How the Florida Gators beat the Auburn Tigers

The game against Auburn this weekend is important to Florida for a lot of reasons. It’s the first home game between a pair of top ten teams in seven years. GameDay is in town and the rest of the national slate is weak, so all eyes will be on the Gators. A ton of recruits will be in the house, including some of the best and most important ones they’re targeting in this cycle.

It’s not a must-win game strictly speaking, but coming out victorious would pay a lot of dividends. Here are the ways that UF can use to try to take down the Tigers.

Stop the run

It’s a cliche to say that stopping the run is necessary in SEC play, but it’s extremely important for a number of reasons.

First, Gus Malzahn’s offense really is predicated on the run. On standard downs — 1st down, 2nd and 6 or fewer, and 3rd or 4th and 4 or fewer — Auburn has run the ball 70.9% of the time. For comparison, the national average is 59.3% and Florida’s average is 51.1%.

That’s not triple option territory, since for instance Army runs on 96% of standard downs. It is in the neighborhood of run mashing teams like Wisconsin (71.4%) and Steve Addazio’s Boston College (74.5%) though.

Second, the Tigers are very good at the run. Their rushing success rate is 49.8%, while the national average is 42.5%. They run for 5.62 yards per carry excluding sacks, which again is noticeably above the national average (4.93).

Third, Malzahn really does use the run to set up the pass. Sure he likes to run between the tackles, but he was one of the early ones to go heavy into motions, sweeps, and options to run outside as well. He wants to get the defense chasing ghosts so he can then hit them over the top with the pass. Bo Nix threw for 335 yards on Mississippi State last week, but it was on just 21 attempts. That’s Malzahn’s offense at its peak.

It’s particularly important to stop the run on first down. On passing downs — 2nd & 7 or more, 3rd or 4th and 5 or more — AU runs just 43.6% of the time. The Tigers’ rushing success rate climbs as the downs go along, while its passing drops in efficiency on 2nd and 3rd down.

Down Auburn Off. Rush SR Auburn Off. Pass SR
1 45.0% 50.9%
2 50.0% 41.5%
3 63.3% 41.5%

Stuff the run on 1st down, and Auburn will run less often and hit those lower passing success rates on 2nd and 3rd down more often.

Pressure Nix and tackle one-on-one

According to the stats provider that The Athletic uses, Nix’s completion percentage under pressure is 22.8%. That’s the real upside to getting in his face, as he is elusive. Auburn’s sack rate (sacks divided by total pass plays) is comfortably below the national average on both standard and passing downs.

Auburn’s offensive line starts five seniors and is also above the national average in opportunity rate, which is percentage of rushes going at least five yards. Both to stop the run and hassle Nix, sending extra guys will probably be necessary. UF may do all right sending four now that two of the four can be Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard again, but well crafted and timed blitzes may be required.

Malzahn has plenty of plays for attacking the perimeter quickly, so Florida’s defensive backs will need to be at their best at making solo tackles. Whiffing on Auburn’s speedy receivers is asking for explosive gains. The Gators can’t afford the sloppy tackling efforts they’ve given in some games this year.

Throw the dang ball

Florida can’t run the ball well, and Dan Mullen has been working on ways to compensate for that fact. This is not the week to try to prove something about toughness by running a lot. Witness these figures (stuff rate is percentage of runs going for no gain or a loss).

Category Florida Offense Auburn Defense National Average
True YPC 4.85 3.96 4.93
Rushing SR 39.6% 33.3% 42.5%
Opportunity Rate 33.8% 31.2% 38.0%
Stuff Rate 20.1% 23.4% 19.5%

UF isn’t far off the national average in yards per carry with sacks removed, but that’s only because of things like Josh Hammond’s 76-yard jet sweep against Kentucky and Dameon Pierce breaking off some longer runs against Towson’s poor rushing defense.

Both pre-injury Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask have completion percentages in the mid-to-high 70s, and the overall passing success rate is 55.8% (national average: 41.4%). And as vaunted as the Tigers’ front seven is, they aren’t a group of sack masters. They only match the national average of 7.9% in sack rate on passing downs and barely beat out the national average of 4.9% with a 5.3% rate on standard downs.

Auburn has a lot of veterans in its secondary, but they can be had sometimes. Particularly against Texas A&M, they were bailed out by poor throws on occasion. Trask isn’t likely to misfire as often as Kellen Mond did.

The Gators will need to run the ball enough to keep the defense honest, but it probably shouldn’t do anything more than that. The path to winning is through the air.

Make third downs work more normal

UF is excellent at forcing 3rd and long (7 yards to go or more). The defense has put opponents in that situation on 67.1% of third downs, compared to 60.3% for Auburn and a national average of 49.5%.

Thing is, they allow conversions on 3rd and long 25.5% of the time, compared to 24.7% for the national average. The national average includes the dregs of FBS and some FCS teams facing FBS defenses, so even being at the average is not good for a team of Florida’s stature much less being a bit worse than it. At least the Gators are doing better than Auburn and its 29.5% 3rd and long conversions allowed.

UF’s conversion rate on 3rd and short (3 yards to go or fewer) is a bad 46.2%. Auburn converts 70.4% of them, and the national average is 61.8%. The Gators are at 60% with the pass, but they’ve not converted a single one with the run.

If the Gators can straighten out those two issues – allow fewer 3rd and long conversions on defense and convert more 3rd & shorts on offense — that’ll solve a lot of things. The defense hasn’t been able to get off the field quickly enough, and the offense has already gone for it on 4th down 11 times to compensate for not converting enough 3rd and manageables. They only went for it on 4th down 20 times all of last year, and they ran about five more plays per game in 2018 than in the first five games of 2019.

The 3rd and long situation the other way is about as favorable as it gets. Auburn is relatively poor at getting stops as I showed above, while the Gator offense has converted a remarkable 42.9% of 3rd and 7+ to go. If they just find a way to make those two other third down situations go more according to how you’d expect, they’ll be in a good place on Saturday.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2