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Friday preview part 1: Seeing through the rankings?

Oh, he's good. But have his charges been THAT good?
Oh, he's good. But have his charges been THAT good?

You, TWER reader, probably know that Auburn’s offense is currently ranked 3rd in the nation in total offense. If you’ve done some research, you might know that Auburn is 41st in total defense and you might even be aware that Tennessee’s D currently  is ranked eighth. The Vols offense? They’re the laggard of the bunch at 61st.

But there’s something tricky about those rankings: with only four games played, strength-of-schedule plays a huge role in them. Auburn might argue that Tennessee’s rankings are skewed by playing an opponent as weak as Western Kentucky; Tennessee would respond that Auburn hasn’t faced anyone remotely like Florida; Auburn would say that at least West Virginia’s offense is about that good; etc. Further complicating matters is that, first, total yards aren’t as accurate a measure of how good a hyperdrive team like Auburn has been or hasn’t been as they are for most teams. Second, it’s not as easy to just look at a ranking and deduce even what the strength-of-schedule has been–is Ohio the 103rd-ranked offense in the country because they’re that bad, or because they’ve just had the misfortune of playing Tennessee’s D? Is Tennessee’s D that good, or have they just had the good fortune of playing Ohio?

To try and answer these kinds of questions, I decided to look over not just Auburn and Tennessee’s statistical performances this year, but their opponents’ performances, to get a feel for whether Tennessee’s offense and defense have been that bad/good, and of course whether Auburn’s offense and defense have been that bad/good. Starting with …

AUBURN DEFENSE

Performance Comparisons

La. Tech: Bulldogs totaled just 3.5 yards-per-play against Auburn, their worst offensive performance of the year-to-date by a smidge over the 3.6 they gained at Navy, and looks even better against the 5.7 a snap they gained vs. Hawaii this week. The 4.5 yards-per-pass Auburn allowed does look a little less special, though, since Tech hasn’t cleared 6 yards against any D-I opponent.

Miss. St.: Not-so-good: State’s 5 yards-a-play and 6.2 yards-per-pass against Auburn are the highest number they’ve reached vs. any of their three D-I opponents. But not by a lot: MSU has been consistent, gaining 4.6 per-play vs. Vandy and 4.3 vs. LSU when the Tigers handed them their worst rushing day of the season.

WVU: The 6.4 yards-per-play given up by Auburn look ugly, but that’s actually the worst outing of the season for the ‘Eers, who gained 7.5 per-play vs. East Carolina and 6.6 last night vs. Colorado. Auburn was especially good against the pass, holding Jarrett Brown to 7.4 an attempt a week after he torched ECU for more than 10 yards a pop and before he nearly hit the 8-yard mark vs. the Buffs.

Ball St.: The 3.5 yards-per-play given up here looks OK next to BSU’s North Texas (5.2) and Army (6.0) outings, but New Hampshire did hold the Cards to 2.1 a play. Holding BSU to 3.8 yards-a-pass nothing too special compared to UNT’s (4.0) and UNH’s (3.4) efforts.

Analysis

Auburn’s D has been, as you might expect, OK-but-nothing-too-special. The Tigers held Tech and WVU a little bit below their averages, but let State have their best offensive outing of the year, and of course looking at Tech’s and WVU’s schedule Auburn should be the best defenses those teams have faced. The Ball St. game just isn’t the black eye those 30 points looks like, though: given how much of Auburn’s struggles came with second-stringers in and that BSU did move the ball against UNT and Army, I think Auburn mostly gets a pass.

In the all-important (given that it’s Tennessee) running game, again, Auburn had an off-game vs. State but has otherwise held their own. Tennessee shouldn’t expect to do that much more on the ground (or overall) than they’ve done to date.

TENNESSEE DEFENSE

Performance comparisons

Western Kentucky: The hapless ‘Toppers have a weird set of performances–there’s the total no-show against the Vols and just 3.8 yards-a-play vs. I-AA Central Arkansas, but they gained a respectable 4.5 a snap vs. South Florida and hit 7 yards a play last week at Navy.

UCLA: Again, the Vols are by far the best defense the Bruins have faced: they topped 5 a play vs. San Diego St. and 6 vs. Kansas St., but notched just 3.2 a snap in Knoxville. Both rushing and passing totals are way down from UCLA’s other performances–the Vols cut more than 2 yards off their average pass and 1.5 yards off their average run.

Florida: Charleston, a weaker-than-usual Troy squad, and Kentucky aren’t the best comparisons, but again, Tennessee held the Gators to 5.1 yards-a-play–more than two yards better than the Gators’ next-weakest performance (7.3, vs. Kentucky). The drop’s a little more severe in passing than in rushing, where the Gators picked up 4.7 a carry.

Ohio: This is where it gets weird. At 4.9 yards a snap the Vols gave up more per-play to the Bobcats than either UConn or even North Texas–who allowed the Bobcats 4.1 and 3.1 Y/P, respectively. Despite the presence of Eric Berry and Ohio throwing 21 more times than they had in any other game to-date, the Bobcats’ per-pass average of 6.1 was in the neighborhood of what they did vs. UConn and worse than what UNT held them to (5.5).

Analysis

The Ohio game would seem to suggest that the banged-up Vols are human, at least, but given how much poorer Tennessee’s first three opponents played against them, Auburn really shouldn’t expect the usual fireworks: this really is a terrific defense … or at least it was until last week.

Exactly how much fireworks depends greatly on whether that Ohio game was a one-off fluke or a harbinger of things to come.

AUBURN OFFENSE

Performance comparisons

La Tech.: As you’d expect, Auburn enjoyed the strongest outing against the Bulldogs by a wide margin: 7 yards a snap vs. 5.1 for Navy’s option and 4.9 for Hawaii. Auburn’s ground game averaged more than 1.5 more yards per attempt than even Navy’s, and it’s possible that’s even more impressive than we think after Tech held Hawaii to negative rushing yards.

Miss. St.: Wow–State hasn’t allowed anyone else past the 4.5 yards-per-play mark–that’s what LSU hit, with Vandy checking in at 2.6–but Auburn racked up 7.1 yards a play. The effect’s even more pronounced on the ground, where State’s averaged less than 2 yards a carry given up vs. the rest of their schedule but allowed Auburn 6.61 yards a pop.

WVU: Not quite as pronounced a difference after Colorado gained 4.7 a play last night, but the 5.4 yards-per-snap Auburn put up on the ‘Eers was still far better than the 3.5 East Carolina managed. Still, with Liberty gaining 5.1 themselves, it’s not that impressive. The key for Auburn was the passing game–ECU and Colorado gained 4.4 and 5.5 yards an attempt, respectively, while Todd and Burns combined for 9.1.

Ball St.: Uh, yeah: Auburn’s 8.9 yards a play is nearly four yards more damage than the Cardinals gave up per-snap to the likes of UNT, New Hampshire, and Army.

Analysis

As genuinely dominant as Tennessee’s defense, but without any strange let-down performances like the one the Vols had last Saturday. Given Auburn’s greater diversity of attack (if not raw talent), I’d be surprised if the Tigers don’t at least match the output the Gators managed in their meeting with the Vols. They’re that good.

TENNESSEE OFFENSE

Performance comparisons

Western Kentucky: The Vols gained a whopping 8.6 yards in their opener, but the ‘Toppers are pretty damn generous to everyone: 7.2 yards allowed to USF, 7.4 to Central Arkansas, and 6.9 to the option at Navy. Not bad, but not really impressive.

UCLA: If you’re a Tennessee fan: Uh-oh. Playing at home, the Vols struggled against the Bruins more than either SDSU or Kansas St. did, finishing 1.4 yards behind the Aztecs’ already awful 4.4 gain per-play and .7 behind K-St.’s horrid 3.7. UCLA obviously has a top-notch defense, but this isn’t encouraging. (Unless you’re an Auburn fan.)

Florida: This is better for the Vols: 4.1 gained per-snap against the Gators, vs. 2.4 for Troy and 2.8 for Kentucky. That’s not all from the running game, either: Crompton’s 4.9 per-pass isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s better than the abjectly miserable 2.8 and 3.0 numbers put up by Troy and Kentucky. (I’m ignoring the Charleston Southern exhibition, by the way.) The rushing game doesn’t look as good as you might think–only a yard better than Kentucky managed, and hwen your quarterback is Cropmton, is that good enough?

Ohio: The Vols did manage the best game an opposing offense has had against the Bobcats, but not by much–UConn averaged 5.3 a play to Tennessee’s 5.5, and if you account for that UConn game being a home date for Ohio, they’re about the same. Weirdly, again, it’s the Tennessee passing game that really excelled vs. Ohio–Crompton passed for more than a yard more per-snap than any other QB had vs. the Bobcats. That great rushing attack, though? Averaged around .7 less per-carry than UConn did.

Analysis

It’s hard to get a read on the Vol offense, because three of the teams they’ve played have been on the serious extremes: UCLA and Florida are two of the best defenses in the country, while Western Kentucky is one of the absolute worst. In the end, though, if you don’t read anything into the WKU game, you’re left with one outlying decent performance against Florida, one outright bad performance against UCLA, and one “meh” performance vs. Ohio.

And forget the idea that the Vols can ignore Crompton completely and win this game–the Vol running game has been good, no doubt, but to beat a team like Auburn using nothing but the ground game requires a little more dominance than I think the Vols have shown. If you’re not better rushing the ball than UConn and you’re not more than a half-yard better than San Diego Freaking State, you can’t win in the SEC merely handing off over and over and over again.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Statistically speaking: Auburn’s been the better team so far this year.

It’s not a runway or anything, mind you, but Auburn’s dominant unit hasn’t had a game like the UT defense had against Ohio, and Auburn’s lesser unit hasn’t had a meltdown like the UT offense had against UCLA. Even when you compare the Auburn defense’s lowlight to the Tennessee offens’e highlight, Auburn comes out ahead–the Miss. St game means that Auburn’s defense is a litle worse than LSU’s, while the Florida game means that Tennessee’s offense is a little better than Kentuky’s.

That’s not to say it’s not easy to envision a scenario where Tennessee has the better day. Tennessee has a better defense than West Virginia–if they shut down the AU run game the way the ‘Eers did and do a better job on Todd, you could see Auburn dropping down to like 4.5 a snap. And if you assume Tennessee can build on that Florida performance and do to Auburn what Miss. St. did, that could be as much as 5 yards per-play there.

But on the balance, the Vol offense’s general inability to do much more than reach their opponent’s average gains allowed and the Auburn defense’s general ability to hold their opponents to what they usually accomplish–or less–suggests that Tennessee will likely stick pretty closely to the 4 yards a play, 14-21 point range. Meanwhile, even if the Tennessee defense shrugs off the Ohio game and does to Auburn what they did to Florida–chop off a good two yards or so per-play–that still leaves Auburn in the 5-5.5 yards per-play range. And when you play as fast as Auburn does, that yard advantage per-snap adds up over the course of the game.

So, yeah: there’s not really any telling which team might play beyond their performance to-date and which might play below it. (In fact, I’d say Tennessee’s more likely to play better than they have, and Auburn more likely to play worse. The game is in Neyland, after all.) But if they play to the levels they’ve established so far … Auburn wins.

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