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‘A very big test’: Why Florida Gators might be Auburn’s toughest challenge yet

Auburn right tackle Jack Driscoll remembers Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, home of the tenth-ranked Florida Gators, all too well.

It was 2016, and Driscoll was a redshirt freshman for the UMass Minutemen. It was Driscoll’s first career start. The game went less-than-ideal — UMass lost 24-7 to the Gators and ran for just 46 yards in their season-opening defeat.

But the atmosphere that day was something Driscoll will not forget.

“It’s a loud stadium because it’s built vertically,” Driscoll said. “It’s definitely going to be very loud.”

Driscoll’s 2016 trip to The Swamp happened under much different circumstances. Whereas the Minutemen were aiming for the upset, the No. 7 Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) enter the stadium’s not-so-friendly confines aiming for another big win in a loaded schedule that still includes a trip to LSU and home games against Georgia and Alabama.

Back to that atmosphere.

Crowd noise will almost certainly be a factor, especially if the Tigers cannot score early and silence the 90,000-plus fans. Saturday will arguably be quarterback Bo Nix’s toughest challenge yet: The Oregon game came on a neutral field and the Tigers scored early against Texas A&M to quiet the home crowd.

The Tigers lead the all-time series 43-38-2, but Florida leads 23-9 in games played in Gainesville, Florida, and the Tigers have won just three of the 16 meetings in Gainesville since 1972.

“(Florida is) just a very solid team,” Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn said. “And like I said, it will be a very big test for us.”

The Gators are 5-0 and, as unconvincing as they looked in their season-opening win over Miami, they look to have found something at quarterback with junior Kyle Trask.

Trask took over for the injured Felipe Franks when the latter went down with a gruesome injury against Kentucky. He played in three games in 2018, but never saw many meaningful snaps aside from the Missouri game, which the Gators lost 38-17.

That clearly did not matter much, as Trask threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee, and threw for 188 yards and two more scores against Towson on Saturday.

“He’s in rhythm,” Malzahn said. “He gets rid of the ball and he knows where to go with the ball — doesn’t hold it for a long time. And he’s got some really good receivers, I’ll tell you that. I’m impressed with their receiver group — a matter of fact, very impressed.”

Then there’s the aspect that Florida’s defense is pretty darn good.

The Gators rank No. 17 nationally in total defense, have allowed just five touchdowns all year and gave up fewer than five yards per play. The Gators have forced 15 turnovers, nine of which were interceptions.

“They have some real good guys rushing the passer, but it is not that the guys we played before didn’t,” Malzahn said. “They are very aggressive; they get up field and pin their ears back and have been really impressive to watch on film.”

Of course, this all sounds par for the course for an Auburn team that’s played and beaten No. 13 Oregon and No. 25 Texas A&M (a team that admittedly looks worse with each passing week). Nix has not committed a turnover since the first half of the Oregon game, and the Auburn offense fired on all cylinders against Mississippi State, aside from the four fumbles, three of which the Tigers lost.

Auburn has defeated three ranked opponents away from home in a season five times in program history, and only once not counting bowl games: 1972 (regular season), 1954, 1983, 2004 and 2010. The last time the Tigers did it, they won the national title.

The Tigers will need to do it a lot more than three times if they want to do the same this year. Quieting the crowd inside The Swamp is step one.

“A real tough environment,” Tigers safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “The Swamp is real tough down there to play in. But it’s going to be fun … this one’s going to be a fun game.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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