Can Florida break through in 2011?
War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for another Auburn opponent preview. This week's target is the Florida Gators, who visit Auburn on October 15th. It seems hard to believe, but the Gators have not won in Auburn in more than 11 years. The Tigers are 3-1 against the Gators in the past decade, and were only a missed Damon Duval chip shot field goal (2002) away from being 4-0. Auburn will look to keep that trend going this year.
There are quite a few similarities between these two teams. Both teams have lost a lot of players since January. Neither team is at full strength in scholarship player numbers. Both are very young in the defensive front seven. Both will have rebuilt offensive lines. Both teams have playmakers at the offensive skill positions. Both have quarterbacks with questions. Auburn has this game at home, and has the advantage of 3 years of running the same systems. Under new head coach Will Muschamp, Florida is going from a run-first spread to a pro-style Charlie Weis offense. The defense will transition to a 3-4. There will be some first-year jitters from the Gators, and this game is being played on the road in Auburn.
Florida opens with a fairly easy September, then much like Auburn, has a brutal October. The Gators play Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee, then Kentucky in Lexington. In October, the Gators host Alabama, then travel to Baton Rouge to play LSU before coming to Jordan Hare Stadium to play Auburn. Auburn will have played Utah State, Mississippi State, at Clemson, Florida Atlantic, at South Carolina, and at Arkansas before returning home for the Gators.
Offensively, the Gators look to be a play-action pro-style running team. After watching the Florida spring game, it appears some pieces are missing. The foundation is a young, banged up offensive line. Only 6 scholarship linemen dressed for the spring game. To run the ball from a traditional formation, effective tight end and fullback blockers are needed. The Gators will try to convert part-time quarterbacks Jordan Reed and Trey Burton into those blockers. Those two may be able to create some mismatches in the secondary, but can they block SEC linemen and linebackers? The Gators appear to have a talented and speedy wide receiver corps, but it's a group that's been plagued by dropped balls. Also, the starters tend to be undersized by SEC standards. Finally, there's veteran 5th year senior quarterback John Brantley. He had a dismal (4-14, 45 yards) spring game, but that was playing behind a patchwork line. I'd say the jury is still out, here. Coach Muschamp claims that Brantley hit 70 percent of his passes in practice.
Defensively, the team is converting to a three down lineman set, and they are doing it with a very young group in the front seven. Most of the time, though, one of those linebackers (the "buck," in this system) will play with a hand down on the end of the line. Much like other teams in the SEC who've converted to the 3-4 (Alabama, Georgia), there will be issues the first season. Like Auburn, Florida has some talented defensive linemen, but they are nearly all second year players or younger. It doesn't get much better in the secondary. The suspension and subsequent transfer of star corner Janoris Jenkins leaves the Gators with 4 undersized starting defensive backs without a whole lot of experience. It will be quite a challenge for new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to mold this talented group into a cohesive unit.
Gator special teams were solid in 2010, but with overall team depth down this year, coverage numbers may decline. Junior kicker Caleb Sturgis is coming off back injuries, but hit all 3 of his attempts in the spring game. Return men Andre Debose and Chris Rainey are explosive. The Gators must break in a new punter, and that will be true freshman Kyle Christy.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Florida offensive line: Auburn had apparent problems in the A-Day game at defensive tackle, but will the Gator interior line be able to exploit it? Auburn true sophomores Jeffery Whitacker and Kenneth Carter will have had half a season to gain experience. The Auburn defense is most dangerous at defensive end, led by Nosa Eguae, Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier. The Gators appear to be set to go with redshirt freshman Chaz Green and junior Xavier Nixon at tackles, sophomores Jon Halapio and Ian Silberman at guards, and sophomore Jonothan Harrison at center. It's a green unit. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Florida backs: Auburn returning linebackers Darren Bates, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans have experience shutting down big-time SEC backs. They, along with new starting middle linebacker Jake Holland will need it against the Gators. Senior runners Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are explosive. Junior Mike Gillislee is a short yardage option. None of these guys weigh 200 pounds, so it remains to be seen how effective Florida is running between the tackles behind a rebuilt line. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Florida receivers: Auburn projected starters T'Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis got extensive experience in the two games last season, and Jonathan Mincy and Jonathan Rose looked solid in spring drills. The Gators are dangerous with sophomore Quinton Dunbar and junior Frankie Hammond split out wide. Both guys are about 6' 1", 175 pounds, and can fly. When the Gators want to go larger, they'll use junior Omarius Hines and senior Deonte Thompson. Consistency issues have plagued both of these units in the pasts, so the best I can do here is guess. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Florida secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn will field a new/old tandem this fall at safety: converted corner Neiko Thorpe and sophomore Demetruce McNeal. Thorpe has played a lot of football in the past three years, and by all accounts is making a very successful transition to safety, where he's more suited. McNeal is fast and is a ferocious hitter, but only has spot duty last season on his resume. Generally when you think of secondary receivers in a pro offense, it's the tight end and fullback. Florida sophomores Jordan Reed and Trey Burton could be a coverage nightmare. Both have good speed, and are physical players. However, both are trying to make the transition to being blockers and receivers. The jury's still out on senior quarterback John Brantley. Evidently, his backups in spring drills, including top incoming prep sensation Jeff Driskel did not perform well enough to unseat the veteran. Brantley had a rough spring game, and last season he was pretty average as an SEC starter. Brantley completed 60 percent of his passes, for 6.26 yards per pass, with 10 interceptions and 9 touchdowns. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn will field sophomore Steven Clark, who had a several shaky starts last fall. If the A-Day game is any indication, Clark will boast a much stronger leg this fall. The Gators appear to be ready to start true freshman/early enrollee Kyle Christy, who averaged 46.5 yards on two punts in the spring game. Auburn's still unsettled as to who will return punts, and had fumble problems back there the past two seasons. Senior Chris Rainey returned 9 punts last season for 67 yards. Auburn held opponents to 4.5 yards per return, Florida gave up 8.4. Slight Advantage: Florida.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Cody Parkey was used about a third of the time last season, and he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff. Auburn was second in the SEC last season in kick coverage, helped by a nasty coverage team. Starting Florida kickoff man Caleb Sturgis was hitting for 65.4 yards before his injury last season. Backup Zach Brust averaged 60.1 yards replacing Sturgis. Both return this season. Auburn's Onterio McCalebb figures to be the primary kick returner. McCalebb averaged 28.4 yards per return in 2010. Florida has its top two guys back to return kicks, sophomore Andre Debose and senior Jeff Demps. Demps averaged 32.5 yards per return and Debose managed 28.0 with two taken for touchdowns. Auburn coverage gave up 19.7 yards per return, Florida gave up 20.1. Advantage: Florida.
Place kicking: Sophomore Cody Parkey takes over as the Auburn kicker. His only college experience is a couple of extra points kicked late in the Homecoming game. Parkey is said to have had a good spring. Parkey's backup Chandler Brooks hit three field goals longer than 40 yards in Auburn's A-Day Game. Florida senior Caleb Sturgis hit 2 of 4 field goal attempts last season before being injured, and 19 of 21 extra points. Sturgis gets the nod on experience. Advantage: Florida.
Auburn offensive line vs. Florida defensive line: Auburn came out of spring with sophomore Blake Burgess starting at center, with senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen at the guard slots. Only Sullen has significant front-line playing time inside. Tackles will be seniors Brandon Mosley and A. J. Greene. Much like Auburn, Florida has a very young defensive line going into 2011. The unit dominated much of last spring, but they were working against a very depleted offensive line. Penciled in to start inside are sophomores Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd. From the edges Florida will bring senior William Green and sophomore Ronald Powell. It's a fast unit, but perhaps slightly undersized in the SEC, particularly at the end/buck positions. Tackle is the strength of the Auburn offensive line, with both Greene and Moseley having starting experience. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Florida linebackers: The Auburn Tigers return the one-two punch of freshman All-American Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb at running back, and will look to the incoming signing class to fill out the depth chart. Florida will start veterans Jelani Jenkins (sophomore) and Jon Bostic (junior), along with junior Lerentee McCray. Beyond the starters, the depth situation is downright scary for the Gators. Florida moved safety Dee Findley to linebacker, and he is the top backup. Muschamp likes to attack with his linebackers, but much like Auburn the past two years, he may not have the depth to do it. Florida may be playing the starters every down, and that takes a toll. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Florida corners: Auburn will rely heavily on returning veteran Emory Blake, and intriguing prospects DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. One might think Florida will be in trouble this fall after losing all-star Janoris Jenkins, but that did not appear to be the case in Florida's spring game, as a number of corners seemed to do well. Sophomore Cody Riggs and junior Jeremy Brown will likely start, and the 6' 2" senior Moses Jenkins gives the Gators the size to match up with some of the larger SEC receivers. Still, this matchup features unproven players on each side. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Florida safeties: Auburn's most notable returning secondary receiver is tight end/h-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who was a clutch go-to guy last year. About half of his catches resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers also have options from the speedy Trovon Reed to the 290 pound H-Back LaDarius Phillips. Auburn is still in the midst of a quarterback race, but junior Barrett Trotter seems to have the upper hand at this point. Regardless of whether Trotter or sophomore Clint Moseley start, Auburn will field a quarterback with three year's worth of experience practicing the Gus Malzhan offensive system. Sophomore Matt Elam and junior Josh Evans give the Gators a solid duo at safety. By game seven of the season, inexperience won't be much of a problem on either side. Still, even the best teams in 2010 had problems covering Lutzenkirchen and Blake, and I suspect this year's Florida team will, too. Advantage: Auburn.
When these two teams are compared, there are a lot of similarities. There is youth, and in some cases a lack of depth. I think nine times out of ten, though, an impartial observer is going to pick the home team with three years of experience running the same systems. Getting a 3-4 defense up to speed to stop a Gus Malzhan-coached offense will be a particular challenge. Watching Muschamp defenses over the years, I've loved the intensity with which his players fight. The same can't be said about being disciplined and in proper position. There will be opportunities for big plays.
It will be interesting to see how the Gator offense comes out this fall. Last year, the Gators had difficulty even snapping the ball at times, and never seemed to have any consistency. I think quarterback John Brantley has the arm strength and receivers to make plays downfield, but I think the meat of the Gator offense will be to get Rainey and Demps going on the ground. What makes this matchup exciting is Ted Roof's recent history of taking on pro-style, run first offenses. Teams that don't have a good screen package or ability to consistently hit out routes have really struggled against Auburn the last two years. I think Ted Roof crowds the line in this one, and makes Brantley try to win it. We live in strange times when Auburn's best chance for an October win comes against the Florida Gators.
Prediction: The Malzhan machine churns out another 450 yard game. Brantley plays true to form, and the Gator running game doesn't go consistently. Auburn takes this one, 23-17.