The Gators have seen this before.
Hosting a midseason game against a higher-ranked SEC foe. Not garnering the same respect as its opponent, entering as an underdog at home. Starting an unproven quarterback under center against a top-ranked defense.
The storylines are plentiful when it comes to Florida’s matchup against the Tigers — no, not just Auburn. The build-up to this week’s match against No. 7 Auburn is almost a carbon copy of last year’s contest when the Gators defeated then-No. 5 LSU at home.
The excitement with SEC Nation (now College GameDay) visiting campus, the anticipation of Florida’s biggest game in the Swamp, and what it meant to the team’s direction that season were all noted. Something in the air felt different that week.
Now with one of Florida’s most difficult tests this season just four days away, that breeze has blown its way back to Gainesville. The Gators look to find the same success it found against LSU with Auburn, and they can look no further than last year’s contest against the Tigers to show them how.
Feleipe Franks to Kyle Trask
Feleipe Franks had yet to make a name for himself when LSU came to town last season. Before the days of shushing crowds and stating he ‘does this’, Franks was a 6-foot-6 work-in-progress under coach Dan Mullen. He had just come off of an OK performance against Mississippi State in which the Gators narrowly defeated Mullen's past program, throwing for 219 yards, an interception, and no touchdowns.
They won, though. And Franks did it again the next week against LSU, knocking off a Top-5 opponent while throwing for just 161 yards, a touchdown and interception.
Franks’ stat sheet doesn’t jump off the page. At all. But when it mattered most, Franks rose to the occasion and excelled. He led the offense to a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, converting three third downs which accounted for 75 percent of the Gators’ third-down conversions that day. Franks impressed in the pocket with strong throws and used his legs when he had to.
Can Kyle Trask do that this week against Auburn?
Franks’ season-ending ankle injury opens the door for the redshirt-junior to pave his own path.
Trask, though on the stat sheet may seem more proven (currently holds the record for most consecutive completions in program history), hasn’t really shown fans and analysts if he’s the real deal. He’s flashed glimpses of his capability of leading consistent big-time drives, helping Florida defeat Kentucky in just a quarter of action and erasing an 11-point deficit with ease.
However, the sample size is still too small. Two games against Tennessee and Towson, regardless of the numbers, are just not enough to declare him a quarterback worthy enough to lead a Top-10 program to the SEC Championship. Trask will face his most difficult task yet against one of the best defensive lines in the country. He’ll have to continue standing strong in the pocket and eliminate questionable throws like his two interceptions against Tennessee or it won’t end well for Florida on Saturday.
Establish a dual run-game
Florida’s run game has only out-gained its opponents three times this season, two of those being FCS opponents — and the other being Tennessee. They’ve surpassed 200 yards rushing just once against Towson and failed to eclipse more than 140 yards against its three FBS opponents. I know this isn’t the first time you've heard of Florida’s struggles in the run game. It’s been apparent all season. But in order for the Gators to walk away with a victory Saturday, they need to run away from Auburn.
Florida’s Lamical Perine led the Gators’ running game against LSU last season with 85 yards rushing and two touchdowns. This season hasn’t been as kind to the senior back, eclipsing the 50-yard mark just twice and holding a measly (yet, team-leading) 206 yards on the ground. With Dameon Pierce’s impressive 86-yard performance against Towson in which he averaged 14 yards per carry and notched his second score of the season, expect the power back to get more touches.
Rotating the two backs, similar to last season with Jordan Scarlett and Perine, will enable Florida to add a little spark to this dormant run game. The Gators used both against the Tigers last season with success, out-rushing LSU with 218 yards on the ground and notching the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Pressure Joe Bur.. Bo Nix
LSU’s Joe Burrow entered Gainesville with a lot of hype. Coming off a performance against Mississippi where he threw for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns while adding another 96 yards and a score with his legs, the talk surrounding last year’s contest was how Florida’s defense would stop him.
Pressure. Lot’s of it.
The Gators’ defensive line got to Burrow five times last season, suffocating him for just 192 passing yards and two interceptions. With defensive end Jabari Zuniga and cornerback C.J. Henderson set to return from injury, Florida’s defense is at 100 percent and ready to apply that same pressure on Auburn’s QB Bo Nix.
Similar to Burrow, the true freshman quarterback has impressed for Auburn in his first year, with his only interceptions this year coming in his first career game against Oregon. Nix scored three total touchdowns last week against Mississippi State, while throwing for a career-high 335 yards passing.
Florida’s pass rush will have to pressure Nix and keep him uncomfortable, as it’s done for most of this season. The Gators currently sit at second in the country with 24 team sacks, and 13 different players have recorded at least one thus far.