Gators Pose Tough Task For Tigers

A scouting report on the nation's top-ranked college football team.

For the 79th time the Auburn Tigers and Florida Gators will meet on the football field when the two square off Saturday night at 6:45 in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Gators (5-0, 3-0) enter as the top-ranked team in the country in the Associated Press poll while the Tigers (4-1, 3-0) are unranked. Florida has won in four of its last five visits to Jordan-Hare with its last loss coming in 1993.

The Fun-N-Gun offense enters this weekend as perhaps the most dangerous in Steve Spurrier's career as a head coach. Averaging 48.8 points per game, 141 yards rushing per game and 454 yards passing per game, the Gators have been a juggernaut through the first five games and that begins and ends with the play of quarterback Rex Grossman.

With an unheard of touchdown to interception ratio of 20-3 so far this season, Grossman has redefined the way Florida quarterbacks are expected to play, something nobody thought possible because of all the success signal-callers have had in Gainesville under Spurrier. Currently 109 of 163 for 1,865 yards for the season, Grossman is on a pace to shatter the passing totals of 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel.

Auburn defensive tackle Spencer Johnson hopes to contain the high-powered Gator offense.

At running back the duo of Earnest Graham (5-10, 215, Jr.) and Robert Gillespie (5-9, 190, Sr.) give the Gators a very solid one-two punch. Graham, a more traditional power back, has 64 carries for 350 yards and six touchdowns on the season while the speedy Gillespie has 51 carries for 278 yards and one touchdown. Gillespie is also an outstanding receiver out of the backfield with 16 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Graham has been slowed by an ankle injury and if he's unable to go, look for fullback Ran Carthon to get a little more work in the backfield. With 17 carries for 74 yards, this son of former New York Giant Ron Carthon has proven that he can get the job done doing something besides blocking.

At wide receiver the Gators have perhaps the best unit in the country with Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Taylor Jacobs leading the way. Gaffney (6-1, 197, So.), fresh off his outstanding freshman season, has picked up right where he left off with 33 catches for 607 yards and six touchdowns through five games. Caldwell (6-1, 198, Jr.) is finishing his career in style with 25 catches for 475 yards and six touchdowns as well. Jacobs (6-0, 195, Jr.) has really come on this season and the speedster from Tallahassee has become a big-play target for Grossman with 17 catches for 341 yards and four touchdowns. In an unsual twist, the Florida tight end has also become a threat at receiver this season as Aaron Walker (6-6, 257, Jr.) has 12 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

Up front the Gators possess probably the best and biggest offensive line in the league. Left tackle Mike Pearson (6-7, 300, Jr.) is the best of the bunch but the rest aren't far behind. Left guard Shannon Snell (6-5, 307, So.), center Zac Zedalis (6-3, 295, Sr.), right guard Thomas Moody (6-3, 312, Sr.) and right tackle Max Starks (6-8, 345, So.) team with Pearson on a line that has helped the Gators score on 55.9 percent of their drives this season and rush for 31 more yards per game than last season.

Defensively, Florida is a much-improved team over last year's up and down unit. Giving up just 274 yards of total offense per game, including just 71.8 yards on the ground, the Gator defense has done an outstanding job of shutting down opponents and giving the ball back to the offense. A balanced defense that is good in all phases, the Gators rank in the Top 20 in the country in total defense (14th), scoring defense (4th), rushing defense (8th) and passing efficiency defense.

Most good defenses begin with solid play up front and this unit is no exception. Especially good against the run having given up just 2.6 yards per rush and 24 rushing first downs, this Florida defense is not the same one that fans might remember from seasons past.

All-time Florida sack leader Alex Brown (6-4, 254) leads the way for the Gators with 23 tackles and five and a half sacks on the season. For his career the senior has 28 sacks, good enough to push him past Huey Richardson on the all-time list. Kennard Ellis (6-2, 244, Sr.), a junior college teammate of Alton Moore at Southwest Mississippi Community College, starts opposite Brown at left end and has 11 tackles and two sacks on the season. In the middle Ian Scott (6-3, 300, So.) and Tron LaFavor (6-2, 280, Jr.) form a solid tandem of run stoppers in the middle. Scott has totaled 19 tackles on the year while LaFavor has 17.

Linebacker is one of the strengths of this Florida defense as juniors Byron Hardmon (6-1, 227) and Mike Nattiel (6-0, 224) flank starter Andra Davis (6-1, 243, Sr.), forming one of the most athletic and physical linebacker corps around. Davis is second on the team in tackles with 36 and two sacks while Nattiel has added 23 tackles and Hardmon 23. Backing up Davis is former Alabama player Travis Carroll (6-4, 237), who is fourth on the team with 28 tackles.

The Florida secondary is loaded with depth and experience, something few teams can boast in this day and age of limited scholarships. With 10 players that have started a game and a combined 145 starts between them, it's no wonder the Gators are one of the top pass defense teams in the country. At cornerback All-America candidate Lito Sheppard (5-10, 195, Jr.) and Bennie Alexander (5-9, 175, Sr.) give opponents fits with their attacking style of play on the perimeter. Alexander has 19 tackles while Sheppard has 17 tackles and three pass deflections.

At safety Marquand Manuel and Todd Johnson are back for another year in the Gator secondary. Manuel (6-1, 204, Sr.) has 27 tackles, one sack and two tackles for a loss while Johnson (6-1, 198, Jr.) has 30 tackles with two pass deflections. Reserves that see action in the Florida secondary are corners Keiwan Ratliff (5-10, 181, So.) and Marquis Westbrook (5-8, 177, Jr.) and safeties Gus Scott (5-10, 196, So.) along with Daryl Dixon (5-10, 194, Jr.).

In the special teams department kicker Jeff Chandler (6-2, 215, Sr.) and punter Matt Leach (6-1,182, Fr.) have both been solid this season but not outstanding. Chandler is 24-25 in extra-points and 4-7 on field goals. Leach has been solid for a freshman, averaging 42.2 yards on 13 punts with five inside the 20-yard line. Sheppard is a dangerous return man on both punts and kickoffs, averaging 10.2 yards on 15 punt returns although no one has challenged him to this point on kickoff returns. Gillespie also returns kickoffs, averaging 62 yards on two returns this season.

While the task is a big one for the Tigers this weekend, there is no question the Gators can be had by a team playing sound, fundamental football. The biggest key for anyone playing Florida is to make the Gators drive the ball down the field instead of scoring on big plays. Through just five games the offense has 42 plays of 20 yards or more, something that has to come to an end this weekend if Auburn hopes to pull off the upset.

Offensively, the Tigers must control the ball and score touchdowns when they get in the red zone, something they have struggled with so far this season. If Jason Campbell can get some early confidence in the passing game and Auburn's offensive line can continue to run block as it has this season, this game could be much closer than the experts predict. If not it will be another long day for the Tigers against the Gators.

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