What’s at stake: It surprised me when I realized this, but: more for Tennessee. In fact, a lot more.
For starters, how big a black eye is is it going to be for Kiffin to kick off his tenure with losses at home to not one but two teams who the Vols arguably should have beaten on the road last year? Then there’s the Chizik comparisons and the inevitable round of “Who really made the better hire?” stories, which of course is a question we can’t actually answer until the end of next season at the earliest but will be asked in earnest by SEC wags anyway. And then–most importantly–with only Memphis, Vandy, and Kentucky left as “likely” wins, the Vols would be starting down the barrel of a second straight bowl season at home. In short: this is the kind of measuring stick game that Kiffin sorely, sorely needs.
As for Chizik and Auburn … well, if Auburn really does have any pie-in-the-sky divisional ambitions or New Year’s Day bowl plans, it probably can’t afford to drop a game to a team as offensively-challenged as the Vols. But even that is only probably–for God’s sake, South Carolina went to the Outback at 7-5 last year–and a competitive loss won’t change the fact that Auburn is, at the very least, relevant again and still very much on track for a winning year, bowl berth, etc. A blowout loss would be damaging, but otherwise Auburn has more to gain with a win–Chizik’s personal pride vs. Kiffin, an early split of the back-to-back roadies, further confirmation Auburn has already vaulted into the SEC’s Georgia-LSU-Ole Miss-South Carolina second tier–than it has to lose with a loss, the only immediate consequences of which would be that the Tigers spend at least another week outside the polls. (Well, and that Auburn will hear the sniping from the doubting Thomases out there, but they’re hearing that already.)
So, yeah, I’d say this is one that Auburn wants very badly … but one that Kiffin and Tennessee kind of need.
When Auburn has the ball
For starters, you’re seeing arguably the two best and brightest coordinators in the SEC go head-to-head. From the chess match perspective, it couldn’t be more fascinating.
But what will we actually see Chess Master A and Chess Master B do? Auburn’s balance makes for one hell of a tricky dilemma, even for a guy as shrewd as Kiffin the Elder: do you follow WVU’s plan of pushing forward after the run and risk Todd, Adams, and Zachery gutting you, or do you back off and risk Tate and McCalebb taking the ball from goal line-to-goal line six yards at a time?
The guess here (and it’s just a guess) is that Kiffin will back off just a bit–Auburn has been so explosive, and the Tennessee offense so unable to match those kinds of quick strikes, that it’s hard to see how the Vols can afford to let Zachery loose for a bomb or McCalebb fly unfettered down the sideline past a drawn-in front. (I strongly recommend Smart Football’s examination of what Kiffin put together for Florida, but I’ll be surprised if you see the same thing vs. Auburn–leaving Adams or Zachery essentially one-on-one won’t work the way they’re playing.) Three other factors at play here:
1. Todd’s biggest Achilles heel has been his inability to throw accurate swings to Fannin, but the second-biggest (by far) has been his occasional willingness to throw into coverage downfield; it hasn’t bitten him yet, but this still seems like the easiest way for the Vols to come up with a turnover.
2. Eric Berry is basically worth an extra man in the box even when he’s lined up in the secondary
and–this is the big one—
3. Byron Isom may not play. If he doesn’t, well, without him Auburn had issues shoving around Ball St.–they might get a play here or there with Sullen or Eddins out there, but no way they get the necessary push to take over a game on the ground.
If this is the strategy Kiffin adopts, the game will be in Tate’s, McCalebb’s, and the line’s hands. Again, look at Kiffin’s anti-Florida formation–if Tennessee’s going to line up with six in the box and drop one of those safeties to try and help out over the top, Auburn doesn’t have much choice–they’ll have to run. And they’ll have to get a big game out of the line, which won’t be easy at all if Isom’s not in the lineup.
Of course, the nice thing about Auburn’s offense is that even if the deep ball is taken away and the run game is stuttering, Auburn can still go to the underneath stuff to Fannin or Adams on the out/curl or a ton of other things Malzahn no doubt has cooked up. And, of course, giving McCalebb any kind of room is a dangerous game–letting him into the secondary is better than letting him past the secondary the way Miss. St. and Ball St. did, but still. There’s always holes, and Malzahn can always find them.
So I’ll be surprised if Auburn pulls off another handful of 50-plus-yard touchdowns. But if Isom plays and Todd doesn’t have an unusual fit of inaccuracy, I’ll be equally surprised if Malzahn can’t find a way to move the ball with some consistency anyway.
If Isom doesn’t play … well, against this defense then it’s tooth-grittin’ time.
When Tennessee has the ball
It’ll be time for Ted Roof to earn his paycheck.
There’s not much of a secret about what Tennessee will want to do against an offense as capable as Auburn’s–run the ball down our throat wih Hardesty and Brown, keep Todd and Co. on the sideline, and keep Jonathan Crompton from doing anything more complicated than screen passes and check-downs. If Auburn keeps the Vol ground game under control, Crompton has never, ever shown himself capable of doing the things necessary to keep the Vols moving against a team with a pulse.
The question then becomes, of course, if Auburn can keep the Vol ground game under control. It won’t be easy: their line has been playing well, Hardesty is running as well as any Vol back has in years, and of course Auburn has had their share of difficulties stopping the run, as West Virginia’s 5.3 yards a carry and Miss. St.’s 4.4 will tell you. On a personnel level, Auburn essentially still has the HELP WANTED sign out in the weakside linebacker spot, it remains to see how much help the ends will be able to offer in run support, and while Daren Bates took a big step forward last week he hadn’t done much against opposing ball-carriers to that point.
However, there’s several things at play here (besides Bates potentially hitting his groove) that I think give Auburn an excellent chance of at least slowing down the Vol rushing game:
1. Roof is no idiot, and his long-time specialty has been defenses heavy on run-stopping with holes in the secondary. We all know he’s been working on this game for two weeks (much as the Vol coaches have) and should have his team well-prepared.
2. Auburn can pretty much stuff the box with impunity–between Crompton being Crompton and the excellence Auburn has shown in the secondary, the Vols don’t look like any kind of threat to stretch the field.
3. A lot of Auburn’s issues in rush defense haven’t been about stopping opposing tailbacks–they’ve been about the opposing quarterback. One particular first-quarter 71-yard jaunt aside, backs like Anthony Dixon, Noel Devine, MiQuale Lewis, etc. have had their moments vs. Auburn but have also been fairly well contained. What turned their team’s rushing nights from being merely OK to borderline success was the running of Chris Relf, Jarrett Brown, and Kelly Page. La. Tech had a poor night running the ball vs. Auburn, but it would have been even worse if Auburn hadn’t repeatedly let Ross Jenkins break contain.
And here’s where I tell you that Crompton has rushed 15 times this year for -16 yards. That’s not something Auburn has to worry about this week.
4. As I described this morning, Tennessee’s rushing game hasn’t been that good.
So: we have to accept that Auburn is going to give up their fair share of yards, and that Tennessee is probably going to break 4 yards a carry. But unless Hardesty or Brown break some long ones, I expect that to sustain drives, Tennessee’s also going to have to get something from Crompton. Auburn’s going to have to tackle surely and react quickly on the array of check-downs and swings that got Tennessee good yardage against Florida, and admittedly that hasn’t been Auburn’s defensive strength just yet.
But if Auburn can get Tennessee into 2nd- and 3rd-and long, and it seems likely they will from time-to-time … oh, sorry, give me a sec, I just need to wipe the drool off my keyboard. Because that’s going to match up the defense currently tied for fourth in interceptions and fifth in turnovers forced with the SEC’s most notorious turnover machine and the country’s current co-leader in interceptions thrown.
Yes, I like that matchup, yes I do. And I think Auburn is capable of forcing Tennessee into it often enough for it to pay off.
When special teams are on the field
Wow–Tennessee’s even worse at kickff returns than we are. That’s good. They’re not bad at punt returns, but that assumes Durst gives them a chance to return it. Net punting tilts towards Tennessee for the moment, but they’re not good and I’d argue Auburn’s punting problems are likely behind them. Daniel Lincoln’s been solid as a placekicker–he’s 6-of-7–but of course Foot Laderdale has been perfect.
So all-in-all: as shaky as Auburn has been, if they can just avoid dropping their punt returns in the Vols’ laps, neither team should come away with any substantial advantage in special teams–and if Durst punts to his potential, this might even be an Auburn win.
I said might. It’s just as likely Tennessee returns a punt block and a kickoff for touchdowns, as we all know.
Intangible reason for worry
I think a young team traveling to Neyland Freaking Stadium for their first road trip of the season to face a potentially desperate Vol team is a pretty good reason, don’t you?
Intangible reason for confidence
Leads for these two teams are not going to be created equal–Auburn showed against West Virginia they have the intenstinal fortitude and offensive explosiveness to erase a deficit if they have to, and it’s not like Tennessee is the kind of team that’s going to run away and hide on the scoreboard anyway. The flips side of that is that if Auburn can pop out to a double-digit lead early on, the Vols will be in trouble–for starters, it shifts even more of a burden onto Crompton, and in situations like that a giant crowd (with its palpable nervousness and awkward silence and even scattered boo-birds) can actually be a detriment rather than a help. I’m expecting a close game, but if you ask me which team is more likely to blow out the other and end the game before the fourth quarter rolls around, I think it’s Auburn.
1. No turnovers inside Auburn’s own territory, fumble returns for TDs, or pick-sixes. I’m not going to wish for no turnovers period, because they do have Eric Berry, after all. But given the kind of difficulty Tennessee can find themselves having to move the ball and finish drives, if Auburn’s going to turn the ball over, they have to do it in places that don’t add the insult of helping Tennessee score to the injury of the lost offensive position.
2. No runs longer than 25 yards or–heaven forbid–passes over the top. Similar incredibly important goal–force Tennessee to drive the entire length of the field–but a different way of accomplishing it.
3. Give Mario Fannin at least 10 touches. I’m looking at you, Todd. It’s hardly coincidence the man has five offensive touches the last two games and has turned 40 percent of them into long touchdowns. Those swings outside can be a terrific way to pick up a quick five yards or more against a soft zone … if Todd will hit him with a halfway decent pass. I’m bggin’ ya, Chris.
Success is / Failure is: a win/ a loss.
Your bottom line
Here, I’ll tell you what–besides the possibility of Auburn walking into Neyland and just caving beneath their road jitters–worries the hell out of me about this game: it’s the age-old tale of the Incredibly Explosive Offense taking on the Deathly Physical Stout Defense. Malzahn vs. M. Kiffin: that’s what this is about, since Auburn’s defense and Tennessee’s offense strike me as very, very likely to play to a 17-24-pointsish stalemate. Auburn can be taken advantage of, but Tennessee isn’t good enough to take that advantage, and we’ll all meet in the middle.
So that brings us to Auburn O vs. Vol D. And the winner in those sorts of matchups always seems to be the defense, right? It happened just last week–high-flyin’ Miami and their stud QB visit lo-fi run-and-play-special-teams Virginia Tech … and like so, so many games like it that have come before, it’s not even a fair fight. Like I said, I think there’s good reasons to expect Auburn to move the ball–but there’s so, so much precedent for an offense like Auburn’s to fall flat on its face in a game like “go to Neyland Stadium to take on Monte Kiffin’s defense featuring Eric Berry.” And after the pratfall the Auburn defense is on the field for too long, and then the Vols are just rushing at will, and it’s over.
But ah, here’s the thing–that model works a hell of a lot better when it’s the defense-first team that wins the turnover and special teams battle. Tennessee’s not able to play Beamerball, though. For starters, on paper the special teams are a pillowfight that neither team wins. And more importantly:
As I said earlier, if Auburn and Tennessee play the way they have so far ths year, Auburn wins. I took the long way around explaining it in that post, but it’s not really that complicated: both teams have hosted a solid nonconference opponent and a MAC snack, and while Auburn won its big noncon test and romped all over Ball St., Tennessee lost to UCLA and let Ohio hang around for four quarters. OK, so Ohio’s likely better than BSU, but the comparison’s not so rough you can’t see how Auburn is, flatly, the better team.
Without home-field or a victory in turnover margin, I wouldn’t expect that to be enough. But with Jonathan Crompton still, somehow, the Vol quarterback, I think Auburn will be both the better team and win turnover margin. And yes, I think that by the skin of Auburn’s teeth, that will be enough*.
And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …
Auburn 27, Tennessee 23.
*Unless Isom sits.