GatorZone.com Senior Writer
AUBURN, Ala. – The Will Muschamp Reunion Tour continues through the SEC with a stop at No. 24 Auburn on Saturday night.
This is the third consecutive week – and fourth time in five games – that Muschamp faces a team that he has connections to. Muschamp started his coaching career at Auburn in 1995, serving as a graduate assistant for two years.
Muschamp returned to the Plains 10 years later as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and ’07. Muschamp has already faced a former colleague (Tennessee coach Derek Dooley), his former boss (Alabama coach Nick Saban) and LSU, where he worked for Saban and with Dooley.
Undoubtedly, Jordan-Hare Stadium is going to be rocking with the Gators in town trying to snap a two-game losing streak and the host Tigers ready to push delete and erase a 38-14 loss at Arkansas from their memory bank.
To help you get ready for the game, here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the 83rd all-time meeting between the SEC rivals:
True freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t look bad in his first career start considering the circumstances. Brissett showed a solid pocket presence and according to teammates commanded the huddle with confidence.
“I respect that quality in him,’’ center Jonotthan Harrison said. “He didn’t cramp under pressure or freak out. He handled himself very well.’’
Brissett will make career start No. 2 on Saturday night and will have more freedom in the passing game with a game under his belt and another week of practice to prepare. While Muschamp announced Brissett as the starter, fellow true freshman Jeff Driskel could also see playing time now that he is back from an ankle injury that kept him sidelined at LSU.
Regardless, a key for the Gators will be how well Brissett responds to the extra freedom in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ playbook.
“We have to be more aggressive,’’ Weis said. “You are in that Catch 22 when you are dealing with inexperience at the quarterback position, but we will be more aggressive.’’
FASTER START A MUST
The Gators went three-and-out on offense in their first two drives against LSU. That was compounded when the defense allowed LSU to score on its first two drives. The score was 14-0 less than nine minutes into the game, putting the Gators in a hole too deep to climb from with a quarterback making his first career appearance.
“You put yourself behind the eight ball,’’ Muschamp said. “We have to manage that better as a staff and a team.’’
The LSU game was the first time the Gators have trailed in the first quarter all season, so striking first at Auburn could be imperative to the outcome.
Like Muschamp with the Gators, when it was time for Auburn coach Gene Chizik to hire an offensive coordinator, he went the big-name route. Gus Malzahn was coaching at an Arkansas high school when Weis was winning Super Bowl rings, but he has quickly established himself as one of the up-and-coming coordinators in college football.
Auburn causes havoc on offense a variety of ways, from its fast-tempo spread attack to various formations and deception. The Gators’ defense, already on the ropes after two consecutive losses, must do its part for Florida to leave Auburn late Saturday night with a victory.
“He gives you a lot of formations and shifts,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s going to be a big eye control game for us defensively as far as being where you are supposed to be.’’
The Gators talked a lot about penalties in the wake of last week’s loss to LSU. Through six games the Gators have 55 penalties – or 13 more than any other team in the SEC. South Carolina is second with 42.
Offensive lineman Kyle Koehne made it clear what the message from coaches was this week.
“They [penalties] are unacceptable right now,’’ Koehne said. “Most of them are just undisciplined penalties. We just need to stay more focused and keep our minds right. They are not being tolerated.’’
RONALD POWELL’S PRODUCTION
In the defensive scheme that Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn prefer, one of the most important players is what they call “the buck.’’ It’s a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role that specializes in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and making big plays.
Sophomore Ronald Powell earned the spot in training camp but after six games, his impact hasn’t been as great as Quinn had hoped. While Powell is second on the team behind linebacker Jon Bostic with two sacks, those are his only two tackles-for-loss. Powell is tied for 11th on the team in tackles with 14.
“For us, we’d say at that position that we would certainly want the production to be higher,’’ Quinn said. “It’s something we’re working on daily at practice with him.’’
The Gators have been thoroughly beaten at the line of scrimmage in the past two games, which is not the way you go about winning games in the rough-and-tumble SEC.
While Auburn is the defending national champions and ranked in the AP Top 25, the Tigers lost 18 starters from last year’s team and don’t have the same amount of talent as Alabama and LSU.
The Gators need to come out aggressive and immediately establish a presence along the offensive and defensive lines, something they have been unable to do the past two weeks.
The Gators left the field at LSU with several players nursing injuries. Powell, cornerback Cody Riggs, safety Josh Evans and running back Jeff Demps all left the game at various times.
Receiver Quinton Dunbar did not make the trip to due to personal reasons. While Muschamp said early in the week that he expected everyone to be available other than cornerback Jeremy Brown – he hasn’t played this season due to a knee injury – we won’t know how effective they will be until kickoff.
Junior running back Mike Gillislee has shown an ability to pick up some of the tough yards inside that Demps and Chris Rainey have trouble racking up due to their lack of size.
Gillislee rushed nine times for a team-high 56 yards against LSU, providing the offense with a much-needed spark and Brissett with a dependable ally to move the ball.
Both Muschamp and Weis said to expect more carries for Gillislee as the Gators move deeper into the SEC schedule.
AN AUBURN TURNOVER
I’m not big into making predictions, but here’s one I feel confident about: the Gators will force more turnovers at Auburn than they have in their past two games.
I’m not exactly going out on a limb there since Florida failed to force a turnover against Alabama or LSU. The coaches and players know the defense has to become more efficient at “rips and strips” as Quinn calls it.
The Gators are 11th in the SEC in turnover margin (-4) at midseason; Auburn is even, committing 10 turnovers through six games and forcing 10. If Florida can score early with the help of a turnover, it could do wonders for its confidence on the road.
THREE-PEATS TO AVOID
Prior to a midseason slump a year ago, the Gators had not lost three consecutive regular-season games since 1988, Emmitt Smith’s sophomore season.
They certainly don’t want to do it in back-to-back seasons. They also want to avoid another three-peat.
Both Alabama’s Trent Richardson (181 yards) and LSU’s Spencer Ware (109) eclipsed 100 yards the past two weeks against Florida’s defense, so stopping Auburn’s Michael Dyer is a top priority.
Dyer (113.2 yards per game) is third in the SEC in rushing behind South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Richardson.
“Most of the carries that Michael has the ball, there’s some type of deception with it,’’ Muschamp said. “You have to honor the other deception issues and also be able to play him.’’
Florida at No. 24 Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET (Jordan-Hare Stadium)
Records: Florida 4-2 (2-2 SEC); Auburn 4-2 (2-1)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (click here for affiliates); Sirius 91/XM 91
Bottom line: We might look back on this game as the most important of the season. A win would be a huge momentum swing back in the right direction for the Gators; a loss could continue a downward spiral.