Since his arrival on the Plains before the 2004 season, Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges has seemingly had all the answers. The last two seasons his offenses have led the league in scoring, which is the ultimate stat for an offensive unit.
This time around things have been different as Auburn's offense has struggled with consistency and therefore hasn't gotten the job done to Borges' liking. That must improve this week as the 10th-ranked Auburn Tigers (5-1) take on undefeated and number two Florida (6-0) at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
Always the bread and butter of Auburn's attack under Tommy Tuberville, the running game has been up and down this season with Kenny Irons leading the way. In five games the 5-11, 203 senior has rushed for 514 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Irons also has seven catches out of the backfield for 59 yards.
He's not Auburn's only weapon running the football though as sophomore Brad Lester (5-11, 191) brings explosiveness and athleticism to the table as Auburn's change-up back to Irons. This season Lester is averaging 5.4 yards per attempt on 35 carries and leads the team with five touchdowns. Also a dangerous receiver, Lester has three catches for 48 yards and one touchdown.
Any good running game comes from the guys up front and Auburn's offensive line has been a part of the team that has struggled to replace starting tackles Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick from last season. Things looked to be fine with guards Ben Grubbs (6-3, 314, Sr.) and Tim Duckworth (6-4, 310, Sr.) returning in the middle along with center Joe Cope, but Cope was injured in a victory at South Carolina two weeks ago. Cope is out until late in the season and that forced sophomore Jason Bosley (6-2, 280) into action against Arkansas and the results weren't pretty.
Although by all accounts from the coaching staff Bosley played well and graded out well for his first significant college action, it was obvious the loss of Cope was felt by the entire offense as the unit rushed for just 60 yards and surrendered five sacks to the Razorback defense.
Where Auburn must get better production is at the tackle position where Jonathan Palmer (6-5, 318, Sr.) and King Dunlap (6-9, 321, Jr.) have struggled at times to pass protect and haven't gotten the push in the running game many expected. That has to change this week against a Florida defensive line that doesn't have to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback.
Averaging 154 yards per game on the ground, Auburn has steadily gone down running the football since grinding out 293 yards in the season opener against Washington State. Take out the 263 yards in a non-conference win over Buffalo and the Tigers are averaging just 92 and a half yards per game on the ground since the destruction of the Cougars. That is a disturbing fact for an offense that prides itself on being able to run the football. Those numbers also coincide with the loss of tight end Cole Bennett for much of the season with an ankle injury. Without him in the lineup and with the tackles not getting a push on the outside, Auburn hasn't been able to get Irons to the corner of the defense consistently and therefore the senior has been forced to work hard for every yard he gains.
Just like it is every time the Tigers hit the field, being able to run the football will likely be the difference between winning and losing. Doing that against a very formidable Florida front could be the challenge of the season.
Against a similar front seven from LSU earlier this year, Auburn only rushed for 72 yards on 38 carries with Irons only able to grind out 70 yards on 25 attempts. Those numbers must increase this week, but it won't be easy with big senior Marcus Thomas back patrolling the middle for the Gators. Back for the LSU game, he keyed a defense that gave up just 90 yards to LSU last week and has only allowed one opponent over the century mark this season.
Getting to 100 this week for the Tigers could be the difference between knocking off the nation's number two team and losing for the second straight week at home. Auburn's rushing offense vs. Florida's defense: advantage Florida
If it's possible, Auburn's passing game has been even more inconsistent that the running game. Led by second-year starter Brandon Cox, the Tigers enter Saturday night's contest averaging 177.3 yards per game through the air, but like the running game has struggled lately to consistently throw the football.
Brandon Cox is shown in action this season. The left-hander is a second-year starter.
In games against Washington State and Mississippi State to open the year, Cox completed 33-51 passes for 468 yards and three touchdowns and looked like he had improved off a solid sophomore season. Then an ankle injury suffered in the victory over LSU sent Cox into a shell throwing the football. The last four games Cox has completed just 43 of 72 passes for 549 yards and two touchdowns and hasn't looked comfortable on a leg that has continued to cause him problems.
Auburn needs Cox to be at or close to full speed Saturday because the passing game will be needed to slow a Gator rushing defense that will key on stopping Irons.
For Cox to succeed throwing the football several things must improve for the Tigers. The first is pass protection. Despite attempting just 123 passes this season Cox has been sacked a much too high 18 times and been hit on numerous other occasions.
The pressure on the quarterback is the first of the problems in the passing game. The second comes because of the loss of three senior receivers off last year's team. With just Courtney Taylor back this season among last year's top performers, the receivers have had problems stepping with the exception of Taylor and number two receiver Rodgeriqus Smith. The two have combined for 37 receptions and 564 yards while the rest of Auburn's wide receivers have just 13 catches for 129 yards.
One of the bright spots on offense has been at tight end where Bennett's replacements, talented redshirt freshmen Gabe McKenzie and Tommy Trott, have been solid as receivers. The two have 15 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns and those numbers should increase with the problems of Auburn's third and fourth receivers have getting open in the secondary. The Tigers must find a way to get more players involved in the passing game this week if they hope to pull off the upset of second-ranked Florida at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn's passing game has to come through in a big way this week for the Tigers because of the way the Gators play the run on defense. That means passing early to set up the run and getting Florida off the line of scrimmage. The Gators have allowed some significant passing yards this season with the last four opponents all over 200 yards through the air, but that's where the good times have stopped for offenses against Florida. In six games the Gators have allowed just four passing touchdowns while picking off 11 passes.
So far this season Cox has been very good at not turning the ball over, but he hasn't faced a ball-hawking secondary like Florida's. Led by free safety Reggie Nelson and strong safety Tony Joiner, the Gators play the football well in the air and force turnovers better than anyone in the league. Auburn must avoid the negative plays in the passing game this week and establish things early or it could be a long day.
If Cox is able to get a rhythm early in the game it will force Florida to respect the pass and give Irons some running room to work his magic. That is the best case scenario for the Tigers and one that would give them a good shot to pull out the victory. However, considering AU's recent play,Auburn's passing game vs. Florida's defense: advantage Florida
Outstanding defense will always be a key component for winning championships. That is especially true for teams who can stop the run. Of the top 11 teams currently ranked as the best teams against the run nationally, five remain unbeaten.
Florida will face one of the best running backs in the country in Auburn's Kenny Irons. Thirteen of the Tigers 18 touchdowns have been on the ground. The key for Florida is to stop the Tigers ground game and prevent them from hitting big plays or trick plays on them.
Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout its defense. That fact is not lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators' ability to sack the quarterback. Make no mistake though, the pressure has been constant.
This group is nasty against the run. Florida ranks fourth nationally having allowed just 56.8 yards per game.
Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3, 296) returned in big fashion last weekend against LSU. Thomas, who had only recorded seven tackles on the season with three being sacks, led the Gators in stops with eight. In three games, the Jacksonville native has accumulated 15 tackles, 3 1/2 for losses. Thomas has an explosive first step, tremendous quickness, speed, and athleticism that is certain to help the Gators.
Florida defensive lineman Marcus Thomas is a key senior for the Gators.
Playing alongside Thomas, senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2, 296) has racked up 13 total tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss, including a sack, a forced fumble and he has broken up a pass. Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen has struggled to find his position. He has seen time at fullback, defensive end and at defensive tackle--where he said he is most comfortable.
Cohen graded out as a champion last week. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5, 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has three tackles and has been credited with half a sack. Harris also graded out as champion last weekend against LSU. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism and speed.
The Gators are set at defensive end. Experience coupled with strength, speed, and good quickness on one side. There is tremendous speed and athleticism on the opposite side and with the reserves.
Ray McDonald (6-3, 280) has returned from having both knees surgically repaired. The senior appears to be getting back to his potential. McDonald has 16 tackles, including two sacks, with three tackles for a loss. McDonald earned champions club honors for his play last weekend against the Tigers. His leadership has been a boon for the defense.
You can't begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6, 251). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss' quickness is reminiscent of Georgia's Quinton Moses. Obviously, Moss hasn't yet produced to the level of Moses. Furthermore, the junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well, too. Moss has 24 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss, which includes 2 1/2 sacks, and eight quarterback hurries. Moss graded out as a champion last weekend.
Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5, 252) will see plenty of playing time in the Florida lineup. He might as well be labeled a starter. Harvey has really begun to come on for the Gators. His speed and quickness have helped tremendously. He doesn't have Moss' first step, but he can run. Harvey has 10 tackles, four sacks, and six quarterback hurries. Harvey earned champions club honors last weekend. His four sacks leads the team.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-3, 234) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his 36 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries. Everett is second on the squad in tackles. He earned champions club nomination last week. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Brandon Siler (6-2, 235) is one of the Gators' tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who might even be a better leader. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He is currently third on the team with 34 tackles, including five tackles for loss, including a sack, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and a forced fumble. Siler was selected to the champions club as well.
Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3, 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in '03 where he saw very little action. He played pretty well against Tennessee. Crum has 16 tackles and two tackles for loss. He also has a quarterback hurry. He graded out as a champion last weekend.
There is plenty of talent playing behind the starting linebackers. They are getting limited experience in the games and several snaps on special teams. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3, 240) (six tackles) and Dustin Doe (6-0, 215) (ten tackles) will be key challengers for starting jobs next season.
Overview: If Florida can slow down Kenny Irons and the Auburn running game you have to figure its chances are pretty good to win this game. With Irons and Auburn averaging 4.2 yards per carry, it's pretty safe to say they have the best running attack the Gators have faced to date. Irons is an outstanding back. He'll break a few tackles here and there--just don't let him break your back. That's especially true early when he could well fire up the Tigers offense. The best battle will be between Marcus Thomas and Jason Bosley with help from Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs. There is no way that Bosley can handle Thomas man-on-man.
The Gators interior defensive front really hasn't played a team with an outstanding running game. The numbers certainly bear that out. Opponents are averaging just 2.3 yards per carry and 56.8 yards per game rushing against the Gators. That is tops in the conference and fourth best in the nation. LSU gave the Auburn offensive line fits and held the Tigers to just 1.9 yards per carry. Florida's defensive front is just as tough and probably faster than LSU.
The speed and athleticism at the defensive end position blend perfectly with Florida's strong inside game. Auburn has given up 18 sacks on the season. That's a lot of pressure on a quarterback that has thrown only 133 passes. One sack for every 7.4 passes attempted. Wow.
Siler (24 starts) and Everett (35 starts) are the only experienced linebackers at Florida. They must stay healthy for the Gators to continue playing outstanding defense.
Auburn has proven to be outstanding when the chips are down. In red zone, they've covered 18 of 20 (90 percent) opportunities with 13 going for touchdowns.
Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing four touchdowns and three field goals in 13 opportunities. However, the Gators have allowed far too many third down conversions against quality opponents. Tennessee (6 of 13), Alabama (8 of 15) and LSU (7 of 13) had a much higher success rate over the other teams on Florida's schedule. That's an average of 51.2 percent Obviously, those teams have better personnel and make plays, but Florida ranks seventh in the conference. ADVANTAGE: Florida
The Florida secondary has allowed an average of 227.2 yards passing in conference play. Erik Ainge of Tennessee and Andre' Woodson of Kentucky had solid passing performances against the Gators. The pair have combined for 44 of 71 (61.9 percent) for 441 yards and a pair of touchdowns with two interceptions. Alabama's John Parker Wilson had a tremendous first half, but struggled mightily in the second half against Florida. They jumped on JaMarcus Russell from the start last weekend. The LSU signal caller only hit 7 of 13 for 79 yards in the first half. Each of the starters in the Florida secondary earned champions club awards last weekend.
Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10, 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins' departure. There was no learning curve as he has a fine understanding of the defense. Smith has 21 tackles. He has intercepted two passes in each of the Gators' last two games against Alabama and LSU. If there is one area that Smith needs to shore up it's his hands--he should have had a third interception in each of the last two games. Smith would have taken his third pick against the Crimson Tide to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass.
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10, 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game against Vanderbilt a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has an interception, which he returned for 35 yards. Lewis has 14 tackles and has also knocked down three passes.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0, 208) leads the team with 37 tackles. He also has 3 1/2 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, two interceptions and added a safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1, 193). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all--play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He is the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama and followed up with another outstanding performance last week against LSU. He returned a Wilson (Alabama) interception 70 yards for a touchdown. Nelson, Smith, and LSU's Craig Steletz are tied for the Southeastern Conference lead with four interceptions.
Overview: Florida is second in the Southeastern Conference in pass defense efficiency and for good reason. Outstanding coaching, talent, speed and a fierce pass rush have beautifully blended together. Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson have earned a reputation over the past two weeks for their ability to be in the right spot at the right time. Furthermore, Nelson and Tony Joiner sent a message to the LSU receivers--if you come in the middle we will deliver a punch. Much of the damage has been done when because the Gators have turned the heat up significantly on (Erik Ainge, Andre' Woodson, John Parker Wilson and JaMarcus Russell) after making adjustments.
Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville is shown meeting with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier after the Tigers won an SEC victory at Columbia this year.
The Tigers have not pass protected well at all and that spells trouble with a Florida unit that has seen the secondary gel with the front seven over the past couple of weeks. ADVANTAGE: Florida
Injuries: Sophomore defensive tackle Javier Estopinan (6-1, 282) was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Analysis: One stat that should clearly indicate the strength of Florida's secondary is that the Gators have a combined to intercept eight passes from Erik Ainge, John Parker Wilson and JaMarcus Russell. Florida robbed Ainge twice and Russell three times. If Ryan Smith had good hands--there would have been a fourth one against both Russell and Wilson. Ainge and Russell rank one and two in pass efficiency in the SEC.
Brandon Cox is a good quarterback, who thus far, has not had the year many expected. Furthermore, Auburn ranks sixth in passing efficiency and seventh in passing offense among Southeastern Conference teams.
Those truths become all the more significant when you consider that teams are playing from behind in the second half. Throwing the football is dangerous against this team and if you're not a solid passing team in the first place, life becomes all the more difficult.
The Gators have the second best scoring defense in the nation at 9.5 points per game.
Once again, I'll spend time in this column praising Florida's defensive coaches. They have done an outstanding job of putting their players in position to make plays and that's all you can ask of a staff.
Florida has seemingly been a different team since Wilson and Alabama had some success in the first half. That's not to say that Russell and a talented LSU receiving corps didn't find success on a couple of drives, but other than that the Gators held them in check.
Another area where the Gators have benefited is in personnel. Florida will utilize a lot of bodies and manages to keep their players fresh. Alabama looked worn down by the fourth quarter. And while I can't say the same thing about LSU, the Gators smelled blood and gutted the Tigers late in the game. They looked fresh and the Tigers just couldn't get anything going.
Florida will probably work to stop the run and dare Auburn to throw the football on them. As I stated, they have faced very good quarterbacks. Ainge, Russell, and Woodson are all in the Top 20 nationally in passing efficiency. While they certainly will respect Cox, they won't give him any more than they did these guys. They key is shutting down the Auburn running game and keeping the Tigers from hitting any big plays, especially early.