SEC Week 6 Primer: Auburn-Florida is back, more evenly matched than ever
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Auburn at Florida (+3)
Plenty of games are blessed with Playoff implications, as this one — a collision of undefeated, top 10 teams meeting for the first time since 2011 — certainly is. Very few, though, qualify as true, dead-even toss-ups, as this one certainly does. On paper, Tigers-Gators looks as tightly matched as any meaningful game of the entire regular season.
Auburn is (barely) the higher-ranked side, and comes in as (barely) the Vegas favorite at –3, the narrowest point spread to this point involving 2 SEC teams. Certain odds-making metrics tilt slightly in the Tigers’ favor, like Jeff Sagarin’s “Predictor” rating and ESPN’s Football Power Index, which puts their chances of a straight-up win at 53.2 percent — again, the narrowest outlook in any remaining SEC game. Others, like Bill Connelly’s SP+ system (in which Auburn and Florida are essentially tied) defer to the Gators’ home-field advantage in The Swamp. Auburn has outscored 3 Power 5 conference opponents by 15.7 points per game; Florida has outscored 3 Power 5 opponents by 15.2 ppg. Auburn outgained those opponents by 68 yards per game, Florida by 73 ypg. Auburn is banking on a true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, making just his second road start; Florida will ride with a career backup, Kyle Trask, who has attempted fewer passes in 4 years (88) than Nix did in his first month (125).
Literally, flip a coin. The outcome could be one of the swingiest results of the year, with the winner moving on as a serious conference and national contender and the loser all but eliminated. But the actual distance between those two paths is likely to come down to just a handful of plays, at most.
The stat: 24
That’s Florida’s sack total through 5 games, best in the SEC by a wide margin and tied for 2nd in the nation.
Adam Shuler and Jabari Zuniga split the sack, but this play doesn't happen without Jonathan Greenard.
— Zach Goodall (@zach_goodall) August 25, 2019
That number is inflated a bit by the Gators’ 10-sack extravaganza in the season-opening win over Miami, which came at the expense of a pair of wildly overmatched true freshman tackles playing in their first college game. In the meantime, the Gators have flown mostly under the radar while Auburn’s front has fully lived up to the hype as one of the most imposing position groups in the country. But don’t sell Florida’s veteran edge-rushing trio of Jonathan Greenard, Jabari Zuniga, and Jeremiah Moon short in that discussion, either — especially Greenard, a grad transfer from Louisville whose emphatic debut against the ‘Canes has carried over in wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, the latter in a big way. He’s recorded an SEC-best 6.5 tackles for loss on the season to go with 4 passes broken up and an interception in last week’s shutout win over Towson; with Zuniga expected back from a 2-game absence and a hostile crowd at fever pitch, Auburn’s offensive line is in for arguably the steepest test it will face on passing downs all season.
Also expected back from injury: All-SEC cornerback C.J. Henderson, whose presence has not been missed over the past few weeks but will be very welcome against the Tigers’ resident mismatch-maker, 6-3 sophomore Seth Williams. That’s one of two head-to-head battles when Auburn has the ball — along with LT Prince Tega Wanogho vs. whoever’s lined up across from him on a given snap — NFL scouts will be watching very closely.
The big question: Does Florida’s running game have a chance?
The Gators have struggled on the ground, averaging an SEC-worst 105.3 yards per game against FBS opponents on a meager 3.4 per carry. Part of that is the lack of a viable running threat at quarterback, a staple of Dan Mullen’s scheme at every stop in his career. Feleipe Franks was serviceable at best in that respect before he was lost for the season, and Trask has lost more yardage on sacks than he’s gained on positive runs. The running backs haven’t fared much better: Auburn’s leading rusher, Boobie Whitlow, has more yards to his name this season than Florida’s top 3 backs (Lamical Perine, Dameon Pierce, and Malik Davis) combined.
Florida’s strength on offense is its depth at receiver; there’s no star, but every wideout in the regular rotation is a potential draft pick, and targets are spread out accordingly. So far, Trask has looked comfortable throwing from the pocket, connecting on 77.3 percent of his passes for a very healthy 9.8 yards per attempt. He’s also eaten five sacks in the last two games, three of them at the hands of Towson. In response, Mullen challenged his offensive line to develop a “sense of urgency.” If the ground game continues to falter, getting stuck in a cycle of obvious passing downs against Derrick Brown and Co. is about as urgent as it gets.
As noted, this will be the wobbliest and least confident prediction of the season. Mullen and Gus Malzahn know each other well. Auburn’s offense hit its stride last week against Mississippi State, which might turn out to be the beginning of Nix’s rapid ascent into the top tier of SEC quarterbacks; it might also turn out to be an outlier, with the defensively-driven efforts against Oregon in Week 1 and Texas A&M in Week 4 proving to be the rule. Florida is potentially dominant on defense but lacks an identity on offense. If it comes down to it, both teams have a kicker.
A lot has changed since the last time these teams played, but the basic shape of Saturday’s game should look just about the same as it did 8 years ago. Almost everything about this matchup points toward a 2011-style slugfest, right down to the inexperienced QBs lining up opposite 2 ferocious defensive fronts. The forecast calls for sweltering heat and humidity, which even for October seems exactly right.
Auburn 24, Florida 23
Who will start at quarterback for Tennessee? Jarrett Guarantano remains atop the depth chart despite regressing badly throughout the Vols’ 1-3 start, and despite splitting practice reps with freshmen Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout the past 2 weeks. As far as the outcome on Saturday goes, though, the distinction is splitting hairs. The better question is does it matter who will start at quarterback for Tennessee?
If the goal is to salvage some shred of respectability as lopsided underdogs against a major division rival, then sure, Guarantano might still give the Vols the best chance of preventing a mass exodus from Neyland in the 3rd quarter.
That kind of vibe is the last thing Jeremy Pruitt needs in a season that already feels like a lost cause. On the other hand, if the best you can realistically hope for from the status quo is not getting run out of your own stadium then it’s time to start thinking about what’s next. As heirs apparent go, neither Maurer nor Shrout was an especially well-regarded recruit — unlike Guarantano, a top 100 prospect in the class of 2016, they both arrived as 3-stars — but they are … well, apparent, at least until 2020 commit Harrison Bailey arrives next year. To have any chance of getting better, first it might have to get worse.
On Georgia’s side, Saturday night could be another chance for D’Andre Swift to make a dent in the Heisman conversation after his workmanlike effort in the Bulldogs’ win over Notre Dame. At the very least, would it be the end of the world if their star back logged 20 carries in a game, a threshold he’s yet to reach in his career? UGA isn’t inclined to give its starters stat-padding opportunities once a game is in hand, but Swift is too good to keep under wraps for weeks at a time. He’s due.
Verdict: Georgia 41, Tennessee 10
There are some nagging questions about LSU’s defense after the Tigers allowed 38 points to Texas and Vanderbilt, and Utah State is a good measuring stick: The Aggies averaged 38.5 ppg in September despite losing most of the lineup that ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring offense last year, as well as the entire coaching staff. Junior QB Jordan Love isn’t going to match Joe Burrow touchdown for touchdown, but he isn’t going to be boring, either.
Verdict: LSU 45, Utah State 24
At 1-3, bowl eligibility already looks like a pipe dream for Vandy — the Commodores are dead last in the SEC in scoring offense and defense while giving up more yards per play than all but 1 other FBS team — but this is a pivotal game for Ole Miss: At 2-3, the Rebels can’t afford to drop 2 games below .500 at midseason, especially when they’re almost certain underdogs in 5 of their last 6. It’s probably also the only conference game he could lose in Year 3 that would set off grumbling about Matt Luke on the hot seat.
Verdict: Ole Miss 32, Vanderbilt 23
Troy’s secondary, a strength over the past few years, has already been burned to a crisp twice this season in losses to Southern Miss (514 yards, 3 TDs on 13.9 yards per attempt) and Arkansas State (455 yards, 4 TDs on 12.6 per attempt). Drew Lock used to set records in these games; if nothing else, Kelly Bryant ought to be in line for his best fantasy day in a Mizzou uniform.
Verdict: Missouri 41, Troy 22
Week 5 Record: 6-0 straight-up / 3-3 vs. spread
Season Record: 41-8 straight-up / 24-25 vs. spread