Florida football: 3 biggest concerns about No. 7 Auburn
After a mostly feel-good August and September, the hard part starts for the No. 10 Florida Gators when No. 7 Auburn rolls into The Swamp on Saturday.
It’s a game that will have all the fixins: 2 storied programs, both unbeaten, a 3:30 CBS Game of the Week national television audience, throwback uniforms and College Gameday rolling into Gainesville. The cheapest tickets are being resold at $155 a piece today, and that number will only move north as kickoff draws closer. These are the kinds of games you go to Auburn or Florida to play in, and Saturday promises to be a special environment in The Swamp.
For Florida, the Auburn game kicks off a brutal 6-game stretch that will include 3 likely dates with top 10 opponents (Auburn, at LSU, vs. Georgia in Jacksonville) and another tough game against thorn-in-the-side Missouri, which will feel confident about extending its winning streak over the Gators to 3 in Columbia come November.
There’s no question, however, that Auburn will the biggest challenge of the season to date for the Gators, who will need to play their best to have a chance to win Saturday.
Here are the 3 things that concern us most about Florida’s matchup with Auburn in The Swamp.
1. Florida can’t run the ball
OK, maybe that headline is a little harsh.
That said, it’s fair to say the Gators certainly haven’t shown any consistency in the run game this season. The Gators rank 88th nationally in rushing offense, averaging only 3.5 yards per attempt.
Worse, an offensive line that was one of the nation’s best last season has regressed. According to ESPN’s college football stats guru Bill Connelly, the Gators rank in the 100s in stuff rate (how often runs are stopped behind or at the line of scrimmage) and opportunity rate (percentage of runs where the offensive line does its job and creates 5 yards of running space for the RB).
That’s not good, and there’s really not much sign it is improving.
Dan Mullen seemed exasperated about his line Saturday night after the Gators beat Towson.
“We’re not very good. It’s got to be better,” Mullen said.
And he refused to blame running backs, whether it was preseason All-SEC running back Lamical Perine or the bruising but electric Dameon Pierce.
“Watch our runs,” Mullen told the media Saturday night. “We weren’t running the ball where (the back) made a bad run. It isn’t a guy going the wrong way. I mean I’m supposed to block you and I don’t block you and you tackle the running back right at the point of attack.”
It’s not going be easy to get the run going against Auburn.
The Tigers boast one of the nation’s best run defenses, ranking 20th nationally in rushing defense and limiting opponents to a paltry 3.1 yards per rushing attempt. Plus, the interior of Auburn’s defensive line, led by preseason All-American Derrick Brown and the criminally underrated Tyrone Truesdell, is a force to be reckoned with and should negate the interior of Florida’s offensive line, which has been the unit’s lone strength to date.
There’s no question Florida’s wide receivers and tight ends are as good as advertised — one of the most dynamic groups of talent in America. But Florida’s passing game will suffer if it can’t at least present a threat of balance — and that is a huge concern heading into Saturday’s game.
Against a mobile quarterback, can the Gators get off the field on 3rd down?
Florida’s defense holds an edge over Auburn’s defense in most statistical categories, with the Gators beating the Tigers in total defense, scoring defense, sacks, tackles for loss, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.
The one area where Auburn has a decisive edge?
How about 3rd down defense?
Auburn ranks 21st nationally in getting off the field on 3rd down, limiting opponents to a conversion on just 32% of attempts. Florida is 77th, allowing opposing offenses to convert 38% of attempts. Considering how good the Gators have been at creating negative plays, it’s even more surprising they aren’t getting 3rd down stops, as teams are converting despite low probability down and distance.
Is some of that luck? Maybe. Will Florida be better equipped to handle that with All-American CJ Henderson and All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga set to return to the fold for the first time since the Tennessee-Martin game? Probably.
Then again, Auburn presents a unique challenge defensively. First, thanks to a power run game that is among the best in America (14th in rushing offense), Auburn tends to stay on schedule offensively — meaning the Gators will be asked to halt Auburn on 3rd-and-manageable, a much tougher ask. Second, Bo Nix’s ability to extend plays with his legs should challenge Florida.
Nix is Auburn’s 2nd leading rusher (215 yards) and if he thinks Florida’s elite rush ends Zuniga and Jon Greenard are close, he’ll be coached to make a play with his legs. Florida struggled with Tom Flacco, a similar dual threat quarterback, as FCS Towson converted 8-of-15 times on 3rd down.
That conversion rate won’t get it done against Auburn, and it will also be a quick way to deflate the spirit of what promises to be a juiced-up home crowd in The Swamp.
Speaking of The Swamp …
Will the hype and moment be too big for the Gators?
This is the biggest game played in The Swamp in several seasons.
The last time a top 10 Florida team hosted a top 10 team in The Swamp?
If you had last season’s win over then No. 5 LSU, you’d be wrong. That win was immense for this program’s confidence in Year 1 under Mullen, but that game was a home upset where there was regional, as opposed to national attention the week preceding the game.
The answer is 2012, when the Gators, ranked 10th, won a 14-6 rock fight with No. 4 LSU.
These moments used to be commonplace in the days of Spurrier and Meyer, and Mullen, Meyer’s longtime offensive coordinator, envisioned them becoming commonplace again when he took the reins of a broken Gators program in 2017.
Now the first of what Mullen hopes are a great number of these types of home games has arrived. Outside of a few Gators seniors who have played in the SEC Championship Game, no one on Florida’s roster has experienced this type of pressure and atmosphere.
The moment won’t overwhelm Auburn. This is an Auburn program less than 2 seasons removed from winning a national game of the week Iron Bowl and then playing in the SEC Championship with a trip to the Playoff at stake. This season, the Tigers have beaten then No. 11 Oregon and dominated — in a hostile SEC environment — Texas A&M in College Station. The Swamp will present its own challenges, but Gus Malzahn’s team will be ready.
Will Florida be? Can the Gators maintain their focus during the coming week of practice, despite the national attention? In a heated and deafening Swamp, can the Gators maintain their composure and control their emotions — feeding off the crowd but not relying on it?
We just don’t know the answer to these questions.
But it will be fun to find out.