Kanye West’s “Stronger” topped the Billboard Hot 100. “The Big Bang Theory” had just premiered. Gus Malzahn was the co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa.
It’s been quite a while since No. 7 Auburn made the trip to Gainesville, Florida, to face the tenth-ranked Florida Gators. The last time it happened, in September 2007, the game ended with Wes Byrum drilling a 43-yard field goal as time expired to upset then-No. 4 Florida.
Auburn’s players stormed Florida Field in jubilation, while Tim Tebow stood in disbelief on the Gators sideline.
This year’s edition of Auburn-Florida (3:30 p.m. EST, CBS) comes under much different circumstances. For the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC), the game marks the start of a three-game road stretch that concludes Oct. 26 at No. 5 LSU.
Both teams are also ranked this time around, “College GameDay” will be in town and The Swamp is officially sold out. Florida will wear retro, Steve Spurrier-era throwback uniforms.
“From our standpoint, we’ve just got to continue to improve,” Malzahn said on Tuesday. “That’s really our message, really focusing on winning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. That’s what we’ll need to do to have a chance to beat these guys.”
Here’s what else Auburn must do to beat the Gators (5-0, 2-0 SEC):
Keep Bo Nix clean
Nix showed an upside he hadn’t shown before against Mississippi State, and keeping the freshman clean against a vicious Gators defense will be job No. 1 for Auburn’s offensive line.
Auburn gave up two sacks against the Bulldogs, but Nix’s involvement in the run game — he finished as the Tigers’ leading rusher (56 yards, one touchdown) — opened up the offense. And once the freshman got in rhythm Saturday, there was no slowing him down.
The SEC’s freshman of the week, Nix posted the first 300-yard passing game of his career (he finished with 335 yards and two touchdowns) against Mississippi State, and receiver Seth Williams (161 receiving yards, two touchdowns) is starting to look like a menace out wide. Anthony Schwartz, arguably the fastest player in college football, has been deadly on jet sweeps and when used in motion.
There are more playmakers than just those two, though: eight Tigers caught passes against the Bulldogs.
Keeping Nix clean will still be a tough ask. The Gators rank No. 17 nationally in total defense, have allowed just five touchdowns all year, and have given up fewer than 5 yards per play.
“Yeah, they’re real aggressive,” Malzahn said. “Their defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham), of course, we went against each other a lot of times. He’s one of the best. He has an aggressive mindset; his players are playing that way and they’ve got some guys who can flat get after it.”
Limit Kyle Trask
Auburn’s uber-talented defense has already faced Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, so a date with Gators quarterback Trask, on paper, may not look that daunting. But the Gators have rallied around the junior, once a three-star recruit in the class of 2016.
Trask relieved the injured Feleipe Franks against Kentucky and rallied Florida with three fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including his go-ahead, 4-yard scoring run with 4:11 remaining that lifted the Gators to a 29-21 victory. He threw for 293 yards against Tennessee and 126 yards against the Wildcats. Franks won’t be coming back any time soon from the gruesome right leg injury he suffered against Kentucky, so the starting job belongs to Trask.
But Auburn has a defense that can make life quite difficult for opposing quarterbacks, as Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens found out the hard way.
Mississippi State did not break the 20-point mark until there was under one minute left in the game. The Tigers held Mississippi State to 3-of-12 on third down and forced two turnovers, which helped as the Tigers jumped out to a quick 21-0 first-quarter lead.
The Bulldogs’ first three drives ended with two punts and a fumble, and Mississippi State scored on just 4-of-14 drives. Stevens completed one pass, and the Tigers forced two turnovers (both fumbles) against the Bulldogs.
Linebacker K.J. Britt and safety Jeremiah Dinson both registered sacks against Mississippi State. The Tigers’ front seven, led by defensive tackle Derrick Brown, might be the best in the country.
“It’s a big factor,” Malzahn said. “(Trask) has got one of the best completion percentages in all of college football, so trying to make him uncomfortable, just like they are going to try to do to our quarterback. I think that will be a big factor in the game and we need to make the other quarterback more uncomfortable.”
Cut back on the turnovers
There was one major negative to Auburn’s thrashing of Mississippi State: turnovers. The Tigers had three and fumbled the ball four times. That, simply put, won’t cut it against better teams like Florida.
The Gators have forced 13 turnovers, tied for second in the country.
Nine of those turnovers were interceptions. That could be good news because Nix has not committed a turnover since the first half of the Oregon game.