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Florida vs. Auburn, Preview: Can the Gators tame the Tigers?

This game will likely be decided by strengths matching up against strengths.

Mississippi State v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Are the Florida Gators on a path toward championship contention? Are the Auburn Tigers truly among the nation’s elite?

We’ll probably get answers to those questions today beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Auburn rush defense

How good is a plastic spork at cutting through construction paper?

Florida has struggled mightily to run the ball in 2019, ranking No. 89 nationally in rushing yards per game and No. 70 in yards per carry. (Weirdly, Florida also has 11 rushing touchdowns — tied for No. 26 nationally — but that has plenty to do with usage, as the Gators have run the ball 32 times in the red zone, producing nine touchdowns, and thrown it just 25 times.) The Gators really haven’t been able to get Lamical Perine going, as he’s still under 200 yards on the year and without a single game of 70 rushing yards, and the promise shown by Dameon Pierce — currently averaging 5.9 yards per carry, much better than Perine’s 3.6 — has been basically alone among reserves, as Malik Davis’s return from multiple injuries has not seen him shine in limited action and neither Iverson Clement nor Nay’Quan Wright appears to be a rotation back at this point. With Kadarius Toney still out due to an arm injury, Florida’s also curtailed its wildcat-style packages, instead deploying Josh Hammond and Jacob Copeland on sweeps to varying results.

Florida also lost a reliable runner at QB when Feleipe Franks went down, and in replacing him with Kyle Trask, the Gators appear to have lost significant potential for scrambling runs, though Dan Mullen has called designed runs for Trask. But Trask starting also seems to have opened up more snaps for Emory Jones, whose speed was on display as he dusted much of the Towson defense for a near-touchdown run late in Florida’s rout last Saturday. And Florida may ask for more from Jones against the Tigers.

Auburn, though, has not yielded a whole lot on the ground this year. Only Tulane and Mississippi State have cracked the century mark against the Tigers, and only Oregon scored multiple rushing touchdowns on the Tigers’ stout front. Auburn’s averaging a healthy 6.8 tackles per loss per game, and while Florida has done a decent job of avoiding those (just 21 in five contests), Florida also hasn’t seen players like Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown up front.

Edge: Auburn

Florida passing game vs. Auburn pass defense

Would you believe that a ferocious front seven might still not make for a great Auburn pass defense?

The Tigers held Tulane to 103 yards on 34 attempts, and snagged an interception. 90 of the other 148 passes attempted against Auburn this year have been completed, and gone for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns.

Those are favorable numbers that should give Florida some confidence, even if they were mostly compiled with the Tigers leading their foes. And while Auburn’s seen both Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond this season, I’d put the Gators’ constellation of pass-catchers up against any the Tigers have had to defend. That’s especially true now that walking mismatch Kyle Pitts — far too big for the average defensive back, but way too fast for most linebackers — has seemingly become a focal point of the offense, and a favorite target for Trask, notching 12 catches for 153 yards in the last three games and hauling in three touchdowns in the last two, all from Trask.

If Florida’s passing game also includes the sorts of screens and other perimeter-attacking chicanery that moved the ball well against Mississippi State a year ago despite a very similarly formidable defensive front, then it’s almost certain Florida will have more success throwing the ball than running it on this day. But will it be enough success?

Slight edge: Florida

When Auburn has the ball

Auburn running game vs. Florida rush defense

The Auburn running game that seems to survive any and all turnover at running back — after compiling staggering numbers in a national runner-up campaign in 2013 (nearly 4,600 yards and 48 touchdowns on the ground, albeit in 14 games), the Tigers have failed to tally 2,500 rushing yards in a season just once since, in 2018 — has a new bellcow in JaTarvious Whitlow (Boobie, to most) and an effective secondary option on the field for every play in quarterback Bo Nix. Whitlow is averaging about an 18-90-1.5 line and has both rushed for 100-plus yards and scored multiple touchdowns twice; Nix, even without stripping out sacks, has accrued at least 16 rushing yards in every game and is coming off posting seven carries for 56 yards and a touchdown in an undressing of Mississippi State.

Oh, and Auburn has three other players, including hulking quarterback Joey Gatewood, who are all over 100 rushing yards on the year.

Despite that shared wealth, the Tigers have only cracked five yards per carry once — and only against Kent State. But that seems like a reflection of their running game working slightly less efficiently once they have the lead: Auburn is averaging a staggering 19.8 yards per carry on the mere five carries it has allocated with the score tied all year, 7.2 yards per carry when up by a single possession, and better than five yards per tote on first, second, and third down. This is a competent, multi-faceted run game.

Florida has shut the five run games it has seen almost all the way down this year, though, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry and preventing all five foes from registering 150 yards on the ground and the four not named Kentucky from making it to 100. And good luck getting things going before halftime: Florida has allowed just 2.1 yards per carry in the first half, and is allowing just 1.9 with the score tied.

If Auburn establishes the run against Florida — which is also tied for eighth nationally with 41 tackles for loss, though that number is swollen by 16 (!) against Miami — then it will probably be in a very good spot. But I don’t reckon it’s a foregone conclusion that it can.

Edge: Even

Auburn passing game vs. Florida pass defense

If you’re looking for the place where I think this game turns, look to the passing downs when Florida’s defense is on the field.

Nix is good, I think, despite being a mostly untested freshman and thus subject to some generous curves on assessments of play. He’s rebounded from a shaky opener against Oregon (two picks and 13-for-31 passing overall, but one clutch drive late) to have mostly good-for-a-caretaker performances since, with the exception of his aeration of Mississippi State (16-for-21, 335 yards, two touchdowns) a week ago. If you think Nix is consistently going to throw for 16 yards per attempt, you should probably be touting him as a Heisman candidate, though — it’s a lot easier to believe his level is above replacement for an Auburn QB than to think he’s actually better than Cam Newton was.

But he’s also got a good and somewhat underrated receiving corps. Seth Williams is a big-body mismatch for most corners — Marco Wilson will have his hands full — and Eli Stove is probably the most reliable target on the field most downs. Anthony Schwartz’s status as the burner in college football is also well-established, and Florida might have to dispatch CJ Henderson — returning from injury at a level of comfort and health known by Florida’s coaches and not the public — to keep him from scorching this team over the top. Five Auburn receivers have over 100 yards on the year, though Williams, Stove, and Will Hastings have all seven of the TD catches between them.

And that should be a challenge for the Gators, who have been relatively good at limiting yards per attempt (6.5, good for a tie for No. 38 nationally) and great at generating interceptions (nine, tied with Arizona — which has seen 45 more passes — for the nation’s lead) while also allowing opponents to complete 60 percent of their passes. Henderson’s return after going down against Tennessee-Martin should shore up one side of the field tremendously for Florida, as opponents have been able to create advantageous matchups with the future NFLer sidelined, but Trey Dean and Wilson have each been picked on in 2019 — and Henderson getting back doesn’t move either of those players to the bench.

Florida will also hope it can do more to pressure Nix than any other team has this year. The Gators have 24 sacks, tied for second nationally (though, again, a massive tally against Miami skews this total), and are often creating havoc even when not getting the quarterback down. Auburn has only allowed six sacks, an impressive number, but the Tigers have not seen a defense like Florida’s, and will assuredly see more exotic pressures than Todd Grantham has brought to bear since at least the Kentucky game. (Henderson’s return might actually help Florida’s blitzing most, as he is fantastic at executing cat blitzes off the corner.)

I like Florida’s chances of at least limiting Nix as a passer, or turning him over by applying pressure. I think Florida needs to do that, though, to have a strong chance in this game.

Slight edge: Florida

Special teams

There is an impressive consistency to Auburn’s snap-and-kick games: The Tigers average about 43 yards and change per punt, and have thrice been between 43 and 44 yards per punt this year; they’ve also made all 25 extra points, and gotten five makes on six tries from Anders Carlson — yes, brother of Daniel. I’d still lean toward Florida’s combination of Evan McPherson and Tommy Townsend over Auburn’s personnel, though.

The return game would logically seem to favor Auburn merely because of Schwartz’s speed, but he hasn’t returned a punt or kick in his career, and the Tigers’ main threat is punt returner Christian Tutt, nicknamed “Sweet Feet” during a start that has seen him compile 200 yards on 13 returns and earned him the No. 9 spot nationally in punt return average. Townsend and Florida’s coverage unit have been excellent this year — Florida foes have a grand total of three punt returns for negative one yards — but it will be imperative for them to neutralize Tutt in the same way.

Hoping for a big return out of Florida’s special teams, meanwhile, seems like pining for a bit too much. Freddie Swain is overdue for a game-changing run, but the Gators have been without a great kick return unit since the departure of 19th-year senior Andre Debose, and that probably isn’t changing all of a sudden on this Saturday.

Slight edge: Florida

Other factors

Auburn has already played three significant games that allowed people to declare the Tigers back and/or elite, though scraping by Oregon and topping Texas A&M were not really great evidence for that status. Pasting Mississippi State? Well, that’s a different story — and probably part of why Auburn is a slight favorite in this game.

But Florida boasts the same 5-0 record, and has arguably played about as tough a schedule, with its own neutral-site and SEC road triumphs. And is Auburn strafing Mississippi State really more impressive than Florida utterly locking down every team that has come to The Swamp, or merely more exciting than allowing a point per game over three contests?

Internally, Florida’s expectation this year was to make strides toward national championship contention — and though the Gators’ two less dominant wins and the loss of Franks have made them harder for pundits to argue for, they remain in that hunt.

And I suspect they are also hungry to prove doubters wrong. And revved up to wear awesome throwback uniforms. And excited to hear The Swamp at what should be a full bore it has not reached in recent years.

I think Florida is going to want this game just a little bit more, and I think The Swamp is going to be a lot more than it usually is. And I think that bodes well for the Gators.

Edge: Florida