When I was a kid in the early 1990s (old folks, don’t freak), Auburn playing Florida was ingrained into my mind as something that the Tigers had to deal with every single year. It was a true hurdle, a midseason test that let you know you’d need to fasten your seatbelt. Of course, in those days it was often the most difficult game on the schedule. Bama was starting to slip, Georgia wasn’t consistently good, and LSU was in the midst of figuring out which unmemorable coach they had to fire. Often, Mississippi State and Arkansas were the next toughest games on the schedule. Oh, how times change.
And change they do. No longer is the matchup between the Tigers and Gators an annual affair like it was for decades. The rivalry is one of the most-played games in Auburn history, with over 80 meetings between the teams, only that was then. In the new-look SEC, we don’t get to visit our old friends in Alachua County. It’s been twelve years since we got to go to the Swamp. You have to go back another five years before that for the previous venture south. We’ve only seen the Gators once in the last decade.
It’s a problem, but I have a feeling that today’s game will scratch the itch we’ve all been trying to reach.
After wins over Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Auburn has become a media darling this week. Shudder. We know the particular history of highly-ranked and regarded Auburn teams, but this group is different. They’ve already gone on the road and beaten good teams. They’ve dispatched solid groups with ease. Last week was a laugher against Mississippi State, and the week before was a sneakily-dominant game in College Station despite the final score. Even the G5 opponents on the slate haven’t just been awful. Auburn gave Tulane its only loss (the Green Wave won their other three games by an average of 29 points per game), and Kent State posted 62 the week after the Tigers housed them.
What’s more is that you can see the improvement week to week from Gus Malzahn’s group. Bo Nix had a terrible first half against Oregon. Since that time? 9 touchdowns, no interceptions. Auburn’s offensive line was one of the weaknesses in the first two games. Since then? 293 rushing yards per game. That’s a 2013-esque figure.
And the defense has been great. Oregon moved down the field with ease for two quick touchdowns, but Auburn has eaten since then. The first drive of a game will always be the same — Kevin Steele gets his bearings and then puts in the plan to shut down the attack. It’s that defense that will allow Bo Nix to keep growing. Last week he may have finally turned that corner with a 16-21, 335-yard, 2 touchdown performance against Mississippi State.
25 years ago, his dad threw for more than 300 yards in a win over Mississippi State, and then went down to Gainesville to dispatch the top-ranked Gators in the Swamp. You might remember that one. We’re going to have a Nix wearing No. 10 in white today, and it’s going to be nostalgic.
So what about Florida? They stand in the way of a perfect first half for Auburn. Win today, the Tigers are 6-0 heading into the bye week and prep for the Arkansas game. It would be fantastic, but the Gators aren’t going to lie down.
Most of us got to watch them on opening night in Week Zero when they battled Miami. If you remember anything from that game, it was that the Gators notched 10 sacks against the Hurricanes and their freshman quarterback. Much of that was the poor play of the Miami left tackle, but it’s a definite scare for the Auburn offense. This will be the best defensive front we’ve faced this year, but the Tigers have grown over the first five weeks. The offensive line looks like a strength, so everything about an old-school SEC matchup stands up today.
This will be a game that hinges on line play on both sides.
While Auburn has shown growth on the offensive line, Florida has not. Dan Mullen said this week that his line needs to work harder and do things better to improve. They can’t run the ball. Through five games the Gators are one of the worst teams in the land in that category, ranking 88th in rushing yards per game. What that means is that they’re going to turn to the passing game.
Kyle Trask started games before this season, when Feleipe Franks was benched last year for a time, but now he’s forced into it with the injury to Franks during the Kentucky game. He’s a senior, and steady, but Bo Nix has thrown more career passes than he has. The home crowd will help him today as he tries to mitigate what Auburn does. The Gators have a great group of receivers, and many have wondered during the week whether Florida’s going to employ the same strategy that Oregon did — quick, short passes — to move the chains. Surely Kevin Steele has thought of that.
For Auburn, it comes down to make Florida completely one-dimensional. If you stuff the run game like you know you can, and the offense can do what it’s done over the last three weeks, then you put the pressure on the Gators to take chances downfield. Auburn has been oh-so-close on snagging turnovers this year, but they have fully materialized. Today would be a perfect opportunity to get a couple of interceptions and really make Florida sweat. Do that, and go about your business on offense, and we could get out with the biggest win of the season. Do it not, and things are going to be sticky until the end.
Early on in the offseason, I voted that this would be the best game of the year in the SEC. Now that we’re here, I don’t know if I want to see that. I’d love to see us do what we did last week, and I think we have the ability to do it, but this Florida team has strengths that can neutralize us. It’s likely going to be close, and it’s likely going to be stressful.
Sock in. Auburn and Florida are back on the football field.
How to Watch and Listen - #7 Auburn @ #10 Florida