The must-see matchup of college football’s Week 6 slate takes place in Gainesville, as Florida hosts Auburn in a clash of two undefeated teams from the SEC. In addition to identical 5-0 records, the Gators and Tigers both ranked inside of the top 10 in the latest Associated Press and Coaches Poll released after last week’s games. Considering the rankings, records and how deep the SEC is at the top of the standings this year, this matchup is crucial to the hopes of both teams for a trip to Atlanta for the conference title or the CFB Playoff.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn entered 2019 on the hot seat after a disappointing 8-5 mark last year. But the Tigers 5-0 start behind true freshman quarterback Bo Nix and a dominant defense has cooled talk of Malzahn’s future on the Plains. Auburn opened its season with a win over Oregon and picked up non-conference victories against Tulane and Kent State before knocking off Texas A&M and Mississippi State to start 2-0 in SEC play.
Dan Mullen’s 10-win season in his first year in Gainesville certainly raised expectations for Florida in 2019. The Gators entered the year with personnel concerns on both sides of the ball but have leaned on their defense and passing attack to start 5-0. Florida knocked off Miami in the opener, rallied to beat Kentucky on the road on Sept. 14 and defeated Tennessee 34-3 on Sept. 21.
Auburn holds a 43-38-2 series edge over Florida. However, the Gators are 23-9 at home versus the Tigers. Auburn has won four out of the last five but these two teams have not played since 2011.
Auburn at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn -2.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn’s offense seems to be getting better with every snap this season. Coach Gus Malzahn’s group posted a season high in points (56) and yards per play (8.4) in last week’s win over Mississippi State. Malzahn’s decision to take over the play-calling duties has paid dividends for this group. The Tigers are averaging 38 points a contest (up from 30.9 last year), rank second in the SEC in rushing offense and fifth in the conference in yards per play (6.2).
True freshman quarterback Bo Nix has been inconsistent at hitting the deep ball but has connected on 57.6 percent of his throws for 980 yards and seven scores. Auburn’s receiving corps has struggled with injuries in 2019 but a healthy Seth Williams (17 ypc) will help the offense’s ability to attack downfield against a stingy Florida secondary that features two of the SEC's top cornerbacks in C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson. Nix’s running ability (173 yards) is another factor that Florida’s defense will have to account for.
Auburn’s offensive line features five senior starters, but this group has had an uneven start to the year. This unit figures to be challenged by Florida’s front in a big way on Saturday. The Gators are tied for second nationally with 24 sacks generated and are holding teams to just 2.7 yards a carry. Ends Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga have combined for seven sacks, with linebacker David Reese (36 tackles) anchoring the second level.
For the season, Florida’s defense is holding teams to just 8.8 points a game and just 86.8 yards on the ground per contest. It’s no secret Auburn wants to establish the run with JaTarvious Whitlow, but rushing lanes will be limited with this defense. If the Gators stuff Whitlow and contain Nix within the pocket, can the true freshman pick up where he left off last week (335 yards) as a passer?
When Florida Has the Ball
Despite losing quarterback Feleipe Franks to a season-ending leg injury against Kentucky, Florida’s offense has posted back-to-back 30-point games and enters Week 6 averaging a healthy 6.78 yards per play. The Gators are also tied for second in the SEC with 13 plays of 40 or more yards. Backup Kyle Trask has maintained Florida’s level of success on offense, as the sophomore threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns in a win versus Tennessee and completed 18 of 20 throws for 188 yards in last week’s win over Towson.
While Trask has passed every test so far in his short stint as a starter, Saturday’s game is a significantly tougher challenge. No opponent has scored more than 23 points against Auburn’s defense this year, and this unit is holding teams to 4.8 yards a snap. The Tigers rank seventh in the SEC in pass efficiency defense but are holding teams under 55 percent in completion percentage (54.9).
Florida’s offensive line came into the season as a question mark and remains that way five games into the year. The Gators are averaging 4.4 yards a play and leading rusher Lamical Perine has only 197 yards in 2019. The challenge up front won’t get any easier for the Gators on Saturday, as Auburn’s defensive front is arguably the best in the nation. Tackle Derrick Brown is one of the top defenders in college football, with Marlon Davidson, Big Kat Bryant and Nick Coe providing help off the edge.
Considering Florida’s struggles in establishing the run and pass protection, Mullen and the Gators are likely to let Trask attack Auburn’s defense through the air with short passes. Florida has the playmakers outside to make this work but staying out of third-and-long is a must.
Points are likely to be at a premium on Saturday. Auburn’s offense is finding its rhythm, but Florida’s defense (especially the pass rush and standout secondary) will provide its share of challenges. When the Gators have the ball, the offensive line is going to have its hands full against Auburn’s front. Can Trask hit enough quick passes (with a few timely runs) to keep the offense moving? In a matchup of two excellent defenses, a handful of timely plays on offense is likely to be enough to win. And in that scenario, there’s just a little bit more confidence in Auburn's group five games into the season.