Tennessee Volunteers vs. Auburn Tigers Complete Game Preview
Since they don't play every season, the Tennessee-Auburn football game has lost a bit of the luster it used to carry when the teams were annual rivals.
But recently, this game has been as streaky as UT's rivalry with Alabama. Much like the series against the Tide, the Vols have come out on the short end of the games against AU lately.
UT has lost five consecutive games to Auburn since last winning 24-0 in 1999. Before this current run, the Vols enjoyed a 5-0-1 streak against the Tigers, according to UT's game notes.
During the last meeting in 2009—a 26-22 win by the Tigers in Neyland Stadium—UT's senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton had not yet found the success he'd enjoy during a solid second half of his final season under Lane Kiffin.
Instead, Chris Todd threw for 218 yards, and Ben Tate ran for 128 more as AU handed the Vols a close loss.
Gus Malzahn was a first-year offensive coordinator for that AU team under Gene Chizik. UT coach Butch Jones was in the midst of an 11-2 season at Central Michigan that he would parlay into the Cincinnati job.
A lot of time has passed since then, and these are two completely different teams. Let's take a look at everything you'll need to know.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 9
Time: Noon ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville
Radio: Vol Network, Auburn IMG Sports Network, Sirius Premier/XM Channel 91
Spread: Auburn by 9 points, according to Sportsbook.com
Tennessee Keys to Victory
True freshman Joshua Dobbs had plenty of growing pains in his first career start last week at Missouri, but he also showed immense promise.
The Vols have to help him out. That means cutting back on the pre-snap penalties, getting in 2nd- and 3rd-and-manageable situations, not dropping so many passes and having success running the ball.
With junior running back Marlin Lane expected to get more carries, according to Butch Jones at his press conference, the Vols must sustain drives and put their quarterback in a better position to make plays than they did a week ago.
Win the Turnover Battle
If there is a chink in AU's offensive armor, it's the fact that the Tigers have turned the ball over 13 times this year. Quarterback Nick Marshall is a dynamic athlete, but he can be careless in taking care of the ball.
The Vols were once known for being opportunistic at the beginning of the year, but that hasn't been the case in back-to-back blowouts against Alabama and Missouri. UT has to force some miscues then convert those into touchdowns to have a chance.
Contain the Edge
Many probably want to think of Gus Malzahn's offense as being finesse. But the head coach put those rumors to rest with a slobber-knocker demolition of Arkansas last week that consisted of just nine passes by Marshall the entire game.
AU prefers to run between the tackles as a general rule. But against a team as slow defensively as Tennessee, the Tigers have the speed to make the edge and turn those runs into big gains.
Look for high-percentage bubble screens, for Tre Mason to try to get outside some and, if plays break down, for Marshall to take off. UT struggled against Maty Mauk, and Marshall is a better athlete. The Vols have to find a way to spy Marshall and contain big plays.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Run, Run, Run
On paper, this looks like pretty much the worst possible matchup for Tennessee.
The Tigers lead the league in rushing yards per game at 306.2—an average of 69 yards per game ahead of second-place Missouri. Meanwhile, the Vols are dead last in the SEC, allowing 201.7 yards a game.
UT also is coming off an embarrassing 31-3 loss to Mizzou, where the Tigers ran for 344 yards.
It doesn't seem likely that a slow UT defense can shut down Auburn's vaunted rushing attack, but the Vols at least have to contain it somewhat to have a chance. The Tigers have to ride Tre Mason early and often.
When he gets tired, they've got more able-bodied backs UT can't stop.
Close the Lid
Again, red-zone defense is something that overwhelmingly favors Auburn.
The Tigers are 12th in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score points just 70 percent of the time it gets inside of the 20-yard line. Out of the 30 times the Tigers' opponents have made it into the red zone, they've scored touchdowns just 13 times.
That number is also good enough for second in the SEC.
There was an invisible lid on the field for the Vols last week against Missouri as UT simply could not produce points once it got to the Mizzou 30-yard line. With a true freshman quarterback at the helm, UT could face the same struggles again. It plays right into AU's hands.
The Vols have been very good inside Neyland Stadium this year, and they're no stranger to playing kegs-and-eggs early games. Meanwhile, this will be AU's first early kickoff.
Even though UT has been gone from home for two forgettable weeks, the last time the Vols were there, they captured Butch Jones' signature win over South Carolina, and the crowd was deafening in another noon ESPN game.
Auburn has the weapons to neutralize the Vols fans early and send them heading to the exits. If the Tigers jump ahead to a couple-scores lead, UT doesn't have the firepower to come back.
Players to Watch for Tennessee
While Miller has enjoyed a career resurgence of sorts as a senior, he personifies UT's struggles in containment.
Miller simply isn't fast enough to stop speedy opponents from turning the corner and getting downfield, and that was glaring against Missouri. That is also true with UT defensive ends Marlon Walls and Jacques Smith.
The trio of Vols senior defensive ends have to play the game of their careers to keep Auburn's offense from making things ugly.
Of the multiple puzzling coaching decisions made last week by the Vols, perhaps the one that was most glaring was the lack of carries for Lane.
When UT was struggling to get anything going early on offense, Lane came in and ran for 20 yards on two carries. Then, he basically disappeared.
The Vols continued to run Rajion Neal, who finished with eight carries for eight yards. Lane, meanwhile, had six carries for 37 yards. Just like he did last season, Neal appears to be fading down the stretch, and UT needs to ride Lane, who runs harder and more effectively.
Jones indicated at his press conference that may be the case, according to UTSports.com:
You'll see his role continue to increase. Now he's back to 100% health wise. The thing we need from him is burst at the second level and really finishing runs. The one run on our sideline he tried to finish but you'll see his work load start to increase a little bit this week.
The superb freshman continues to excel in coverage, and he'll likely draw Auburn speed-burner Sammie Coates this week.
Sutton was burned by Kevin Norwood against Alabama, but it's really the only time he has been beaten deep this year. If he survives this test against Coates, it'll be another victory in his young career.
Of course, AU will look to line Coates up on Justin Coleman, who may as well have scorch marks permanently tattooed on the back of his jersey.
Players to Watch for Auburn
Todd Gurley is more talented, and Jeremy Hill is more dynamic, but there hasn't been a runner in the SEC as consistently productive as the junior.
Mason can run outside, and he can burrow between the tackles. Auburn's entire offense revolves around their workhorse, and he'll get plenty of carries against UT. The Vols have to find a way to slow him down, or it's going to be a long day.
Mason amazingly has shown no signs of wear and tear this year. He receives carry after carry and simply keeps churning. He'll be in the mix for the conference player of the year.
Auburn's offense isn't predicated on a dynamic passing attack, but when the Tigers do sling it downfield, they look for Coates.
According to ESPN.com, the speedy sophomore from Leroy, Ala., leads the nation with an average of 26.6 yards per catch. In just 24 receptions, Coates has 638 yards and five touchdowns.
With all of UT's secondary struggles so far this season, the Vols need to get Cameron Sutton lined up on him and provide plenty of safety help.
Despite missing the first two games of the season due to injury, Ford has been a force at edge-rushing for the Tigers.
He has seven sacks this season, amassing at least one in each of the past five games. The senior predominantly lines up at right end, which normally would mean he'll get his fill of Antonio "Tiny" Richardson.
Richardson struggled at times last week and was moved to right tackle in favor of Ja'Wuan James, so that will be intriguing to watch. Regardless, either will have his hands full with Ford.
What They Are Saying
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the Vols being 4-1 at Neyland Stadium with their only loss coming in overtime to Georgia. According to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com, Malzahn said:
Just the fact that they're able to beat a South Carolina team and had a chance to beat Georgia, both at home. Of course, that's what I'm looking at. They're a different team at home and we know we're going to get their best.
The Vols' true freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs met with the media for the first time on Tuesday. With a difficult schedule including Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining, Dobbs discussed long-term goals, according to UTSports.com's Brian Rice:
I need to make sure that everyone is focused and that everyone knows that our goals are intact. Our goal is to make it to a bowl game and we have three games to do that. We go out, compete hard and do the best we can every time we step out onto the field.
One of the major keys to Tennessee upsetting Auburn on Saturday is forcing the Tigers into turnovers. The only problem is AU has done a much better job lately of taking care of the ball. According to Al.com's Brandon Marcello, running back Tre Mason said there is a good reason for that. The coaches have been putting extra emphasis on ball security in practice:
That's the key. That's the key to winning: ball security. You can't put the ball on the ground. You can't have turnovers. That leads to giving the other team an opportunity to get ahead and we can't have that.
The coaches will get you after practice. They're going to take care of that (fumbling) issue after practice. I try to stay out of that and hold on to the ball tight.
Tennessee senior center James Stone told Volquest.com's John Brice and Rob Lewis (subscription) how impressed he was with true freshman Dobbs' first start at Missouri last Saturday. He took his first-game lumps, but Dobbs showed his teammates something, Stone said:
I've been talking to him and let him know the offensive line has his back. I feel like he showed incredible poise in there. Overall, I think he had great communication between us and him. I feel like I saw a lot of good things in Josh on Saturday.
Tennessee is tired. Tennessee is battle-worn. Tennessee's momentum from just a couple weeks ago is gone.
And Auburn is really good.
The Tigers have passed tests at every turn and are on their way to posting an amazing turnaround season that could garner Gus Malzahn national coach of the year honors. They're whipping people with a rugged running game, and run defense is UT's weakness.
Butch Jones has done a good job this season as well, but the Vols just don't have the horses to hang with AU at this point of the year. The Tigers have too much speed and talent on offense, and the Vols just aren't clicking offensively.
It benefits UT to be playing early and in Neyland Stadium, but that can only take the Vols so far. Once Auburn gets its offense untracked, it will run downhill, and it could get ugly.
Auburn 38, Tennessee 17