As I did with Florida’s home opener against UT-Martin, I’ve elected to sim past the Florida-Towson game in my opponent preview series. Let’s say something like… I don’t know… Florida 48, Towson 6. Glad we got that out of the way.
Now, let’s talk about the Gators’ next opponent, an old enemy that we don’t see much of anymore…
Game 1: Miami Hurricanes
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats
Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers
|AUBURN TIGERS (2018: 8-5, 3-5 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Gus Malzahn||5 offense, 6 defense||390 YPG/30.9 PPG||363 YPG/19.6 PPG|
|6th year (53-27)||52%, 66% of stat production||78th/48th in FBS||45th/18th in FBS|
All time series: Auburn 43, Florida 38, 2 ties
Introduction: Florida has had the better team more often than not in the schools’ 83 game series, and yet the Tigers have developed a knack for upsetting the Gators when all the logic and experts said they shouldn’t. Of course, when Auburn isn’t pulling upsets over the Gators, they’re getting smacked around by them. Florida holds a commanding 11-6 lead in this rivalry since Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville- and seven of those eleven Gator wins came by three possessions or more. Unfortunately for fans of both teams, changes to those numbers will be minuscule and very infrequent going forward thanks to the SEC’s expansion in 2012 and simultaneous refusal to expand to a nine game SEC schedule. As it stands right now, this is probably the last time Auburn is coming to Gainesville for at least a full decade, so both teams will want to make it a memorable one. And though the Tigers’ depth chart does possess its share of weak links, with what should be an appreciably better team than they had last year, dismiss Auburn as an easy victory at your own risk.
For all the talk about what a loss Jarrett Stidham is for Auburn, it could actually work out in Gus Malzahn’s favor, as his offenses are at their best when a true dual threat quarterback is at the controls. The catch: Auburn may or may not have that true dual threat quarterback. Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix will battle for the job, and while both definitely possess the physical attributes needed to be that dual threat, both are inexperienced freshmen with little more than high school and spring tape to evaluate. So at least for now, we don’t know.
We also don’t know what Auburn’s offensive line is going to look like. All five starters return up front, but this was a shaky unit in the best of times and downright atrocious in the worst of them, like the time they “blocked” their running backs to a grand total of 19 rushing yards on 21 carries against Texas A&M last year. What we do know is that Auburn has a multitude of strong options to go to on the ground, and if the line can figure things out, the Tigers could run the ball well. Boobee Whitlow (787 yards, six TD’s in 2018) should be the go-to guy in 2019, and he has a pair of capable backups in Kam Martin (458 yards, 1 TD) and Shaun Shivers (371 yards, 3 TDs).
The receiving corps figures to be good, albeit perhaps not quite as strong as it was last year with top two pass-catching targets Ryan Davis (a famous Jim McElwain recruiting miss) and Darius Slayton gone. But the Tigers also get some reinforcements here. Top tier wideout Eli Stove (another McElwain miss) and the slightly less heralded but still dangerous Will Hastings both return from ACL tears that cost them their 2018 seasons. And then there are the two key pieces from 2018’s passing game that do return: Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams (1,102 all-purpose yards and twelve touchdowns between them last year) who can help their quarterback out.
Offensive grade: B-. Though he’s dealing with a raw youngster working the pedals in either Nix or Gatewood, Malzahn has been able to win with that working against him before. The Tigers have the pieces elsewhere on offense to be very good; the development of the offensive line, as well as how much the QB goes from a game manager to a playmaker, will determine whether or not the offense can be great.
Auburn is absolutely loaded up front. DT Derrick Brown and DE Marlon Davidson surprised a lot of folks by passing up the NFL for a fourth year on the Plains, and that results in Auburn having one of the best defensive lines in America. On top of that, there’s the highly disruptive edge rusher Nick Coe who complements Davidson on the other side. To give you an idea of how destructive they are, this trio combined for fourteen sacks last year, led by Coe’s seven. There is one slot to fill on the the interior of the line, but Tyrone Truesdell and Coynis Miller are plenty capable of doing so.
As experienced as Auburn is up front, the inverse is true of the middle level of their defense. Meaning, the Tigers will have to replace everybody here. Luckily, Malzahn and his staff recruited well enough here for there to be potential, namely incoming five star signee Owen Pappoe at one of the outside linebacker spots and veteran but seldom used KJ Britt at one of the inside linebacker roles. As for the other, unaccounted for linebacker spots, Malzahn and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele really don’t have any alternative; they just have to mess around with different guys at different spots and hope for the best.
The synopsis of the secondary is a mix of the first two levels of the defense. Auburn has two tremendous returning safeties in Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas, but their situation at cornerback is far shakier. The pieces they do have (Noah Igbinoghene, Javaris Davis and Christian Tutt), while talented, were very hit or miss in coverage against opponents’ second and third receivers last year. They’ll need to step up in a big way if Auburn’s defense is to make some real noise this year.
Defensive grade: B. The line is fantastic, and the safety situation is solid. But big weaknesses at linebacker and a huge question mark at cornerback leaves the door open for Auburn to be undone by an offense that can move the ball consistently.
Key Matchup: Florida’s running game vs. Auburn’s front seven. Auburn may be brimming with talent up front, but that’s not going to count for much if the rest of the unit wilts. The Gators’ offensive line is tasked with two things here: one, avoiding getting clowned by linemen off the snap so that Davidson or Coe blows into the backfield and drops LaMical Perine for a five yard loss, and two, providing seams for Perine and his fellow running backs to slice through. While obviously important for the line to pass block for Feleipe Franks, that’s likely too tall an order for them to complete too many times against an opposing line featuring at least one, maybe two and possibly even three first round NFL Draft picks. Just provide running lanes for Perine, Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce consistently, and Auburn’s entire defense will implode. Fail to provide running lanes for these guys, and that 2011 game on the Plains will look like a beauty pageant compared to what will happen in this one.
Florida key to victory: utilize the quick passes. Running the ball is going to be critical, of course, but sooner or later (probably sooner) Auburn is going to figure out that that’s how Florida wants to attack them, so that’s what they’ll defend. At some point, Dan Mullen is going to have to extend the running game outside the hashmarks, not just with jet sweeps and double passes, but with quick screens and flares to the outside and maybe even a jailbreak or tunnel screen here or there if Auburn is really getting pressure on Franks. It’s not always the prettiest way to move the ball, but if blocked for well enough by the leading receiver or tight end, it can be effective- and it can open the door for a surprise deep shot later on.
Auburn key to victory: big plays from its QB. Auburn’s defensive front has the advantage over Florida’s offensive line, but so does Florida’s defensive line over Auburn’s offensive line. If neither Franks nor Nix/Gatewood can get things going, the game will deteriorate into the type of ultra-sloppy defensive slugfest we saw last year against Mississippi State, where the advantage shifts to Florida because of better coaching. The Tigers are going to need their quarterback in this game, and they’re going to need him to step up and make a difference in crunch time.
Fun fact: With the exception of the wartime years of 1943 and 1944, Florida and Auburn played every year from 1927-2002 before the rivalry began to slowly disintegrate. Eleven years earlier, prior to the fall of 1992, the SEC had expanded from ten to twelve teams by adding South Carolina and Arkansas. Because of this, commissioner Roy Kramer decided to split the conference into two divisions. For the first eleven years of the two-division format, the SEC maintained a 5-2-1 schedule formula: five games against your fellow division dwellers, two games against pre-set cross division rivals, and one game against one of the four remaining teams in the other division. Florida’s two pre-set rivals from the SEC West were LSU and Auburn, so the Florida-Auburn rivalry survived the expansion… at least at first.
But then in 2002, the SEC athletic directors took a vote, and decided to switch to a 5-1-2 formula beginning with the 2003 season. That meant that each team would have to bid farewell to one of its two annual cross division foes. As the Gators had a far more heated and tradition-rich rivalry with Auburn at the time than they did with LSU (remember, this was back in 2002), they wanted to keep Auburn and break off their rivalry with LSU. However, Auburn wanted to keep their even more heated and tradition-rich rivalry with Georgia over their rivalry with Florida, and it was the brass at Auburn, not Florida, that got their way. That relegated Florida to playing Auburn (and the other four non-LSU SEC West teams) twice every five years in a two years on, three years off pattern.
Then came the second round of expansion in 2012, and the rivalry completely collapsed- right in the middle of the two scheduled games between the two in 2011 and 2012. That’s right, this 2019 game in Gainesville is actually seven years overdue. After this year’s game, the two are scheduled to meet again in 2024, and after that, who knows? With the 6-1-1 format, Florida is set to play Auburn twice every twelve years, reducing a yearly affair that was once akin to the white-hot rivalries Florida has now with FSU and Georgia to the same treatment as the Gators’ far less historically exciting series with Arkansas and Mississippi. And until and unless something seismic happens, like moving Auburn to the SEC East or expanding to a nine game SEC schedule, that’s the way it’s going to be.
The setup to this game looks eerily familiar. Ask any Gator fan who’s followed Florida since 1993 or earlier what tends to happen when a very good or great, but not elite, Gator team squares off against an Auburn team ranging from decent to very good. Sure, Auburn’s frustrating history of pulling off upsets over Florida has absolutely no schematic or physical bearing on this game, as not a single player or coach in any one of those upsets will have anything to do with this game with the lone exception of Dan Mullen. But those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it. And that’s why, for lack of a better way to put this, this game scares the s#!t out of me.
Film and paper say that Auburn is going to be better in 2019 than in 2018. Not by a gargantuan amount- they won’t be in the College Football Playoff- but clearly better. When you balance out the holes (linebacker and corner) and question marks (offensive line and quarterback) with their strengths (wide receiver, running back, defensive line and safety units that are as good as any in college football), you have a team that should range somewhere between “above average” to “elite” with the most likely reality being in the middle, and earning the label of “solid.” Florida is the better team by most measures, but Auburn is still a solid one, and the difference between the two can be canceled out if the Tigers dominate the trenches and don’t lose the game with breakdowns elsewhere.
Now go look at the Tigers’ schedule. Auburn could easily be 3-2 coming into this game; starting 3-3 before they face LSU, Georgia or Alabama is a death sentence for Gus Malzahn and his staff. Meanwhile, I have Florida coming into this game at 5-0, probably ranked in the top ten and possibly looking ahead to the showdown with LSU in Death Valley the ensuing week. That’s not a good combination of emotional states of mind for Florida. Then factor in the X’s and O’s anomalies the Gators will have to deal with for the first time in this game, like Auburn’s running quarterback in a proven offensive system or a defensive line that features three future NFL starters and could make Feleipe Franks’ life hell. And until they prove otherwise, the Gators can’t be completely trusted against inferior opponents at home. Add all that up, and the Tigers add 2019 as the latest chapter of their book, titled “How To Repeatedly Beat Florida Teams That Are Better Than Us.”
Projection: Auburn 31, Florida 20