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October 13, 2006

Game of the Week: No. 2 Florida at No. 11 Auburn

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Head-to-Head Breakdown

Auburn refused to spend the week stewing over its stunning loss to Arkansas.

The Tigers' schedule wouldn't allow it.

"We don't have time to sit on our butts and feel sorry for ourselves," Auburn linebacker Will Herring told AuburnSports.com. "We've got one of the hottest teams in the nation coming here Saturday. I'm excited about having a big-shot team coming in here (so) that we can hopefully gain some respect back that we lost."

First, the Tigers must find a way to beat a Florida team that may be playing better than anyone in the country. The Southeastern Conference rivals square off for the first time in four years Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium (7:45 p.m., ESPN).

Nobody doubted Florida's talent before the season, but the Gators were often dismissed as a national-title contender because of a brutal schedule that included a four-game stretch against Alabama, Louisiana State, Auburn and Georgia.

Florida already has defeated Alabama and LSU. The Gators (6-0, 4-0 SEC) look stronger than Georgia, which has dropped seven of its last eight meetings with Florida.

That leaves No. 11 Auburn (5-1, 3-1 SEC) as the second-ranked Gators' biggest remaining obstacle.

Florida's schedule doesn't get a whole lot easier at the end of the month. The Gators still have a Nov. 11 home date with South Carolina, Nov. 25 road trip to Florida State and a possible appearance in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

But that hasn't stopped Florida fans from dreaming of a possible national championship, even if the players themselves aren't looking ahead.

"All season we've been looking at the opponent we play that week and concentrating on just them," Florida linebacker Brandon Siler said. "That is what has gotten us here, and we aren't changing that and thinking ahead now. I'd be disappointed if I had to talk to guys on the team about (not) looking ahead, but I don't have to. I think that is a sign of a mature team."

Florida has absolutely no reason to look beyond this week. Auburn promises to offer the Gators their toughest test of the season.

Auburn was ranked second in the nation before falling to Arkansas. The Tigers have one of the nation's top running backs (Kenny Irons), two of the best offensive guards (Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth) and one of the toughest cornerbacks (David Irons).

No wonder Gators coach Urban Meyer didn't have to remind his players much about the need to stay focused.

"One thing about our players is they're smart," Meyer said. "All you have to do is flip on the (Auburn) film and see one of the most talented teams in the country and one of the most hostile venues in the country."

The strategy that worked for Arkansas last week also might not help Florida.

Arkansas boasts the SEC's top rushing attack, and relied on it last weekend. Tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones each ran for more than 100 yards.

Florida doesn't utilize its running game nearly that much. The Gators also remain unsure of the status of leading rusher DeShawn Wynn, who expects to play this weekend after not carrying the ball against LSU because of a sprained knee.

But the Gators offer their own unique matchup problems. Instead of alternating tailbacks, the Gators rotate quarterbacks.

Chris Leak is more of a classic passer who has completed nearly 65 percent of his attempts and has 14 touchdown passes. True freshman backup Tim Tebow offers an additional dimension with his running ability.

Tebow has averaged 5.6 yards per carry this season. He accounted for every Florida touchdown last week by throwing for two scores and rushing for a third.

"They have done a good job of game planning and knowing when to put (Tebow) in," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "He's been very efficient as a young quarterback in not making mistakes, of being patient and following blockers. He's tough to get. He's a big old boy. He's a big kid. He's very physical and makes you think he's a big tailback running the football and not a quarterback type.

"It gives them a good one-two punch."

Florida's one-two punch could knock Auburn out of the BCS picture.

Week 7 Game of the Week: No. 2 Florida at No. 11 Auburn
Florida running game vs. Auburn run defense: Auburn's defense will be eager to make amends after a dismal performance last week, when it allowed Arkansas to rush for 279 yards while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. An inspired effort should help stifle Florida's running game, particularly if Wynn isn't at full strength. Wynn and Tebow each average at least 5.5 yards per carry. Edge: Auburn.
Florida passing game vs. Auburn pass defense: Auburn cornerback David Irons is one of the nation's top defensive backs, but he can only cover one guy. That could be a problem Saturday against a Florida team that has plenty of outstanding targets. Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell both have delivered plenty of big plays in big games. And that doesn't even include Percy Harvin, who was having a sensational freshman season until a high ankle sprain started bothering him a few weeks ago. Leak struggled against LSU, but he's unlikely to have two bad games in a row. Edge: Florida.
Auburn running game vs. Florida run defense: Auburn gained less than 2 yards per carry against Arkansas, but that figure was skewed by sacks and trick plays that didn't work. Kenny Irons and Brad Lester actually combined for 103 yards on 19 carries in that game. Florida's defense has allowed just 2.3 yards per carry and ranks fourth in the nation against the run, but the Gators haven't faced a tailback nearly as good as Irons. Edge: Auburn.
Auburn passing game vs. Florida pass defense: Florida is tied for third in the nation with 11 interceptions and ranks fifth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. CB Ryan Smith has picked off four passes in the last two weeks, while S Reggie Nelson has matured into one of the game's top defensive backs. The Tigers will need to run the ball effectively because Florida's secondary should be able to handle an Auburn receiving corps that includes only one player (Courtney Taylor) with more than 12 catches. Florida's fearsome front four also could feast on an Auburn line that already has allowed 18 sacks. Edge: Florida.
Florida kicking game vs. Auburn kicking game: This might represent Florida's greatest weakness. Gators PK Chris Hetland has missed all four of his field-goal attempts this season. Auburn PK John Vaughn has gone 9-of-11 on field goals, though his struggles against LSU the last two years indicate he might not be reliable in big-game situations. Both teams have excellent punters. Auburn's Kody Bliss averages 47 yards per attempt. Florida's Eric Wilbur averages 45 yards per punt and has placed eight of his 14 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Edge: Auburn.
Florida coaches vs. Auburn coaches: This game matches two of the best coaching staffs in the SEC. The Florida staff has enjoyed the better season so far, and Meyer has figured out a way to employ a two-quarterback system without causing a controversy. But in a one-game scenario, we have to give a slight advantage to Auburn's staff at home, if only because the Tigers own a perfect 2-0 record against top-five opponents at Jordan-Hare Stadium during Tommy Tuberville's tenure. Edge: Auburn.
Florida will win if: The Gators will have an excellent chance if their run defense continues its season-long stellar performance. If Florida can hold Kenny Irons in check and force Auburn to throw the ball, it could be a long night for the Tigers.
Auburn will win if: Auburn usually relies on running the ball and preventing the other team from doing the same. Arkansas beat the Tigers at their own game last week. If the Tigers put that game behind them and control the clock, the home-field advantage should carry them to a close victory.
X-factor: Auburn LB Tray Blackmon.
The former five-star prospect was rated by Rivals.com as the top outside linebacker in the 2005 recruiting class. He was redshirted last year than served a six-game suspension to start this season. Now he finally makes his college debut just in time to help rescue Auburn's BCS hopes. Although he's untested, Blackmon possesses so much potential that he could move right into the starting lineup. "He's practiced well,'' Tuberville said. "He's been looking forward to this. He is going to be a little rusty. He has never played in a college football game, so we'll have to see how that comes."
Notes: Auburn hasn't faced a team ranked this high since it upset top-ranked Florida 23-20 in 2001. Florida owns an 8-24-1 all-time record at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but the Gators have won eight of their last nine meetings with Auburn. Auburn leads the all-time series 40-38-2. Florida and Auburn met for the first time in 1912 and played every season from 1945 to 2002. Auburn owns a 6-7-1 record against top-five teams at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but three of the wins have come against Florida. Auburn has won seven of its last eight games including five in a row - against teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. Auburn's Vaughn is 13 points away from the school's all-time scoring record. Meyer owns an 8-2 all-time record against ranked opponents. That includes a 6-2 mark since he arrived at Florida. The Gators have won their last five games against ranked foes. Florida is attempting to start the season 7-0 for the first time since its 1996 national championship season. The Gators also won their first seven games in 1928, 1966 and 1995. Tebow has the fourth-highest average per carry among quarterbacks. West Virginia's Pat White (6.3 yards per carry), Utah's Brett Ratliff (6.1) and Northwestern's Mike Kafka (6.1) are the only quarterbacks ahead of him.
Megargee's pick: Auburn, 17-14
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Auburn 20-17
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Auburn 21-17
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Auburn 24-13
Make your picks on Rivals.com Pick 'Em.

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