Florida pitched its second shutout of the season with a 38-0 win over Towson. It may not have been as smooth as many hoped, but it was efficient, and a solid win over a good FCS team while sitting at least 6 starters due to various injuries.
The Tigers’ offense actually generated two 12-play drives in the first half, exposing what has been the only real problem to date for the Gator defense – getting off of the field on 3rd down. Their dual-threat QB hurt the Gators by consistently escaping pressure and scrambling for some first downs. The pass defense was never truly threatened, but the run defense again had some lapses between the tackles. If this is a harbinger of similar things Auburn does (and better), that could be bad news.
Florida’s offense was solid, but not spectacular. Kyle Trask again was very efficient, going 18-20 and 2 TDs but only 188 yards, as Towson refused to bring their safeties into the box. Unfortunately, the running game was only average (again), struggling with blocking between the tackles and still suffering from missed assignments. Dameon Pierce came on in the second half to provide a spark at RB, and is pushing for more carries.
The preseason is now officially over, as the calendar rolls into October and the schedule suddenly changes from weak to the toughest in the country. Florida faces 3 Top 10 teams in their next 4 games, starting with the Auburn Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen/whatever visiting the Swamp for the first time since 2007.
Auburn’s defense starts with an excellent D-Line, led by Derrick Brown. Their line is big, fast, and experienced. This is a bad matchup for Florida’s weakest unit, the O-Line. I have not seen the improvement expected after 5 games, so at this point Coach Mullen has to scheme around them. Since the run blocking is not very good, I’m expecting the Gators to throw often on 1st and 2nd down. If the O-Line can give Trask just enough time, the WRs and TEs can make plays. The drawback, though, is that this could generate some quick 3-and-out series, forcing the defense into extended action and possibly causing them to wear down in the second half. Execution has to be crisp. Trask has to make quick, decisive decisions with the ball. Slow-developing plays won’t work against the Tigers. Trying to pound the running game between the tackles likely won’t work, so some edge plays like jet sweeps have to be in the game plan. I’m hoping that Mullen has been sandbagging in regards to his play sheet all season and has held some good plays in reserve for this game.
Florida’s defense also has a tough matchup against a senior-laden Auburn O-Line. The tackle rotation has to play it’s best game of the year defending the power running game led by leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, while the DEs need to set the edge and guard against jet sweeps and QB runs form Bo Nix. Nix is a true freshman, but now has had the chance to play in two big games against Oregon and at Texas A&M. We’ll see if Coach Grantham also has been holding some looks and blitzes in reserve for this game in order to confuse the young QB and the O-Line blocking schemes. I expect a lot of pressure near the LOS while putting the CBs and safeties on an island in more man coverage. Marco Wilson and CJH (returning from injury) have to provide some lockdown coverage, and Trey Dean has to improve his coverage at the Star position. Seth Williams is by far Auburn’s most dangerous WR and has good size – he needs to be taken out of the game as often as possible. The Gator front seven also benefits from the return of DE Jabari Zuniga and LB Ventrell Miller from injury. Finally, the defense has to ignore a lot of the ‘eye candy’ from Auburn – motion, weird formations, the ‘sugar’ huddle (which is nothing more than a quick-snap set), etc. Stay focused, and play your assignments. Make the QB uncomfortable, and force some mistakes and hopefully a few turnovers.
Florida’s special teams have been excellent so far, and have to be near perfect this week. Flipping the field and forcing Auburn to drive the length of the field is imperative, as is execution of any FG opportunities. It’s time (hopefully) for a big return in the kicking game to pop up for the Gators to provide a short field and generate some easier points.
It’s Homecoming week, with all of the added excitement to go along with the first visit by ESPN’s Game Day since 2012 and the Gators wearing throwback uniforms from the 1960s. It will be a sellout crowd for the biggest home game of the season, as Florida has its chance to make a statement on the national stage. No one really has a good feel for how good (or not) the Gators are right now, given the weakness of their opponents to date. Florida has not been pushed other than the 4th quarter of their opener against Miami and then the 4th quarter comeback at Kentucky. That could be a disadvantage going into this game, as Auburn has already defeated Oregon on a neutral field and won at Texas A&M.
I’m going to stick with my preseason pick of an Auburn win. I do think the Gators will play their best game of the season to date, but sometimes the matchup style is just too much to overcome. It will take a complete game from all 3 phases to win, and it can be done. But I have watched enough SEC games over 45 years to know that if a team is overmatched on both sides of the LOS, it is usually too much to overcome.
Prediction: Auburn 24 Florida 20