Back Game of the Week Preview: Auburn at Florida

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Game of the Week Preview: Auburn at Florida

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Breaking down the Southern Pigskin Game of the Week, Auburn vs Florida.

 Game: Auburn at Florida

Overview -- Gainesville will be the site for one of the showcase games of this college football season with ESPN College GameDay in town for Auburn and Florida's top ten pairing, a matchup that comes with both SEC and national implications. Beyond emerging as mere contenders to the pre-season favorites in their divisions, both the Tigers and Gators have big-picture potential. Already with wins over nationally-ranked Oregon, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Auburn might have the most impressive resume in the country. Florida, also with notable credentials, ranks in the top five nationally in scoring defense. Quarterbacks Bo Nix and Kyle Trask will step into the spotlight for the Tigers and Gators, respectively. Nix, the true freshman, has new momentum after the most complete performance of his career, throwing for 361 yards in a lopsided win over Mississippi State. Trask has been efficient and effective in replacing the injured Feleipe Franks. Though key games remain, especially for Auburn, Saturday's winner will be well-positioned for a run.    

Why to Watch -- A classic SEC football game awaits. This contest will help shape the mid-season college football storylines. In addition to the relevancy in the rankings, Auburn and Florida boast two of the premier defensive fronts in all of college football. The Tigers' line is star-studded, with tackles Derrick Brown and Tyrone Truesdell and ends Marlon Davidson and Big Kat Bryant. Brown could be the first interior linemen selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. It is the Gators, however, that rank second nationally in sacks with 24. Jon Greenard, a graduate-transfer from Louisville who leads the SEC with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, and Jabari Zuniga form an elite edge duo. Physically and athletically all over the field, Saturday will be a next-level display. The venue, too, is worthy of admiration and attention; a big-game atmosphere in the Swamp is as good as it gets.   

Keys for Auburn
1. Start at the Line of Scrimmage -- Along the offensive line, Auburn must at least hold serve against Florida's ferocious edge rushers, while the Tigers have to control the game defensively with their front four. Though Auburn has been much better along the offensive line as compared to a year ago, the Gators will present a different type of test. Even with games against Alabama, Georgia and LSU remaining, Florida will be the most dynamic defensive front the Tigers will face. The pressure is squarely on tackles Prince Tega Wanogho and Jack Driscoll, a pair of proven seniors, as edge rushers Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga await. That duo helped Florida record ten sacks against Miami to open the year. Collectively, Auburn's veteran offensive line will need to take the fight to Florida, pushing the Gators back with a physical downhill running game. If the Tigers can establishing a productive rushing game, the entire scope of this matchup changes. Physicality, from the starting five, up front will be critical. Auburn's defensive line has the chance to dominate on Saturday. With Florida still looking for consistency from its offensive line, Derrick Brown and company, should they limit the Gators' modest-to-date ground game, could make the afternoon very difficult for inexperienced quarterback Kyle Trask.

2. Stay Ahead of the Sticks -- As impactful as Auburn's true freshman quarterback Bo Nix has been, Florida's defense is not one you want to play the odds against, especially in this environment. The Gators are unique in that they are elite both off the edge and in the secondary; such a combination could prove problematic for a young quarterback forced into obvious passing downs. It will be critical that the Tigers move the football some on first and second downs, creating 3rd-and-short situations where the offense has options. With a true freshman signal caller, third-and-long in the Swamp, facing one of the nation's most talented defensive backfields, could prove quite problematic. Establishing JaTarvious Whitlow between the tackles, along with finding some early down passing proficiency, would do wonders for Auburn's chances to sustain long offensive drives. The best way to put Nix in a position to be successful is to maintain the element of play-calling unpredictability and not allow Florida to set the schematic table when the stakes are high.

3. Win the Turnover Battle -- Surprising given the team's start, Auburn has not been good at either protecting the football or forcing takeaways. It can become increasingly hard to win football games that way. The Tigers are tied for last in the SEC with a minus-two margin overall, ranking seventh in turnovers lost and 12th in turnovers gained. Obviously, it will be important for Bo Nix to be extra careful on Saturday, meaning being sound in his decision-making and crisp on his throws; Florida is tied for the national lead with nine interceptions. Nix must know that oncoming edge-rushers will look to knock the ball free, too. Furthermore, Auburn simply needs to make more plays defensively. In potentially close, low-scoring contests like these, one timely turnover can make the difference. It's fair to assume the pendulum, in terms of favorable bounces or fortunate tips that lead to turnovers, will swing the Tigers' way at some point; Saturday would be a great time for that to start. Auburn's defense needs to become more opportunistic.

Keys for Florida
1. Continue to Disrupt on Defense -- Few defenses in the country have been more active than Florida, which is tied for the national lead in interceptions with nine and is tied for second in the country in sacks with 24. That is a remarkable defensive infrastructure to have, especially ahead of a matchup with a true freshman quarterback. The fact that the Gators are so good at rushing the passer and so good at making plays in the secondary is a notable relationship that is a testament to both the talent on the depth chart and Todd Grantham's defensive scheme. More of the same is needed. Louisville-transfer Jon Greenard has been Florida's x-factor to date, an SEC-leading playmaker who sets the tone for so much of what the Gators do. The return of Jabari Zuniga from injury will only make Florida even more athletic up front. In the secondary, with star cornerback C.J. Henderson also now healthy, is one of the best, most aggressive  units around. Facing a still-inexperienced Bo Nix, the combination of constant pressure and close coverage is one that could result in game-changing plays for the Gators. Saturday could prove to be a defensive showcase for Grantham and Florida.   

2. Run the Football -- Florida has to establish a ground game. Surprisingly, the Gators are 11th in the SEC in rushing and, though Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce are close, don't yet have a 200-yard rusher. The benefits to those two being productive this weekend are multi-fold; running the football would take some of the pressure off quarterback Kyle Trask and, in theory, decrease the disruption of Auburn's talented defensive line. Additionally, Florida's offensive line is still trying to settle into a rhythm, an effort which could be aided by letting the unit be the aggressor early. The best way for the Gators to get after the Tigers in the trenches might just be to run right at them in attempt to wear their opponent down. From there, Trask could convert some big plays to Florida's dynamic group of wide receivers via play-action, a Dan Mullen staple. Schematic balance must be found, a notion that starts between the tackles. It may be time for the Gators to feature Perine as the veteran running back does not yet have a outing this season with at least 15 carries. He has five career 100-yard games and 18 career rushing touchdowns.

3. Yards After Catch -- One of the strengths of Florida's team is the number of playmakers the offense has out wide. Given that Auburn's prominence along the defensive line will largely force the Gators into quick throws in the passing game, quarterback Kyle Trask will need his receivers and tight ends to work in space after the completion. Tyrie Cleveland, Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain are all averaging over 15 yards per reception; they are part of a rotation where every single option is capable of making defenders miss and pulling away. Tight end Kyle Pitts is a rare security blanket who can also turn and get upfield. Just one Power Five player at his position has more touchdown catches than Pitts with three. A up-and-coming standout, he is someone to watch in the redzone and on third downs. Expect Trask to make rapid reads and releases, meaning his pass-catchers must help him after the throws are made. The good news is that Florida has multiple proven options on the perimeter, including an agile, sure-handed tight end. In a matchup with two great defenses, a big play can come with momentum and more. 

Position Advantages
Quarterback: Auburn -- Though both sides are inexperienced under center, Auburn's Bo Nix is coming off the best performance of his career and has shown a clear comfortability in showcase moments. Nix's win over Texas A&M in College Station has to help his confidence as he heads to Gainesville.

Running Back: Auburn -- JaTarvious Whitlow leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns with seven. He is averaging over five yards per carry, has two 100-yard rushing games already and is Auburn's offensive focal point. Led by Lamical Perine, Florida has good depth in the offensive backfield.     

Pass-Catchers: Florida -- Kyle Trask has options out wide as Florida has multiple proven playmakers at wide receiver. Van Jefferson paces a proven unit. Tight end Kyle Pitts is also a difference-maker. Auburn has options, too, with Seth Williams, Eli Stove and the speedy Anthony Schwartz.

Offensive Line: Auburn -- As evidenced by the fact that Auburn has allowed just six sacks and the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing with 1,255 yards, this offensive line has improved dramatically from a year ago. Tackle Prince Tega Wanogho is a star. Florida is still looking for consistency up front.

Defensive Line: Auburn -- There may not be a more complete group at the line of scrimmage than the unit Auburn has. Tackle Derrick Brown is the anchor, while Marlon Davidson can be a force off the edge. Florida has also been very good, with end Jabari Zuniga bringing elite athleticism to the trenches.     

Linebackers: Florida -- Counting the dynamic Jon Greenard, the SEC's leader in tackles for loss and co-leader in sacks, as an edge-rushing linebacker, Florida has difference-makers who can be used a number of different ways. David Reese is a sturdy tackler. K.J. Britt is an active linebacker for Auburn.

Secondary: Florida -- At cornerback and safety, Florida is as good as it gets. Part of what makes the Gators so effective in the defensive backfield is their depth, the ability to cover the entire field with multiple proven cornerbacks in C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean. Jeremiah Dinson is a unique playmaker who makes Auburn multi-functional.

Special Teams: Florida -- The two units are fairly comparable. Both kickers are good in Evan McPherson and Anders Carlson. Christian Tutt and Freddie Swain are each capable of getting loose in the return game. Florida has a couple of blocked kicks already this season. 

Coaching: Florida -- Dan Mullen has gone 15-3 since returning to Gainesville, helping return Florida to the national stage. This has been a signature Auburn team to date, with the Tigers having, arguably, the top resume in all of college football.

Intangibles: Auburn -- Though Florida has homefield advantage, Auburn is playing with a palpable confidence and belief. The Tigers already have wins over Oregon, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, while the Gators are still looking for a statement performance. Auburn has shown an impressive poise in clutch moments.

Players to Watch
Auburn: Bo Nix, QB -- All eyes continue to be on Auburn's true freshman quarterback, the a legacy player who is already telling a story all his own. Nix can make plays running and throwing the football alike. He hasn't yet flinched in pressure situations. Saturday stands as a chance in the national spotlight for Nix, with his brand already well-known on the big stage.    

Florida: Jon Greenard, Edge -- No SEC defender has been more dominant. Originally recruited to Louisville by Todd Grantham, Greenard has proven to be the perfect fit for Grantham's scheme in Gainesville. He can completely take over games with his ability to make plays across the line of scrimmage.           

Final Thoughts
Get ready for an old-school, throwback of an afternoon in one of college football's great venues. Given the setting, Auburn-Florida, even in early October, could be one of the true showcase games of this season. Both defensive fronts, filled with next-level talent, are set to control the ebb and flow of this game. Correspondingly, the focus will be on the line of scrimmage throughout. In what will likely be a close contest, it may be a big play or two that prove to be the difference. Along with a consistent pass rush from the edge, that could be where the Gators get their break. In a vintage pairing, a key sequence or two will lead the home team to victory. Florida 23, Auburn 20

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports