Florida football: 5 reasons Gators can beat Auburn
When Dan Mullen returned to become Florida’s head coach in November 2017, these are the types of Saturdays in The Swamp he had in mind.
“This is what you come here for, to play in these games. This is why you come to Florida, to play in big, big games like this,” Mullen told the media in Gainesville this week. “It’s exciting. College GameDay here, CBS National Game of the Week. Homecoming week. A top 10 matchup in The Swamp. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
If Saturday’s showdown in The Swamp follows history, it will be an exciting game. Unfortunately, Florida and Auburn don’t get to play annually, but when the storied programs do get together, there’s usually an excellent football game on tap.
Florida-Auburn has also delivered its fair share of upsets.
Since 1980, the unranked or lower-ranked team has won 9 of 22 games involving ranked teams. That number includes multiple upsets where the higher-ranked team was in the top 10 (1986, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2007).
The Gators would like to continue that trend Saturday. Florida will play as a home underdog ranked in the top 10 for the first time since their 2012 date with LSU. The Gators won a 14-6 rock fight that day, and there’s an argument that for Florida to win Saturday’s game, the Gators will need to follow a similar formula and grind out a victory in a defensive struggle.
Certainly the Gators are underdogs for a reason.
No team in America has 2 wins as impressive as Auburn’s vs. Oregon and at Texas A&M. Many analysts have already said Auburn should win convincingly and that Florida poses less of a challenge than those 2 teams. The Tigers have one of America’s nastiest fronts on defense and a budding star in Bo Nix at the quarterback position. They are a terrific football team and with Gus Malzahn back calling plays, the whole program looks reinvigorated and ready for a championship run this season.
People are really starting to love this Auburn team and as a result, “Auburn by 30, PAWWWLLL” has been a common sentiment around the league this week.
Our bold take is the Gators will still show up to play the football game regardless.
Here are 5 reasons (ways?) the Gators will (can?) beat Auburn.
Bo Nix will make mistakes against the best defense he’s played this season
Malzahn acknowledged Florida’s defensive front will be Auburn’s stiffest challenge to date on his weekly SEC Media Call, praising the Gators’ defensive line as outstanding on film, fast and physical.
The Gators rank 2nd in the country in sacks and 7th in tackles for loss, leading the SEC in each category. Florida is also 5th nationally in scoring defense, 16th nationally in rushing defense and 1st in the SEC in havoc rate (QB pressures and sacks/forced throwaways on passing downs). In other words, this is a big challenge for Bo Nix.
Nix was sensational against Mississippi State, softening a Bulldogs defense primed to stop the run with a brilliant display of early passing. But that game was at Jordan-Hare and Florida’s defense is more talented across the board than a Mississippi State defense rebuilding after NFL personnel losses.
Against the best 2 defenses he’s played, Nix has won, but struggled to pass, averaging only 5.43 yards per attempt and tossing 2 interceptions.
Only one true freshman starter has won as a visiting starter at The Swamp since 1990.
For Nix to become the second, he’ll need to make plays with both his arms and legs. He’s capable, but how many true freshman deliver again and again?
Florida’s pass protection will give Trask time to throw …
Auburn’s defensive front is filthy, led by All-American Derrick Brown, who I think is the best defensive linemen in college football. Brown and the Auburn front 7 rank 20th nationally against the run and should limit Florida’s anemic run game, which has struggled all season.
But can Auburn get to the quarterback?
Florida’s offensive line has been above-average in pass protect, allowing only 8 sacks on the season to date. They’ll face an Auburn front that ranks 13th in the SEC in sacks and havoc (pressures + sacks) created, as well as 94th nationally in blitz downs sack rate (percentage of passing downs resulting in a sack).
How much of Auburn’s troubles in the pass rush are about people game planning around the talent of Brown and Tyrone Truesdell? Probably some — and you should expect the Gators to run some quick actions and screens Saturday to slow down the Tigers. But some of Auburn’s pass rush issues are absolutely about the unit being better against the run than the pass — and Florida’s Kyle Trask should have enough time to set his feet and throw most the evening.
And Florida’s elite wide receivers and tight ends will make Auburn pay
The Tigers’ secondary leaked big plays last season (30 plays over 25-yards, 13th in the SEC) and allowed the 3rd-highest opposing passer rating in the SEC. Replacing their top corner, it was safe to call the unit a question mark entering the season.
So far, Auburn has been improved on the back end.
The Tigers rank 35th nationally in pass-efficiency defense and have limited big plays, allowing a very good and meager 6.2 yards per attempt.
They haven’t faced a test like the Gators, who boast the best wide receiver and tight ends group Auburn will see until the Iron Bowl.
Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain are a quartet of seniors who can beat you in a bunch of ways: good route running, vertically, making a catch in traffic. They stress defenses and that’s before you talk about Florida’s two mismatch nightmares: 6-4 210-pound junior Trevon Grimes and the 6-6 tight end Kyle Pitts, who runs like a deer but is entirely too physical for any corner and most safeties.
Both Florida’s Kyle Pitts and Auburn’s mismatch king Seth Williams will make some big plays Saturday. But Florida has the more complete group of wide receivers (even as Auburn’s are also quite good) and this could be the difference in the game.
Florida’s strong run defense will limit what Auburn does best
With Malzahn back calling the plays, Auburn has gotten back to basics, doing what it does best and running the football in a variety of ways.
Auburn averages 47.4 rushing attempts per game, a figure that leads the SEC and the Tigers rank 14th nationally in rushing offense and average 5.3 yards per carry, good for 18th nationally.
Nix keeps defenses honest and always alert for QB runs, something that has troubled Florida. Auburn’s scheme is designed to pull defenders out of gaps and create mismatches in space — Florida will need to maintain gap discipline and tackle well to win.
The good news?
Aside from a tough night in Week 0 against Miami, the Gators have tackled well all season. Florida is also getting healthy, expecting 4 injured starters (All-SEC DE Jabari Zuniga, All-American CJ Henderson, LB Ventrell Miller and S Shawn Davis) back for the game.
The Gators are a good run defense — ranking 22nd nationally in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.1) and 16th overall in rushing defense.
The Gators have preached discipline all week and should play smart and inspired run defense in The Swamp on Saturday.
New Gus will Old Gus
This is the kind of big, regular season game that has given Gus Malzahn fits of late at Auburn.
Just when the Tigers seem like they are about to go on a roll, they go on the road and lay a brutal egg.
Last season it was a loss at Mississippi State that largely derailed a great Auburn start. In 2017, Auburn was rolling until a mid-October trip to LSU. In 2016, Auburn won 6 consecutive games before stubbing their toe at Georgia, giving Kirby Smart his first signature win as head coach at his alma mater.
Malzahn’s seat warmed as a result of these mind-numbing regular season losses, but this season’s 5-0 start, filled with impressive victories away from The Plains, has Auburn back in the national conversation. It’s a brand new Gus! Or is it?
If it isn’t, there’s a great chance a big bad Auburn team already talking Atlanta is felled at a raucous, sweltering Swamp.