Previewing The Tigers Vs. Florida Gators

Auburn travels to Gainesville Saturday for what has been an annual showdown vs. the Florida Gators.

Auburn, Ala.--Two teams searching for confidence following embarrassing home losses last weekend meet in Gainesville this weekend as the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 2-1) take on the Florida Gators (4-3, 2-2) in a key SEC game for both teams.

The meeting is the 80th between the two schools and could be the last in the regular season until 2007 because of a new 5-1-2 alignment the SEC adopted this season that makes Georgia Auburn's only permanent game from the Eastern Division.

Shocked is what the Gator Nation is after last Saturday's 36-7 loss in The Swamp to LSU. Reeling with three losses already, the most that former coach Steve Spurrier ever lost in one full season at Florida, new coach Ron Zook is fighting to keep the fans and the team from giving up on the 2002 season. To do that he needs a win over the Tigers this weekend. If that is to happen his star player must play up to his potential or the hounds will be nipping on Zook's heels literally with the annual battle with Georgia on the horizon.

Quarterback Rex Grossman (6-1, 220, Jr.), the runnerup for the Heisman Trophy last season after throwing for 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns, has fallen on hard times in 2002 without playmakers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell on the receiving end of his throws. While his numbers are still high with 1,797 yards and 11 touchdowns through seven games, it is the turnovers that have been the problem. He is averaging two interceptions per game this season, including eight in Florida's last two outings. That could be a problem this week facing an Auburn defense that has intercepted at least one pass in 11-straight games and given up just two touchdown passes this season out of 180 attempts.

On the receiving end of most of Grossman's big plays is senior Taylor Jacobs (6-1, 198). With 46 catches for 795 yards and seven touchdowns, he is currently ninth in the country in receiving yards per game and 11th in receptions per game. If Auburn can contain Jacobs it would go a long way towards a victory in Gainesville. When Grossman isn't firing at Jacobs he's usually looking in the direction of Carlos Perez (5-11, 203, Jr.). A steady receiver who doesn't mind going across the middle, he has 28 receptions for 365 yards and three touchdowns in 2002.

A change from the Spurrier era is the use of the tight end. Senior Aaron Walker (6-6, 261) has caught 11 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown and could be trouble for an Auburn defense focused on the outside guys for the Gators.

Tailback Carnell Williams helped the Tigers defeat the Gators last season in Jordan-Hare Stadium. He will be a big key for Auburn on Saturday as they take on Florida.

After Florida watched Auburn's game with Arkansas Saturday the Gators are likely to be inclined to give the running game more work this week and that means putting the ball in the hands of Earnest Graham (5-9, 215, Sr.), one of the top backs in the SEC this season. Fourth in the league, averaging 80.7 yards per game with seven rushing touchdowns, he teams with talented Ran Carthon (6-0, 212, Jr.) to give the Gators one of the top tandems in the SEC. Carthon is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season and has scored four touchdowns.

Up front the Gators are about as big as an offensive line can be, but that hasn't translated to success this season. Allowing too much pressure on Grossman for much of the year that has in turn led to turnovers, the group has been much-maligned this year and it will be interesting to watch the matchup against Auburn's banged-up defensive front this week. The group that holds its own and doesn't get beat repeatedly could be the difference in winning and losing this week. Monstrous Max Starks (6-8, 345, Jr.) gets the start at left tackle with Shannon Snell (6-5, 301, Jr.) back in the lineup at left guard after missing last week with an injury. Mike Degory (6-6, 315, Fr.) moves back to center from guard this week while Mo Mitchell (6-7, 350, So.) and Jonathan Colon (6-7, 311, So.) are at right guard and tackle, respectively.

Defensively, the Gators are led by a strong and athletic front four that should be bolstered by the return of Marcus Oquendo-Johnson this week. The 6-4, 215 defensive end has 27 tackles and one sack on the season. Junior Clint Mitchell (6-7, 245) gets the start on the other side and has been effective as well with 36 tackles and one sack. In the middle is where the Gators get strong with dominating Ian Scott (6-3, 307, Jr.) at one tackle and Bryan Savielo (6-2, 290, Sr.) at the other. Scott has 38 tackles and one sack this season while Savielo has 27 with two sacks. They are backed up capably by 6-2, 288 Tron Lafavor and 6-1, 275 senior Arpedge Rolle.

Byron "Bam" Hardmon heads a tough linebacker corps for the Gators. A 6-1, 234 senior, he leads the team with 85 tackles and has one sack. On the strong side is 6-0, 229 Mike Nattiel. A speedy player who goes from sideline to sideline making plays, he has 79 tackles this season with four for losses. Smallish Dwight Jackson (6-1, 216, Jr.) gets the start on the weakside. In just two games of action he has 12 tackles. Also expected to see playing time are Matt Farrior (6-2, 232, Jr.) and Todd McCullough (6-4, 225, So.)

In the secondary the Gators have speed to burn and athletic ability unmatched in the SEC with a starting unit of Keiwan Ratliff and Robert Cromartie at cornerback and Guss Scott along with Todd Johnson at the safety spots. Spearheading a passing defense that gives up just 153.7 yards per game, the foursome has started all seven games this season and can get the job done but it doesn't cause many turnovers. Scott leads the group in tackles with 53 while Cromartie has added 48 and Johnson 45. Johnson and Ratliff are tied for the team lead in interceptions with two each, just one short of the total of five the Gators have this season.

The kicking game has been beyond suspect for the Gators, it has been downright awful. Blown assignments all over the field almost cost them a home game against Kentucky several weeks didn't help last week in the loss to LSU with Domanick Davis returning punts deep into Florida territory setting up the Tigers for easy scores. With Auburn struggling on special teams, too, this could be the deciding factor in the game.

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