank 21st in opponents' third down conversions (34 percent) and, most impressively, eighth in opponents' red-zone touchdown conversions (47.9 percent).
"We focus when we're under pressure," said star defensive end Dee Ford, whose two sacks of Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel on a last-ditch Aggies drive sealed a 45-41 Auburn win on Oct. 19. "... When our backs are against the wall, man, we just really know we need to make something happen, and that's what we've been able to do."
There's also a more basic explanation for Auburn's unflattering defensive statistics, one that may in fact offer the most encouragement as the Tigers prepare to face Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Ford and his cohorts this year played a gauntlet of high-powered offenses led by a string of talented quarterbacks -- Manziel, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Alabama's AJ McCarron -- that made a lot of defenses look bad.
In fact, advanced statistics suggest that's exactly the culprit.
In Brian Fremau's opponent-adjusted FEI efficiency ratings -- a drive-by-drive metric that measures how a team performed relative to others that faced the same opponent -- Auburn's defense checks in all the way up at No. 13 in the country.
"Everything boils down to opponent-adjustments with FEI, and Auburn has faced the 11th-toughest set of opponent offenses to date," Fremau said in an e-mail. "Have they passed those tests with flying colors? Not really, but those teams didn't have more success against Auburn than they did against others. .... Only Georgia [fifth-best] and Missouri [second-best] had one of their top-five offensive performances [by yards per play) against Auburn. On average, Auburn's opponents had only their seventh-best game against the Tigers."
To hold the 'Noles to something the equivalent to their seventh-best offensive performance of the season (a 48-34 win at Boston College on Sept. 28) the Tigers will need first and foremost to get pressure on Winston. And they'll need to do it primarily out of Johnson's base 4-2-5 defense. "We've got to get there with four or five [pass-rushers]," he said. "We're not going to get out there and get blitz happy because they have a great screen game. They can get the ball out of their hands."
It just so happens that Auburn's biggest defensive strength by far is its deep and talented defensive line, most notably rush-ends Ford (8.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries), LaDarius Owens (4.5 and 11) and Carl Lawson (4.0 and seven), though aided by the push generated by veteran tackles Nosa Eguae and Gabe Wright.
"I think they're a great [defensive] front," 'Noles center Bryan Stork said. "They're well-coached. They do what they're supposed to do. They're where they're supposed to be. ... their front is very talented, and there's many of them."
The task of covering FSU's standout receiving tandem of Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin falls primarily to cornerbacks Chris Davis (he of the famous Kick Six return to beat Alabama) and Jonathon Mincy and "Star" hybrid back Robenson Therezie. The secondary struggled late in the season against Georgia (Murray threw for 415 yards) and in the SEC Championship Game against Missouri (James Franklin threw for 303), but with Auburn's offense rolling by season's end all they needed were a few stops. After moving the ball at will for much of the game, Mizzou ended the game with a pair of three-and-outs and two turnovers-on-downs on four of its last five possessions.
In another seeming dichotomy, Auburn's defense has often been at its best in the fourth quarter, pitching shutouts in seven games, most recently in Atlanta. The Tigers trailed 28-21 in the fourth quarter of the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl against Alabama when third-down pressures from Wright forced a pair of McCarron incompletions, followed by missed Alabama field goals. In between, Lawson stuffed T.J. Yeldon on 4th and 1. Those stops allowed Auburn to finally tie the game on Marshall's 39-yard pass to Sammie Coats with 32 seconds left.
The Tigers rotate as many as 10 to 12 defensive linemen throughout the game, ensuring they're fresh when it matters most.
"We're not getting as many snaps" Eguae said, "but as far as the plays we're making, we're making more plays."
To even remain in the game in the fourth quarter, though -- something FSU rarely encountered this season -- the Tigers will have to defy both history and conventional logic. Of the 144 teams to play in a BCS bowl over the past 16 seasons, no one has averaged more yards per play than the 'Noles (7.81), while none of the 144 defenses has allowed more than Auburn's 5.96, according to research by ESPN's Brad Edwards. Among the 30 previous title game participants, the closest thing to Auburn's 95th-ranked defense was ... the Tigers' 56th-ranked unit in 2010.
Which may be a good sign for Auburn.
That 2010 team held Oregon's near 50 points-per-game scoring offense to 19 points. And lke this year's team, advanced metrics viewed that team more favorably than traditional stats -- No. 8 in the country, according to FEI.
"This is the best defense we've played," Florida State's Stork said. "Yeah, the stats say they're very average, but I beg to differ. I've seen the film."
The Tigers' own defensive coordinator may feel Stork is being too kind. But none of the stats will matter if Auburn wins Monday. The 2013 Tigers will forever be able to boast they fielded a national championship defense.