3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Auburn -3, Over/Under: 48
If you’re paying attention to the Rankings at this stage of the season, then you know that this matchup is going to carry some serious Playoff implications, as the No. 7 Auburn Tigers head to Gainesville, to battle the No. 10 Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Somewhat of an unknown commodity coming into the season, Auburn (5-0, 2-0 in SEC) has quickly established themselves as one of many powers coming out of the Southeast Conference, which at the moment is currently occupying HALF of the AP Poll. While, that’s not really uncommon, particularly at this juncture of the campaign, the Tigers may be the unlikeliest to count themselves among the country’s elite, due to for all intents and purposes this term intended as a transition year. However, it appears that while not many of us were aware as to what Gus Malzahn had on hand down on the Plains, the veteran Head Coach must have known that his charges had enough to make some noise. With that said, we knew that their Defense was going to be good, and it would most likely have to carry them through at least the early stages of the schedule. In this regard, War Eagle hasn’t disappointed at all, relegating the opposition to 17.2 Points per Game (22nd Overall) on 320.2 Total Yards, including 225.0 Yards against the Pass and another 95.2 Yards versus the Run. The strength of this group lies in the trenches, where the Defensive Line is among the finest in the nation, led by Defensive Tackles, Derrick Brown (13 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 3 PD) and Tyrone Truesdell (12 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 SK), along with Edge-Rusher, Marlon Davidson (22 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 SK), who together have accounted for 12.5 Tackles for Loss and 7.5 Sacks. If these guys don’t sit atop of the proverbial food chain, then they clearly comprise the most physically-imposing position group in the country, with the triumvirate checking in at 315, 310, and 278 pounds respectively. Their opponents have averaged just 3.1 Yards per Carry against them, highlighted by an impressive showing in the Season Opener, a 27-21 victory over No. 11 Oregon, in which Brown & Co. had their way with one of the most experienced Offensive Lines in the nation, relinquishing just Ninety Yards on Thirty-Three Rushing Attempts (2.7 Y/A). While the Defense has been absolutely essential to their success thus far, the Offense holds the keys to just how good Auburn can be, and after last weekend’s 56-23 victory over Mississippi State, there may be even greater things to come. For the first time this season, the Tigers started fast and furious, scoring Three Touchdowns on their first eight plays from scrimmage en route to amassing 580 Total Yards, including a season-high 361 through the air, and didn’t have to punt the football until late in the Third Quarter. Saturday’s performance was clearly the finest of Bo Nix’s (57.6%, 980 YDS, 7.8 Y/A, 7 TD, 2 INT) young career, with the Underclassman finally validating Malzahn’s decision to make him the school’s first True Freshman to open a season as Starting Quarterback. While he made some huge plays at the end of the win over Oregon, Nix has run hot and cold over the first four games of the season, but really made a name for himself in Saturday’s win, completing an efficient 16-of-21 Passes for a career-high 335 Yards and Two Touchdowns, while rushing for another Fifty-Six Yards and a score on Seven Carries. Sophomore Receiver, Seth Williams (17 REC, 289 YDS, 17.0 Y/R, 4 TD), was the beneficiary of his Quarterback’s prolific performance, hauling in Eight Receptions for 161 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, while Tailback, JaTarvious Whitlow (92 CAR, 463 YDS, 5.0 Y/C, 7 TD), scampered for three scores of his own along with Fifty-Five Yards on Ten Carries. For the first time in well, quite a while, the Auburn’s Offense resembled the fast-paced, high-scoring machine that Malzahn has so often helmed in the past. Today’s trip to the Swamp will represent the school’s first since 2007, and the first meeting with the Gators since Malzahn took over the program back in 2013. In case you were wondering, they escaped Gainesville victorious on that day, 20-17.
Meanwhile, the last Southeast Conference inhabitant to own a place in the Rankings is Florida (5-0, 2-0 in SEC), who like their opponent today, is a bit of a surprise to be where they are, though they owe their success to a very similar formula. Of course, the Gators were expected to challenge in the SEC East, thanks in large part to a number of key returning figures on both sides of the football, with a real opportunity to improve upon last year’s 10-3 finish. After nearly a decade of mostly underachievement, the program appears to be in good hands with Dan Mullen, who quickly took the job after nine years at Mississippi State. Of course, Mullen knows this program very, very well, having served as Urban Meyer’s Offensive Coordinator from 2005 to 2008, a hugely successful period of time highlighted by a pair of BCS National Championships. Much of the promise surrounding the rowdy reptiles coming into 2019 centered around the return of Feleipe Franks (76.1% 698 YDS, 9.8 Y/A, 5 TD, 3 INT), who improved by leaps and bounds under Mullen’s tutelage last season. After years of struggling to find an answer at the game’s most important position, the Junior Quarterback had completed 58.4% of his Attempts for 2,457 Yards on 7.6 Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns and Six Interceptions, while rushing for another 350 Yards and seven scores on 110 Carries. Needless to say, BIG things were expected out of Franks this year, which made it all the more crushing when he dislocated his right ankle in 29-21 thriller at Kentucky back on September 14th, effectively ending his season. While most teams would be unequipped to move forward after suffering such a blow, Florida has proven to be rather resilient, with another Junior, Kyle Trask (77.3%, 647 YDS, 10.0 Y/A, 5 TD, 2 INT), filling the void admirably over the past few weeks. Typically, a Quarterback making his first Start in a heated rivalry such as Florida/Tennessee would be a daunting task, but given their opponent’s considerable struggles this season, that particular affair turned out to be an ideal opportunity for the Signal-Caller, who led his side to a convincing 34-3 victory. Trask completed an efficient 20-of-28 Passes for 293 Yards, Two Touchdowns and Two Interceptions, leading the Offense to 441 Total Yards on Twenty-Five First Downs, including 128 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Seven Carries, despite committing a total of Three Turnovers. He did a really good job of distributing the football, connecting with ten different teammates, led by Receiver, Freddie Swain (8 REC, 134 YDS, 16.8 YR, 2 TD), and Tight End, Kyle Pitts (17 REC, 189 YDS, 11.1 Y/R, 3 TD), who totaled Sixty-Seven and Sixty-Two Yards with a Touchdown apiece respectively. Of course, when undergoing an unexpected transition under Center it helps tremendously to have a dominant Defense to lean on, which has been a huge factor in this team’s success thus far. Through five games, the Gators have relinquished a paltry 8.8 Points per Game (5th Overall) on 284.0 Total Yards, including a mere 191.0 Yards against the Pass and another 93.0 Yards versus the Run, amassing a ridiculous 24.5 Sacks and forcing Thirteen Turnovers. The Volunteers were the latest victim of their feeding frenzy, managing just 239 Total Yards on Twelve First Downs, including Eighty-Eight Rushing Yards on Twenty-Seven Carries, and forcing Four Turnovers, three of which were Interceptions. Make no mistake, this unit is ELITE, with NFL-caliber talent on all three levels, though the Secondary is something special. Even with Senior Safety, David Reese (35 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FR), out for the rest of the season with a ruptured Achilles Tendon, there is plenty of talent to be found, with the likes of Trey Dean (15 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 1 PD), Shawn Davis (14 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 2 INT, 1 PD), Donovan Stiner (12 TKL, 1 INT), and Kaiir Elam (5 TKL, 2 INT, 2 PD) making life miserable for opposing Pass-Catchers.