3 matchups that will define Florida vs. Auburn
There’s nothing like a big game week.
You greet each passing day with a little more energy. The commute to work feels a bit shorter. You hit the refresh button a few more times a day to check the team message boards, read the next hype piece or game breakdown.
Before you know it, it will be Friday morning — or down south, Thursday evening — and gameday weekend will be here.
It’s been awhile since there’s been a game this big played in The Swamp. How long?
Saturday’s tilt between the No. 10 Gators and No. 7 Auburn will mark the first time since a 2012 battle with then No. 9 South Carolina that Florida has played another top 10 team in The Swamp. Florida won 44-11, and that game was also the last time College GameDay was in Gainesville.
As if those facts don’t paint enough of a picture of how big a game is on tap Saturday, Florida also hasn’t been a home underdog as a top 10 team since 2012, when they hosted — and defeated — No. 4 LSU. Florida is an understandable underdog: Auburn will arrive in Gainesville one of the hottest teams in America and with wins over Oregon and Texas A&M; there’s not a program in America with 2 better wins.
Still, recent history suggests Florida will be ready for the moment and like most battles between top 10 teams, Saturday’s game should be a tight contest decided by a few key matchups.
Here’s a look at 3 matchups that will define Florida vs. Auburn.
Bo Nix vs. Florida’s secondary
Nix, a true freshman, played his best game last weekend, accounting for 391 yards (335 passing) and 3 touchdowns in Auburn’s 56-23 rout of Mississippi State.
In Auburn’s previous 2 games against Power 5 competition (Oregon, at Texas A &M), Nix struggled passing the football. He completed under 50 percent of his passes in those contests and averaged only 5.43 yards per attempt, well below the national average of 7.1.
Nix came alive against the Bulldogs, connecting on a series of big time throws early in the game that showed his maturation from an accuracy and touch standpoint. This throw, a well-placed zone busting corner on his first throw of the game, set the tone.
He also showed his impressive arm strength and touch on a deep strike to playmaker Anthony Schwartz in the 2-minute drill late in the first half — a similar deep throw to one he missed against Texas A&M.
Man… Schwartz sooo close to 2 TDs on 2 touches to start the game
Don't see anything wrong with Nix in pocket. Protection is sound
Think this is a case of a true freshman with a little too much juice on first road start worried about under throwing fastest man in CFB pic.twitter.com/dBhhMuM9Pk
— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) September 26, 2019
Maybe most impressive?
The bulk (68%) of Nix’s 335 yards passing mostly came through the air, as opposed to receivers making big runs after the catch. According to Stats Solutions, the current average nationally is 45.4 percent of passing yards going through the air.
On paper, Florida will be the best secondary Nix has faced. A healthy C.J. Henderson is one of — if not the only guy — in America who can run in pads with Schwartz. Marco Wilson means Florida has an All-SEC caliber corner on the other side of the field as well. A healthy Shawn Davis means Florida has a pair of coverage hawks at safety in Davis and Brad Stewart.
Florida also leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, and with the return of All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga, the Gators should be able to get some pressure on Nix, forcing him to make throws while flushed or on the run. That’s a heady challenge for an Auburn front that has been better, but still ranks 13th of 14th in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed and a pedestrian 88th nationally in havoc allowed.
Without question Nix is capable, but hasn’t had to do it against this type of defensive line and secondary combination.
Auburn managed only 299 yards of total offense against Texas A&M, but built a big lead and was able to hang on late. They can’t count on that type of anemic production to result in wins on a regular basis.
The numbers say Auburn will have some success running the ball but can’t rely on that alone, especially against a Gators defense that ranks 16th nationally against the run, allowing a stingy 2.7 yards per carry.
Nix will have to make some big throws on the road to give Auburn an impressive 3rd victory over a ranked opponent on the season.
Can Auburn pressure the quarterback?
Much has been made about the dominant Auburn front 7, and for good reason.
Derrick Brown is the best interior defensive linemen in college football and in Tyrone Truesdell, Auburn has an absolute space-eater who limits the ability of opponents to double-team Brown. As we wrote earlier this week, we don’t expect Florida to be able to run the ball effectively against Auburn, one of the nation’s best run defenses.
But no one has run the ball on Auburn. That makes it even more strange that a narrative has developed suggesting Auburn’s talent up front translates into both a dominant run defense and pass rush.
The statistical reality is that despite the talent, Auburn’s pass rush isn’t very good.
According to ESPN’s S &P rankings, the Tigers pass rush ranks an anemic 94th in blitz downs sack rate (percentage of blitz plays that result in havoc or sack) and as a result, Auburn ranks only 98th in 3rd-and-long defensive success rate (number of plays on 3rd-and-long resulting in a stop).
The good news for Auburn is Florida’s offensive line has struggled with most everything on the season. The Gators don’t get much leverage in the run game and their pass protection, while decent, has been inconsistent enough to draw the ire of coach Dan Mullen this week.
Which unit bucks their troubling early season trend might win the football game Saturday.
Mismatch Mayhem: Auburn’s Seth Williams and Florida’s Kyle Pitts
Sophomore Seth Williams is healthy again and the 6-4, 224-pound wide receiver is, put plainly, a problem for defenses.
Williams bundles NFL prototype size with elite athleticism, which means even when you cover him, he’s can outleap you and make a play anyway, as he did last week against Miss State. As the video at the top of the piece shows, he’s also a very capable route runner, something he’s worked hard to improve over the past year.
Defenses are already stressed by Schwartz’s ability to bust a game open on any snap — combine that with Williams’ ability to physically manhandle many corners and outrun most safeties and you get an idea of the mismatches Malzahn can create.
Florida has its own mismatch nightmare too in 6-6, 245-pound tight end Kyle Pitts.
Pitts is bonkers fast (4.6) for someone his size, which means he’s going to outrun your best linebacker and he’s too physically imposing for most SEC safeties. That leads to plays like this one.
He also has huge, soft hands and a 40-inch vertical, which leads to plays like this one:
Trask caps a 12 play, 82 yard drive with a strike to Pitts for a TD, Gators 7-0 pic.twitter.com/fgDRkFsOmt
— libgator (@lib_gator) September 28, 2019
The mismatch that creates the most mayhem Saturday could be a key reason his team remains undefeated come Sunday.