Another week, another difficult opponent for Florida.
The second-ranked Gators face perhaps their biggest challenge during a brutal stretch of games Saturday when they visit No. 11 Auburn, a team stinging from a shocking home loss.
This contest was supposed to be a matchup of top 5 opponents and had the potential to be the game of the year in the SEC. Auburn, which had been ranked second for the last three weeks, fully expected to be in the same position when the Gators (6-0, 4-0) came to town.
Arkansas, though, changed all that when it defeated the Tigers 27-10 at Jordan-Hare Stadium last Saturday.
Auburn (5-1, 3-1) tumbled nine spots in the rankings and its defense, which was allowing 8.2 points per game, gave up season highs in points and yards (366).
“They’re disappointed we didn’t play nearly as good as we could have,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “That’s what’s frustrating. We’ve got to try to make sure they get over that as quickly as possible. That’s our job the next couple of days.”
The Gators claimed Auburn’s spot in the poll with their highest ranking in five years, and are looking for their first 7-0 start since beginning 10-0 in 1996, when they won the school’s only national championship.
“We’re on cloud nine,” Florida defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. “But we know we can’t be on cloud nine too long because we’ve got Auburn next week.”
After beating then-No. 9 LSU 23-10 at The Swamp last Saturday, the Gators are halfway through a four-game stretch that was supposed to make or break their season. Florida beat Alabama 28-13 at home two weeks ago, and also faces No. 16 Georgia on Oct. 28 in Jacksonville.
“All season, we’ve been looking at the opponent we play that week and concentrating on just them,” linebacker Brandon Siler said. “That is what got us here and we aren’t changing that and thinking ahead now. I’d be disappointed if I had to talk to the guys on the team about looking ahead, but I don’t have to. I think that is a sign of a mature team.”
The Gators have won eight straight dating to last season, their longest streak since that 10-game run in 1996, and rank second in the nation in scoring defense (9.5 points) and 14th in total defense (259.7 yards per game).
Florida has won eight of the past nine meetings with the Tigers, with the only blemish a 23-20 defeat at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2001, when the then-No. 1 Gators made their last trip to Auburn. Florida has only eight victories in 33 visits to Auburn.
The Gators also have the offense to match their stout defense. They are 20th in the country—and second in the SEC—at 413.3 yards per game. Last season, the first under coach Urban Meyer, Florida was 65th in the nation with 373.4 yards a contest.
The quarterback rotation between senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow has rounded into form, with both players effectively mixing the pass with the run, which is crucial to Meyer’s spread-option offense.
“I think you adapt to the situation,” said Meyer, who is 8-2 in his career against ranked teams. “We want to play them both because your backup has to be ready. Last year, we weren’t able to do that. We didn’t make the progress that we needed to be behind Chris.
“The good thing is that Chris knows it’s not like if you don’t play well we’re pulling you out. Same thing with Tim.”
Leak has thrown 14 touchdown passes while providing the occasional rush, including a 45-yard run against Alabama. Tebow has three rushing touchdowns this season, but displayed his arm against LSU, tossing the first two touchdown passes of his career.
“We have two very talented quarterbacks, and we’re using them both,” tight end Tate Casey said.
While Auburn must prepare for both quarterbacks, it also needs to repair its shattered confidence after the loss to the Razorbacks. The Tigers had rolled through their first five games, outscoring opponents 143-41, and had a nine-game winning streak in the regular season entering last week’s contest.
“We’ve never been behind before,” Auburn cornerback David Irons said. “Some of the guys on this team and defense are very young. We’ve got to learn from this and move on.”
Arkansas had two scoring plays of at least 50 yards and ran for 279 yards on 45 carries.
“That’s not Auburn football,” Tuberville said. “We don’t give up big plays. If somebody’s going to score against us, we make them earn it. That didn’t happen out there.”
The Tigers also had their nine-game home winning streak snapped and lost to an SEC opponent at home for the first time since Nov. 8, 2003, when they fell 24-20 to Mississippi.
Since 2000, Auburn is 38-7 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This is the first meeting between these schools since a 30-23 home victory for Florida in 2002. Auburn leads the all-time series 40-38-2.