Special teams could be key for Gators against Auburn

The No. 10 Florida Gators host the No. 7 Auburn Tigers this weekend at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It’s the first matchup of undefeated top-10 teams in Gainesville since 2012.

It pits two of the SEC’s best defenses against each other facing largely unproven quarterbacks. Auburn’s starting freshman Bo Nix actually has more game experience than Florida starter Kyle Trask. Undoubtedly the Gators and Tigers will be game planning to pressure the two green passers in what promises to be a tightly contested, defensive battle.

Florida and Auburn are so similar that the biggest statistical advantage the Gators might have going into the game is the third phase of the game, special teams.

When we think of special teams we generally think of the kicker, punter and maybe a return guy if he’s good but there’s more to it than that. Special teams can make or break games.

The last time Florida and Auburn faced off it was a Wes Byrum field goal as the clock expired that was the difference. The year before that a dropped punt helped Auburn to topple the Gators on the plains.

“Coach Mullen says you have to win two of the three phases in football, meaning you always win special teams with defense or offense, or vice versa,” punter Tommy Townsend said. “He always puts a huge emphasis on it and it’s going to be critical going into this one.”

Why are special teams going to be critical in this game? Florida and Auburn are both pretty evenly matched when you look at offense and defense. The biggest gap between the two teams are the special teams units. Florida has a great punter; a great kicker and has very good cover and return units. Auburn, well, the Tigers look like it’s something they skip over in practice.

Auburn’s punt coverage team dead last in the SEC allowing 22.38 yards-per-return. They have also allowed eight punts to be returned, 11th best in the conference. They allowed big returns against Oregon and Tulane and the Gators may not have a true home run threat, they have a reliable unit and blocked two kicks this season.

Auburn’s punt unit, both returning and covering, isn’t very good. Florida has been and still is very good in this area and it’s a clear advantage. What we’re really talking about here are hidden yards and how Florida can use special teams to win the game through them.

Looking back at the 2018 Mississippi State game Florida used hidden yards to pull off an upset of the Bulldogs. Tommy Townsend punted five times for 186 yards — 37.2 per punt. That number is just ok, but it becomes great when you see that all five of those punts pinned Mississippi State inside its own 20, three were fair catches and one went over 50 yards. The Bulldogs’ best starting field position came at midfield, thanks to an interception. Other than that they never started a drive past their own 25 and their best field position following a punt was their own 24. Half of the Bulldogs’ 10 drives started inside their own 20.

When the differences between teams are so close you have to find an advantage. Florida believes their biggest advantage lies on special teams. It worked a year ago on the road at Mississippi State and if Townsend can have a similar game the Gators like their chances being able to force Auburn’s offense and its freshman quarterback to drive 80+ yards.

In a game of inches, something as seemingly innocuous as punting can be the difference. Florida has a clear, distinct advantage in this area and they should be able to exploit it.

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC