Saturday’s showdown between first-year coaches Lane Kiffin of Tennessee and Gene Chizik of Auburn offers a variety of interesting subplots. As both coaches replaced legends whose stars had dimmed and as each are tasked with re-establishing the proud traditions of their respective programs, this head-to-head matchup is inevitably a major benchmark in measuring the progress of each.
Come Sunday morning, Tiger fans will have more reason to boast while Volunteer supporters will be left scratching their heads and wondering when they’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The meeting between the Tigers and Volunteers is a study in contrasts, in everything from the demeanor of their head coaches to their strengths and weaknesses.
Chizik is low key. He gives little to the media beyond standard coaching clichés and pat phrases. His press conferences are virtually interchangeable. He is cautious, reserved and evokes a business-only aura.
Kiffin is ebullient. He has drawn the ire of SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer by sniping at rivals while engaging in media-fueled battles with opposing coaches. His press conferences are events because no one is really sure what Kiffin’s going to say — or have to apologize for — next.
Chizik’s Tigers have surpassed early expectations. Poll voters haven’t noticed, but Auburn is 4-0.
Kiffin’s Volunteers have struggled to match his abrasive bravado. The Tennessee Vols check in at 2-2, or 3-1 if you count moral victories. At this point, polls are the last thing on their mind.
Chizik came to Auburn with a reputation as a defensive wizard. As defensive coordinator at Auburn and then Texas he presided over two straight undefeated seasons and one national title — or two if you count titles like Alabama.
Kiffin was the pick at Tennessee in large part because of his work with the offense at USC where the Trojans were a perennial national contender.
Irony No. 1?
Chizik won his Texas national title while running the Longhorn defense against Kiffin’s Trojans.
Irony No. 2?
Despite Kiffin’s offensive reputation, Tennessee’s best chance Saturday rests with its defense. The Volunteer offense remains stuck on start and has shown little sign of motion. The Tennessee defense is talented and extremely effective.
Conversely, Chizik’s defensive rep is overshadowed by Auburn’s performance on offense this year. Questions abound for the Tiger defense, but the Auburn offense has rolled up more than 500 yards per game on average and is scoring a blistering 45 points per outing.
On Saturday something has to give.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane’s father, devised an outstanding plan to put the brakes on Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators in a 23-13 loss/moral victory at Florida.
Chances are the elder Kiffin will have a similar scheme to derail a resurgent Chris Todd and the high-scoring Tiger offense.
Kiffin’s task was made significantly more difficult with the loss of linebacker Nick Reveiz, whose 27 tackles are third on the team.
The problem for the Volunteers is that the Auburn offense seems capable of putting points on the board. Tennessee might be able to slow it down, but the chance of stopping it outright seems remote.
Auburn averages 526 yards and 45 points per game. The Tigers pick up an average of seven yards per play. Even if the Volunteer defense is able to cut that production in half, it will likely still be enough against a Tennessee offense so inept.
The Volunteers are moderately effective at running the ball (nearly 200 yards per game) but to say Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton has struggled would be putting it kindly.
Crompton has thrown eight interceptions in four games. A 6-year-old child could draw up the defensive game plan against Tennessee.
Put eight men in the box to limit the run and put pressure on Crompton. Force him to make a mistake.
After the Mountaineers of West Virginia torched Auburn for two big plays early in a 41-30 Tiger win, that was essentially the plan Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof employed. The result? Five Mountaineer interceptions and a Tiger win.
Auburn’s defense has issues. The Tigers allow a too-high 4.6 yards per play. Opponents average more than 150 yards rushing and more than 170 passing. Opponents score an average of 24 points per game.
That must improve for loftier season expectations to come to fruition. As it pertains to Saturday’s meeting, however, the Volunteers show no indication they are capable of taking advantage of the Tiger’s defensive question marks.
Last season, these two teams waged an epic battle on Pat Dye’s field at Jordan-Hare Stadium that resulted in 792 combined yards.
Tennessee punted 10 times for 399 yards and the Tigers nine for 393.
Given Auburn’s offensive prowess and the Tigers’ defensive questions, you may see another 800-yard effort — with no punts — on Saturday.
And as the lights go down, you will also see a 5-0 Auburn team. The only question is whether poll voters will finally take notice.