The 2 things that'll determine the Auburn-Florida showdown
Two undefeated, top 10 teams … 1 big showdown in The Swamp …. something’s gotta give!
Forgive that cheesy promo to Saturday’s contest in Gainesville. Call me crazy, but yes, I’m fired up for the most meaningful game of the SEC conference slate so far. In my defense, I was fired up for it before the season started. A pair of programs that haven’t faced off since 2011 will also battle as top 10 teams for the first time since 1997.
It’s interesting that in the short time since the opening line came out as a pick ’em, it has shifted in Auburn’s favor by multiple points. That suggests the betting public is more sold on Auburn than ever coming off that impressive blowout of Mississippi State.
Perhaps there’s an obvious mismatch that gamblers like. Or perhaps it’s a belief that Gus Malzahn, AKA New Gus, rides his Harley into opposing SEC towns, burns them to the ground and cackles as he pops wheelies on his way out.
I don’t know. What I do feel like I know is what will determine who escapes Saturday with a huge SEC win and conference title hopes strongly intact.
Let’s discuss the 2 things that’ll make or break this massive crossover showdown:
Thing 1: Auburn’s All-World defensive line against Florida’s disappointing offensive line
The preseason take of “Auburn has the best defensive line in America” has only gotten stronger. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson have more SEC Defensive Linemen of the Week awards (3) than the rest of the conference combined.
And on the flip side, the preseason take of “Florida’s inexperienced offensive line is its Achilles’ heel” has only gotten stronger. Dan Mullen said after the Towson game that the offensive line needs to mentally prepare better. I’m no brainiac, but I’m pretty sure that was his way of saying that the Gators will get pushed around up front all afternoon if they don’t have their best game — by a long shot — Saturday.
Auburn, which held Oregon and Texas A&M under 100 rushing yards away from Jordan-Hare, is coming off a game in which it held the SEC’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill, to 45 yards on just 2.6 yards per carry. Lamical Perine just had 2.7 yards per carry against … Towson? Yikes. The fact that one of the SEC’s top backs has been held to just 3.7 yards per carry this year — with a pretty favorable schedule in terms of run defenses — is alarming heading into this one.
This is a matchup in which Mullen won’t be able to rely on the quarterback run game, either. I’d expect Florida to try and get all 3 backs (Perine, Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis) involved. It’s also a bummer for Florida that it can’t stretch that Auburn defensive line with something like a Kadarius Toney jet sweep.
And it’s not just the run game that Florida figures to fight an uphill battle with. Kyle Trask has been sacked 5 times in essentially 9 quarters, including 3 times against Towson. That Auburn front is far too experienced not to capitalize on poor protection.
My guess? We see Mullen scheme a ton of quick, intermediate throws. Bubble screens, quick slants and swing passes will be a major part of the game plan. That’s the only hope to containing the Auburn front and sustaining drives.
Thing 2: Todd Grantham’s pressure against a true freshman QB
I hear ya, Gators fans. Florida’s defense has been extremely good for most of the season. That’s why it ranks fifth in scoring. That’s quite the feat for a unit that’s played without CJ Henderson and Jabari Zuniga for the majority of the young season (Jonathan Greenard and David Reese have a lot to do with that).
Henderson and Zuniga are expected to return Saturday, and if I know Grantham, he’ll send both at Bo Nix. It’s easy to forget that Henderson had 3 sacks as a cornerback last year. Florida is tied for the Power 5 lead with 24 sacks this year, which isn’t surprising with Grantham.
But Saturday will be the toughest test for that group in part because the Auburn offensive line has been much improved. Nix has been sacked just once this year. He’s elusive, yes, but part of that is because of the tempo the Tigers have played at. They’ve gotten the ball out of his hands quickly and out on the edges with guys like Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove.
The chess match between Grantham and Malzahn should be a good one, especially on 3rd down. This matchup is slightly reminiscent of when LSU came to Gainesville last year. Florida won that game by generating pressure on Joe Burrow, who at the time, was still figuring out LSU’s offense and getting by without putting up gaudy numbers.
Can Florida do to Nix what it did to Burrow? That’s such a fascinating question. I know one thing — Nix won’t be intimidated by any atmosphere … and Grantham is going to send pressure until the cows come home.
And one other little thing that could be not-so-little — Punting …?
Florida has allowed -1 punt return yards on the season. That’s the best among Power 5 teams. Granted, that was only on 3 fielded punts. Still, that’s a credit to Tommy Townsend and the Gators’ coverage unit, which is averaging a net punt of 44 yards. That could be a major factor against Auburn punt returner Christian Tutt, who ranks first in the SEC with 200 punt return yards.
Auburn, on the other hand, is 3d-worst among Power 5 teams in punt return defense. What a perfect opportunity that could be for the underrated Freddie Swain to make his impact. In a game that features a pair of thriving defenses, it wouldn’t be surprising if a special teams play in the punting game decided things.
So yes, punt to win.