AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn is trying to dodge a mediocre season after replacing a Heisman Trophy-winning, do-it-all quarterback from a national championship team.
If anybody can relate, it’s the Florida Gators.
Both teams enter tonight’s game limping from humbling defeats, with quarterback and injury issues and rosters stocked with promising young talent.
The winner of this champs-on-the-rebound game at least gets an edge in the midseason bowl picture, not to mention a nice pick-me-up.
“We’re probably in the same boat coming into this week,” Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said. “We’ve got the same record, both coming off a tough loss. I think both teams are going to be hungry.”
The defending national champion and 24th-ranked Tigers (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) are fresh from a 38-14 loss at No. 10 Arkansas and the defense had no luck earlier stopping No. 8 Clemson.
The Gators (4-2, 2-2), winners of two national titles in the past five years, have lost back-to-back games by a combined 79-21 against No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 LSU, who hosts Auburn next week. They dropped five games in their first season without Tim Tebow. Now, Auburn’s experiencing life without Cam Newton.
Clearly they’re not the teams those superstar led to glory in recent seasons, but however painful, all four combined defeats came against Top 10 teams. This game gives both a more even chance to show they’re on the right track against another rebuilding power.
“Their two losses are to two really good football teams,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s a very well coached, very talented team. There is no question about that. They’ve got a freshman quarterback that apparently is going to be starting, but he was one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the country last year.
“Whether (Jeff) Driskel plays or not, that’s arguably two of the top 5 quarterbacks in the country they have on the same roster.”
Actually, both teams will put a freshman quarterback (or two) on the field, albeit in different situations.
Auburn is sticking with starter Barrett Trotter with mobile freshman Kiehl Frazier, also among the nation’s most coveted quarterback prospects, retaining at least his Wildcat role.
“Obviously they can switch gears in the game at any time,” Muschamp said.
Chizik rose staunchly to Trotter’s defense this week, noting that some of the problems in the passing game go well beyond the quarterback’s play.
Florida freshman Jacoby Brissett will start his second straight game ahead of John Brantley’s backup Driskel. Both Brantley and Driskel missed the LSU game with sprained ankles, but the freshman is expected to be available.
“We will manage that as we roll through this season and I couldn’t think of anybody’s better hands to be in than (offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis,” said Gators coach Will Muschamp, who followed in Chizik’s footsteps as defensive coordinator at both Auburn and Texas. “He knows the quarterback position very well, the temperament of the position, what it takes to be successful at the position. We’re in good hands.”
With Brantley out and Chizik saying Auburn’s top receiver Emory Blake (lower leg injury) is “a gametime decision,” neither passing game strikes much fear in opposing defenses.
The runners do. Florida has an array of threats led by Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps -- who might be limited by an ankle injury -- and Auburn counters primarily with Mike Dyer, the SEC’s No. 3 rusher, Onterio McCalebb and Frazier.
“No matter what quarterback they got out there, we know what they do,” Tigers linebacker Daren Bates said. “They’re going to run the ball. So we’ve got to be able to stop the run.”
Like Florida, Auburn’s defense will have to prepare for different looks. Rainey and versatile threat Trey Burton both took direct snaps against LSU.
Brissett did hook up with Andre Debose for a 65-yard score against LSU but also threw two interceptions in his collegiate debut. The Tigers have been susceptible to big threats from speedy offensive players, like Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins and Arkansas’ Joe Adams, who had a 92-yard touchdown last weekend.
“We’re going to open some things up a little offensively,” Muschamp said. “We need to do that to help our football team.”