One of the longest running rivalries in the country resumes on Saturday night in Auburn, Alabama. When the SEC changed the format several years ago, Florida lost one of its best and most natural rivals. The Gators and Tigers have met 80 times. The last time Florida traveled to Auburn was 2001 when AU beat then number one ranked Gators, 23-20.
This week Florida will look to stay in the National Championship race and in control of it’s destiny in the SEC with a win. Auburn looks to stay within a game of first place Arkansas in the SEC West. Florida’s wins on the plains always seem memorable. That might have something to do with the fact the Gators have only won there eight times in the history of this rivalry. Maybe the biggest win was in 1985 when the Gators took over the number one spot in the country. The losses have been distinguishing in recent memory from Terry Bowden’s 1993 team stunning UF to the game in 2001 in which Damon Duval booted a field goal to take down the Gators. Auburn is the loudest stadium in the SEC behind Florida’s and will be rocking with a night atmosphere that surely rivals any in the country.
Auburn Statistic: The Tigers have won 7 of the last 8 games against AP top ten teams and five in a row.
Auburn has been very pedestrian on offense this season averaging 25 poiints per game and 331 yards per game. Auburn’s game plan includes running clock and not turning the ball over. They have only had five turnovers this season. This conservative approach is much different from last season where they had the number one offense in the conference. A struggling offensive line and a thin passing game has hurt Tommy Tuberville’s team. In SEC play this season Auburn has produced an average of 17 points per game which is well below the expectations. Several things have contributed to the drop off in production. First, teams are loading the box with eight guys and taking away Kenny Irons in the running game. He is still getting quality yards when called upon, but is not the home run threat that he was last season. Secondly, the offensive line has been banged up and struggling since the LSU game in both run blocking and pass protection. Finally, the passing game has only one true threat in Courtney Taylor and the receiver position was hit hard by graduation.
The tigers have run the ball 72 percent of the time on first down making them very predictable. The first quarter has been a struggle to establish the run game with Auburn averaging just 3.5 per carry in the first quarter. Brandon Cox has been sacked 18 times already this season and I expect Auburn will play action some on first down this week to try to take pressure off of him. He will look to go to the tight end or the fullback some this week on first down. Kenny Irons is still second in the SEC in rushing at 514 yards for the season and he is very capable of having one of those 200 yard nights like he did last season at LSU.
Auburn Defense: The Tiger defense dropped from 23rd to 47th in the country in rushing defense after last week’s performance against Arkansas.
The Auburn defense is a blitzing attacking style defense. Much like LSU they will keep the pressure on you for four quarters. The difference is they are not as physical against the run as the Bengal Tigers. Auburn did relinquish 279 yards last week to Arkansas. But their run defense prior to that was very good against LSU, which managed just 43 yards. Overall Auburn is giving up 3.56 yards per carry which is significantly higher than the 2.29 the Gators give up. I think the secondary is suspect and can be head if the offensive line can handle the pressure from the front seven. Auburn will back off in zone coverages or man free to avoid the big play when the do blitz. The underneath routes and secondary reads should be there for the Gators. Auburn has picked off just three passes this season and does not break on the ball well. The best linebacker for the Tigers is Will Herring who leads the team in tackles and can really attack the line of scrimmage. Auburn is holding opponents to a respectable 34% on third down conversions. The Tiger will have an exotic blitz package for the Gators and it will be important for the offensive line to recognize and communicate up front. Tray Blackmon returns at will linebacker this week giving the Tigers more speed in the front seven.
Gator Offensive Statistics: The Gators are averaging 6.59 yards per play on first down. The offensive line has only given up 10 sacks this season.
The Florida offense has one advantage when facing these blitzing aggressive defenses in the SEC. They spread the field to run and pass which makes it tough to stack so many blitzers in the box. Florida has also done a great job moving Leak around to avoid pressure, often rolling him away from a unaccounted blitzer. The Gator offensive line gave up just one sack last week and that was a scheme problem not an effort or execution problem. The Gator receivers have done enough with the ball after the catch to put fear into opposing defensive backfields. This is much different than last season where it seemed like teams were “squeezing” the Gator offense. I think this is week where UF will be able to go down the field with some effectiveness.
First the Tigers don’t want to get beat deep which should allow UF to attack the middle of the field and use the mid range passing game. If DeShawn Wynn and the running game are somewhat effective, I think you will see the re-emergence of the double cross route that scored twice against Tennessee. I think Chris Leak’s experience will help in this game and his ability to stay calm on the road. Leak has won his last five games against ranked opponents and has delivered in Tallahassee, Baton Rouge and Knoxville. I think UF will have a big day throwing the football with Dallas Baker, Percy Harvin and Jemalle Cornelius shining. Wynn is a good match-up against the Auburn defense and could produce a 100 yard game.
Gator Special Teams Statistic: Florida has downed a punt inside the 20 in every game this season.
The first goal of the defense this week is to stop Kenny Irons. I said a couple of weeks ago, let the sleeping dog sleep with regards to Kenneth Darby and that applies to Irons. He has been in and out of the line-up and really struggled to get anything going last week against Arkansas. The Razorbacks are the ninth best rush defense in the SEC and the Gators sit comfortably in first at 56 yards per game. UF is starting fast holding opponents under two yards per carry in the first quarter. Marcus Thomas will need to have a huge game once again for the Gators with the Tigers struggling at center. That position has really struggled for Auburn and you don’t fix that in one week. The Gators will look to make Auburn one-dimensional and see if Cox to Taylor can beat them. I think the Gators must prepare for Auburn to try some trick plays and break some tendencies. I just don’t think anyone can line up and run the football on Florida. Jarvis Moss has developed into more than just a pass rusher and Derrick Harvey has solidified the defensive line with his pressure off the edge. The Gators have given up just six passes for more than 25 yards this season. They have avoided busting coverages and giving up big plays which means they have had control of each football game. They cannot break down this week against a desperate Auburn team.
Auburn Statistic: The Tigers are 6-7-1 all time at Jordan-Hare against top five teams. Three of those wins are against the University of Florida.
How can Auburn win? I think Auburn’s chance to win this game is to throw early and hope Irons has a special day on the ground. The formula to beat the Gators is control the ball and play from ahead. With the game being at home it could be tough for the Gators to over come another 10 point deficit. The problem with this plan is Auburn has not looked very good this season against any quality teams. And while I believe the Auburn defense is capable of putting up a winning performance, they may have to get some non-offensive scores to beat the Gators. Tuberville likes the role of a wounded dog who no one thinks will win. The problem with that motivation, is Auburn has been set as a slight favorite on Saturday night.
Mid Term Report: Here are some interesting tidbits on the first half of the season.
30-30-15 rule — If UF’s defense gets to 30 sacks, 30 turnovers and holds teams to 15 points per game or less they will be in Atlanta. To date 13 sacks, 14 turnovers and 9.5 points per game.
Defense — It’s given up just 16 points in the second half all season
Red Zone defense — This is a point of emphasis for UF and it’s at 54 percent, allowing touchdowns in just 31 percent of the attempts.
Defense — So far, 33 tackles for loss.
Statistic that must improve in the Second Half:
Third down defense — The Gators have given up 40 percent conversions.
Long Plays — Gators have 37 plays of 20 yards or more after just 45 last season.
Offense — Florida is 20th in the country in total offense after finishing 61st last season.
Third and Short — Florida is 17 for 20 on third down and 3 or less for the season
Third Down Conversions — UF is 51 percent on third down conversions for the season
Establish the Run — The Gators have out rushed all opponents this season.
Another statistic that needs to improve in the second half: UF is averaging 29 points per game which is third in the tough SEC. I would like to see that number in the 30’s by November.
Punting — The Gators are seventh in the country in net punting.
Field Goals — UF has not made a field goal this season.
Penalties — UF’s 59 penalties are the most in the country and 21 more than any team in the SEC.
Undefeated — Florida is 6-0 for the first time since 1996 and that sounds good to any Gator fan.
BCS Talk: I am sure most of you have had at least one conversation with a co-worker this week about Florida being a national title contender. Anytime you are ranked in the top three of the polls in October it is a worthwhile discussion. I think it becomes very legit with a win this week at Auburn.
Here is some food for thought … Florida plays in the best conference against a very tough schedule. Assuming Ohio State wins out the number two spot could come down to USC and Florida. (I think USC will get beat, but for arguments sake follow me here). The Pac-10 made a decision to add a ninth conference game as it’s twelfth game while many others teams and conferences like Florida added a 1-AA opponent (Western Carolina for the Gators). This could hurt Florida with human polls on November 18th if the Gators win while USC beats a top ten California team. The problem with the BCS is that it also creates “strange bedfellows.” For example UF needs FSU to pick up the slack and be pretty decent on November 25th when the Gators travel to Tallahassee. USC plays what should be a top ten Notre Dame team the same day and that game will surely be seen by everyone in the country. It is an imperfect system that creates a lot of chaos but all the matters is winning and if you win out you should be in good position.
Inside the BCS Numbers: USC’s opponents that they have played already are 17-5, second in the country. Florida’s opponents are 18-7 which is eighth in the country. USC’s remaining opponents are 20-15 which is 38th in the country while Florida’s remaining opponents are 16-10 which is 28th in the country. Interesting is the point that Florida has the tougher schedule on paper considering USC has Oregon, Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame left. Florida has Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU…Don’t you love the BCS?
Prediction Time: The winning team in the last 14 meetings has scored at least 23 points in the game. IF that statistic holds true then Auburn won’t win. The Tigers need a 1989 (10-7esque) win to get it done this Saturday. First of all UF’s defense won’t give up more than two touchdowns and they may not give up that many. Tennessee needed a trick play to get one of its two scores and I expect Auburn might do the same. UF must make Auburn a passing team and they can do that by getting out to a lead in this game. I don’t like UF’s chances if they get behind early because of Auburn’s methodical style of offense. What if South Carolina would have actually had a possession in the third quarter? Auburn will “nickel and dime” you to death. I expect Tony Joiner to have a huge game, especially against the run. The entire middle of the defense needs to dominate for the Gators this week. Marcus Thomas, Brandon Siler, Tony Joiner and Reggie Nelson should show up big on the stat sheet. Offensively the Gators will unleash Percy Harvin which could produce some big plays for the offense. The Gators have been multiple enough on offense to get it done the past two week. I think they will have a chance to get big passing numbers this week with Baker, Cornelius and Harvin. If Florida can avoid “self-inflicted wounds” the Gators will win.
Remember the “ Ackerman Keys to Victory in the SEC”:
1. Out-rush your opponent
2. Win field position
3. Get better QB play
Anytime you play on the road you don’t want to do what LSU did and that is have an off day with turnovers and special teams. I think the Gators play well and get to 23 points once again. Florida wins again, 28-14.
Please check out College Kickoff on Friday Night on SunSports at 7pm for a preview of the game. We will also have a special one-hour pre game show on Saturday night at 6:30 pm and our usual post-game show immediately following the conclusion Saturday night. Join me along with Whit Watson, Terry Norvelle, David Steele, Nat Moore, Steve Babik and Todd Lewis for all the coverage on Sun Sports this weekend.