It’s homecoming. ESPN’s College GameDay is in town for the first time since 2012. CBS will broadcast the game to a national viewing audience. Florida and Auburn will renew a rivalry that used to be one of the SEC’s most hotly contested but hasn’t been played since 2011. It’s the first matchup of top-10 and undefeated teams in the Swamp since 2012.
Just about the only way Saturday’s showdown between No. 10 Florida and No. 7 Auburn could get any bigger would be if the Pope showed up.
“You don’t get many [games like this], so you definitely try to take advantage of your opportunities,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “Guys will be flying around all week. Everybody will be motivated just because of the game.”
While the excitement level is higher, the Gators insisted that the intensity won’t change in practice this week. They pride themselves on practicing with a ton of energy and focus every day and playing each game with a bunch of emotion.
“Intensity’s always at a high level because if you’re slacking against one team, they might come out there and embarrass you, no matter what team we’re playing,” cornerback Marco Wilson said. “Towson could’ve came out there and embarrassed us if we didn’t have high intensity all week. So, I think the intensity’s always high, and I don’t see a change.”
Defending Bo Nix
Auburn’s freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, doesn’t have the most impressive passing statistics through the first five games of his career, completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 980 yards and seven touchdowns. Those are decent numbers, but nothing that’s going to strike fear into opponents.
However, Nix, the No. 1-ranked dual threat quarterback in his class, can dominate games with his ability to run the ball and extend plays. In his last start against Mississippi State, he threw for 325 yards and two scores and rushed for 56 yards and another score.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Nix has improved throughout the season and has the intangibles to make him a good quarterback.
“He’s accurate with the ball,” he said. “He can keep plays alive with his feet, which anytime you can extend plays, it allows your offense to have positive yards. So, I think the combination of all that – his competitiveness, his toughness, his athletic ability, the way they protect for him – that all works well for them and allows him to be a productive player.”
The key to slowing him down is going to be playing with gap discipline. The defensive linemen and linebackers need to stay in their assigned rush lanes instead of making a beeline for Nix, even if that means somebody else making the play.
Of course, Grantham will almost certainly blitz Nix from every conceivable angle. He’d probably send guys off the sideline at him if he could.
“The objective is to hit him,” defensive tackle Kyree Campbell said. “He’s a freshman quarterback, but he protects himself a lot. Every chance we get to hit him, we’re going to try to hit him.”
Defensive back Trey Dean said the fired-up crowd could rattle him in his first road start.
“It’s going to be rocking, so if he thinks Auburn’s louder than the Swamp, he got another thing coming for him,” he said.
Slowing Down the Tigers’ Running Game a Must
While Nix draws a lot of attention, the Tigers’ offense is centered around a powerful running game. They’re averaging 251 yards-per-game on the ground, second in the SEC and 14th nationally. JaTarvious Whitlow leads the way with 463 yards and seven touchdowns on 92 carries.
They’ve ran the ball 237 times and thrown it just 131 times. That’s 72.6 percent run calls. It’s no secret what they want to do.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who calls his own plays, likes to use a lot of shifts and motions before the snap. Sometimes, they’ll give the ball to the guy in motion, and they have great speed at wide receiver to be effective at running the jet sweeps. Other times, they’ll use the motions as a distraction. Of course, Nix presents a threat to run the ball as well.
“The defense as a whole got to keep leverage and keep your eye on your guy,” Dean said. “So, if your guy, if he’s supposed to be in the flat, you got to stay in the flat, even if the ball’s way on the other side because they got a lot of shifts and motions. This is like a discipline game.”
Trask Congratulated by Spurrier
After watching Kyle Trask’s first career start against Tennessee, Steve Spurrier walked down to the locker room, shook Trask’s hand and congratulated him for his strong performance.
Trask, who grew up near Houston, wasn’t that familiar with Florida’s football history before he arrived at UF, but he definitely knows how much Spurrier means to the program.
“That was pretty special,” Trask said. “He’s got a field named after him and a Heisman trophy. Someone like that to tell you congratulations, it was pretty special.”
On Saturday, he’ll get the honor of wearing a 1960s-style jersey with the No. 11 on the back of it, the same number Spurrier wore at UF, and against Auburn of all teams. In 1966, Spurrier kicked a game-winning field goal against the Tigers that all but clinched the Heisman Trophy.
Campbell Fired Up
Most of UF’s players gave safe answers and said that Auburn is important because it’s the next game on the schedule and their focus is on practice.
Not Kyree Campbell. He made it clear that this game will be different and that it’s not possible to be too excited.
“I’m ready,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, get up for. I’m ready. I’ve been waiting for this. This is big-boy ball right here.”
It was pointed out to him that Auburn received top-5 votes from some Associated Press voters, while the Gators have dropped in the polls twice after wins this season.
“I really don’t care what ESPN has to say, honestly,” he said. “I keep it 100. They dropped us, oh well. They don’t respect us, oh well. We’ll get it.”
Will they use that disrespect as motivation going forward?
“Hell yeah,” Campbell said. He then stared at the reporter who asked the question like a hungry lion.
It’s still early in the week, but Campbell is already in game mode.