This is the second installment of our Southeastern Conference football preview of the 2015 season. Today, we take a closer look at the Auburn Tigers and Florida Gators.
Over the last decade, probably no SEC program has experienced a more odd series of twists and turns than Auburn, which fired a coach (Tommy Tuberville) whose chief crime seemed to be one bad season that included losing a six-game winning streak over Alabama, replacing him with a coach (Gene Chizik) on a 10-game losing streak at Iowa State. Somehow, Auburn won a national title two years later (than you, Cam Newton!) before disposing of said coach after a 3-9 season in 2012, then, stunned everyone again by getting to the national title game the following season in coach Gus Malzahn’s first year.
In other words, there’s never a shortage of something interesting, one way another, on the Plains. Well, buckle up for another thrilling ride, because there are at least two intriguing storylines again.
The first is the fact that Florida’s head coach last year, Will Muschamp, will now be on the Auburn sidelines coordinating a defense that yielded 26.7 points and 399 yards a game last year.
The second is that, according to Las Vegas, the Tigers have a legitimate Heisman candidate (Bovada lists him at 10-1 odds, tied for the third-best of anyone) in quarterback Jeremy Johnson, even though Johnson’s a two-year backup who’s throw 78 career passes. That’s because he’s a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder with a cannon for am arm and enough speed and athleticism to make opponents fear the run, too.
There are some obvious cautions on offense, the first being that Johnson hasn’t proven anything over the long haul. Plus, Auburn returns just four starers on offense.
However, given Malzahn’s offensive genius—the Tigers averaged 39.5 and 36.5 points in his first two years after scoring just 18.7 per game in 2012—there’s a strong chance that Auburn’s offense will be plenty good, thanks to a pair of all-conference caliber linemen in Alex Kozan and Avery Young, plus a deep, talented receiving corps led by Duke Williams, who might be the country’s most-talented pass-catcher.
Auburn’s problem has been that its defense has been a drag on its success for years now. But, there are two pieces of great news: it’s not even debatable that Muschamp’s one of the best coordinators in the business. Also, he’ll have a potential All-SEC defensive end in Carl Lawson, who sat out ’14 with a torn ACL.
Auburn’s success on this side hinges on whether Lawson can restore a pass rush that was non-existent last year, and whether Muschamp can build around talented defensive backs Jonathan Jones and Johnathan Ford.
Auburn could once again contend for a national title, but one final caution: as Auburn discovered last year, getting to the College Football Playoff is at least as much about who you play—Auburn’s 2014 slate was absolutely brutal—as it is how good you are. Once again, the Tigers face what may be one of the five-toughest schedules out there: in addition to playing all teams in the West, Georgia and Louisville are also on the slate.
Six years ago, Urban Meyer roamed the sidelines in Gainesville fresh off a national title, and there didn’t appear to be an end in sight to UF’s dominance. UF was 12-0 to start 2009 and two wins away from grabbing the crystal trophy again.
But in what was the best-kept secret in the college football universe, everything was about to change.
Alabama issued a 32-13 whipping in the SEC Championship Game that season, Meyer was gone a year later, and the Gators have yet to even win their division again. In fact, UF’s just 21-19 in league play since.
Hope for better things starts with coach Jim McElwain, the coordinator on that ‘Bama team that started the Gators’ slide.
McElwain did some impressive things at Colorado State, where he took over a program with three-straight three-win seasons and went 18-9 his last two years, and while certainly it’s easier to win over the long haul in Gainesville than Ft. Collins, the challenge right away is steep.
On offense, there’s not much to work with. For all the preseason noise year-in and year-out about Florida’s speed and play-making ability, it’s been just that: noise. The truth is that the Gators haven’t really had that consistent star who could make plays on the edge for years now, and have tried to get by with a committee of running backs who were good at best, but never great.
The result: Florida hasn’t surpassed 368 yards a game in total offense in any of its last five seasons, a figure that would have Meyer and Steve Spurrier rolling over in their graves if they weren’t still alive.
For what it’s worth, UF does return its second-, third- and fourth-leading rushers and four of its top six pass-catchers. Running back Kelvin Taylor and receiver Demarcus Robinson have even flashed signs of big things at times.
However, Florida has not had a consistent answer at quarterback since Tim Tebow graduated. Treon Harris showed flashes in ’14 but completed just 49.5 percent of his passes and could yield way to redshirt freshman Will Grier, a better passer.
Compounding matters is the fact that UF”s offensive line is in shambles due to injuries and no depth, and it may not be pretty again.
One thing that hasn’t waned is UF’s stellar play on defense. Hopes for this year center on an excellent secondary led by two-time All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves. But, star linebacker Antonio Morrison will likely be shelved for the first half of 2015 due to a knee injury and that means the Gators could return just one starter along their front seven.
I’ll allow that Florida should benefit from better coaching, and that because the Gators ranked in rivals.com’s top eight in recruiting from 2012-14, there may be more talent here than meets the eye. But a look at the personnel we know doesn’t suggest the offense will be any better, and the defense could even take a step back. Even in a down Eastern Division, it could be tough for the Gators just to finish fourth.