Auburn Review / LSU Preview

Florida – for at least one week – shut up the doubters and criticism with a resounding 24-13 win over Auburn in a Top 10 matchup at the Swamp.  The atmosphere was electric all afternoon and reminded Auburn fans (and, sadly, other SEC fans that have not seen it often the past decade) that the Swamp is on the very short list as the toughest place to play in the country.

Offensively it wasn’t pretty at times, mostly due to Auburn’s excellent defensive line, but enough plays were made to take and keep the lead and force Auburn to play from behind all afternoon.  The Gators turned the ball over 4 times on fumbles, 3 times giving the ball to the Tigers in Florida territory.  This led to Auburn’s 13 points (all in the first half), which is a testament to how well Florida’s defense played at all 3 levels and continued to rise to the occasion under constant pressure.  Despite being forced into 3 fumbles, Kyle Trask stayed cool under fire and had another efficient passing day that included 2 TDs.  He read coverage well all day (when given the time) and showed a lot of toughness returning from a scary-looking knee injury (MCL sprain) to tough out the win.  Returning to the game is going to play well in the locker room, as the entire team knows they have a guy leading the offense that will play through pain.  Emory Jones did a great job when he had to come in right after Trask left the game in the 2nd quarter, continuing the same drive into Auburn territory leading to a FG and showing the Tigers (and his teammates) that he could move the offense with both his arm and legs.  Coach Mullen showed faith in Jones by running the same game plan, and that vote of confidence has to help Jones mentally going forward in his career.  As expected, it was a rough day running the football against potentially 3 NFL-bound DL, but Mullen ran the ball just enough to keep the rush somewhat honest.  Florida finally got the one crack it needed to ice the game, Lamical Perine’s 88-yard TD run in the 4th quarter to make the score 24-13 and force Auburn to abandon the run for the last 9 minutes.  Finally, Mullen showed he’s not afraid to gamble in a big game, calling the TE Lucas Krull throwback pass to Trask to get the first down that essentially iced the game, and allowing punter Tommy Townsend to call his own number on a fake punt that failed and led to Auburn’s only TD.

The Gator defense was outstanding – especially in shutting down Auburn’s running game until the 4th quarter and forcing a true freshman QB to try and beat them with his arm.  Once that happened, it was a mismatch, as Bo Nix was held to 145 yards passing (more than half on 2 completions to Seth Williams – one of which resulted in their only offensive touchdown immediately after the botched fake punt).  The DEs did a great job of setting the edge which negated much of Auburn’s speed, and also applied constant pressure which forced Nix off his spot and caused him to panic and either take some big sacks or throw his 3 interceptions.  The LBs, led by David Reese, were the most physical they have been in 3 seasons, applying some big hits and denying the Tigers on their first 5 3rd-and-2 yards or less attempts.  All of this came against an experienced and talented Auburn OL.  The secondary was solid all day except for one busted coverage that allowed a long completion to Williams late in the 3rd quarter.  That was offset 3 plays later with an end-zone interception by Donovan Stiner that ended Auburn’s last scoring threat.  The return of CJ Henderson was noticeable, as the rest of the secondary could show many different looks and confuse the young QB.  Finally, it was great to see Marco Wilson play his best game since 2017, showing he is almost 100% back from his ACL injury and silencing some ridiculous criticism of his play.

Both head coaches described how loud the Swamp was and the intense atmosphere.  Gus Malzahn said he was surprised that the crowd got to his veteran O-Line – but that is what the Swamp does to any team when the Gators roll out a legit team to play in a big-time game.  This was (along with 2018 LSU) another reminder to recruits that Florida is building it’s way back to the standard it maintained from 1990 through 2009.  The atmosphere and result should reap rewards for both upcoming signing days.

There is no time to celebrate, as Florida now goes to Baton Rouge for another massive Top 10 showdown, this time with LSU.  This will be an even tougher matchup for the Gators, playing a night game at Tiger Stadium against a Tiger offense that has finally emerged from the Stone Age by becoming a passing team.  LSU is led on offense by QB Joe Burrow and a group of excellent WRs that includes Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Terrace Marshall.  They have incorporated NFL passing concepts installed by special advisor Joe Brady to take advantage of where they have the most talent, and it is paying off.  Brady is likely the most valuable person on Ed Orgeron’s staff this season, giving them a legitimate chance to win every game they play.  LSU will give Florida’s defense perhaps it’s biggest challenge of the entire season, but the Gators have enough talent in the secondary to match up with the Tiger WRs, along with the talent at DE to get some pressure on Burrow.  It’s incumbent to force Burrow off his spot in the pocket and get some pressure and the occasional sack.  This may be a game where the Gators will be in a nickel or dime defense most of the night, daring LSU to run the ball.  The Tiger running game is only average this year, partly given it’s overwhelming reliance on the pass.  Clyde Edwards-Helaire is by far their leader in carries and yards.  He is not a big-play threat but does most of his damage after LSU has forced teams to focus on the passing game. 

Florida’s offense was able to at least get a stalemate against the best D-Line it will play against all season, but will need a similar effort and result this week – especially in a hostile road environment.  It remains to be seen how the mild MCL sprain Trask incurred will affect him this week – he’s not going to be counted on to run as much as Franks or Jones would be, but being able to run the occasional zone read or QB power is a staple of Mullen’s offense.  If he is OK and given time to throw, he should be able to make some plays against a LSU defense that has been surprisingly less dominant than their roster and talent level would indicate.  The Gators will still need to run enough times to maintain some balance, but (hopefully) should be able to find more room than against Auburn.  Perine was a workhorse both running and receiving, and has to come up big again.  Hopefully, Dameon Pierce can return after sustaining a concussion against Auburn to bolster the running game – if the Gators are forced to become completely one-dimensional, I don’t believe they have the consistent firepower to win a shootout.  Of course, the turnovers have to get cleaned up, or this will be an ugly result.  Given the expected level of noise, Trask will have to stay poised, run a silent count, and make quick, accurate decisions and throws.  Florida has perhaps the 3rd best WR corps in the SEC after Alabama and LSU, and have to make some big plays against a talented Tiger secondary led by all-SEC safety Grant Delpit and excellent CBs Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley, Jr.  If you’re a fan of WRs and secondary players, this game may be the best one played in all of 2019.  Lastly, the Gator O-Line certainly was tested against Auburn, and that experience should pay dividends going forward.  LSU has some talent along it defensive front, but it simply isn’t as good as Auburn’s – hopefully Florida can establish a semblance of a running game and provide continued solid pass-protection to keep Trask upright.

Winning this game will be a tall order, especially coming right off of a big emotional win.  I think the staff and players have enough maturity to rise up for a second week in a row, but going on the road and against an experienced QB playing as well as anyone in the SEC may be too much to overcome.  I think the Gators will need to get to 27 points to have a real shot at winning.  It will take another complete effort and success from all 3 phases to pull this one off.  Florida’s special teams again need to be great and perhaps set up the offense with a short field or score on their own to help the cause.  Both schools have been talking a ton of trash for years now about which one is really ‘DBU’.  Well, with all of the great WRs on the field Saturday night, each team’s secondary depth is going to be tested.  LSU is a better team overall than Auburn, and certainly has payback on it’s mind after getting whipped last year in Gainesville.  Until Florida can prove it can protect the football and tighten up it’s O-Line play a little more, this assignment may be too tough to win right now.  

Prediction: LSU     31 Florida  20