Auburn is in the midst of the one of the greatest season-to-season turnarounds in recent college football history. Despite finishing 2012 with a 3-9 record and going winless in SEC play, the Tigers are off to a 9-1 start in 2013 and are still in control of their own destiny in the SEC West.
With games against Georgia and Alabama remaining, what did this win vs. Tennessee tell us about the Tigers and their chances for a BCS game, possibly even a BCS title chance? What about the chances for a trip to Atlanta for a shot at the SEC championship?
After an impressive win against Tennessee, we'll have plenty of positives after Week 11 for Auburn with 10 things we learned about the Tigers in their win over the Volunteers.
As impressive as the Auburn offense was against Tennessee, the passing game looked like something we'd more often see from a team like Army.
The Tigers threw the ball just seven times, completing just three of those passes (Army was actually 8-of-12 for 70 yards in a 21-17 loss to Western Kentucky). That's pretty weak.
But don't think Nick Marshall didn't get his yardage today. He racked up a whopping 214 on the ground, which we'll get into in more detail in a moment.
Add in Tre Mason's 117 and two other Tigers with at least 48 yards, and who needs a passing game?
How often do we see special teams lay an egg that costs our team the game? That certainly wasn't the case for Auburn fans today.
Chris Davis gave Auburn its first big special teams spark today with his punt return for a touchdown. With the game still in doubt, Davis muffed the punt, but picked it up and weaved his way through Tennessee's coverage—which had trouble all afternoon.
After 87 yards, Auburn had a solid lead it wouldn't relinquish.
In the second half, Corey Grant added to the fireworks, returning a kickoff 90 yards for a score. Massive momentum shifts like that are exactly what Auburn will need down the stretch to find its way into the BCS discussion.
There are plenty of reasons to be high on Auburn right now. Defense probably isn't one of them.
We'll talk more about some particulars, but lets start with some numbers. Coming into the game against Tennessee, the Tigers were 11th in the SEC in total offense, having given up an average of 398.9 yards per game. Auburn gave up 353 against Tennessee.
Against the pass, Auburn was 13th in the SEC, giving up 249.8 yards per game. The Tigers were eighth against the run, allowing 149.1 yards on average.
The passing numbers will improve slightly, but we're still looking at an Auburn defense that will be in the bottom half of every major statistical category in the SEC heading down the stretch.
Auburn shouldn't look past Georgia, but we don't have to worry about such things. We will look ahead to the Alabama game, where this porous Auburn defense gives us serious reason to doubt the Tigers' chances against AJ McCarron and company in the Iron Bowl.
We've already talked about senior Chris Davis's contribution to the special teams unit. But when it comes to playing his usual defensive back position, Davis has shown some impressive ability to impact the game without the ball in his hands.
As the game against Tennessee progressed, Vols QB Joshua Dobbs began to show a reluctance to throw the ball towards Davis' side of the field. Davis showed some great closing speed, but in close coverage aggressively attacked the football, often knocking it out of the hands of a would-be receiver.
Of course, sitting back in pass coverage isn't as flashy as returning punts for touchdowns. But cutting opponents' drives short can be just as important to the eventual outcomes.
Perhaps Chris Davis could be one reason for Auburn fans to be hopeful about the future of the Tigers' defense in 2013.
One number should have every defense in the SEC, even the entire FBS, sit up and take notice: 444. That's the total yardage Auburn gained on the ground against Tennessee. On 53 attempts, that gives Auburn an 8.4 rush average.
Granted, all of this was against the SEC's worst rush defense, but Auburn still managed to put up more than twice the average number of yards Tennessee has given up this season.
With so many weapons capable of carrying the football, head coach Gus Malzahn should feel pretty secure in his team's ability to put up some big numbers on any opponent the Tigers face in 2013.
Nick Marshall rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against Tennessee, four yards shy of the most yards ever given up on the ground to a single player in Tennessee's history.
In contrast, Marshall only threw the ball for 35 yards (3-of-7 for 35 yards, one TD, one INT).
Granted, Marshall didn't need to throw the ball much against the Volunteers, but he did show an ability to accurately locate his passes when necessary. His lone touchdown throw to C.J. Uzomah was perfectly thrown, dropping right into Uzomah's hands for a seemingly easy score.
Marshall will be called upon to throw the ball much more against teams like Georgia and Alabama, but he has shown glimpses of being more than a one-trick pony.
...But giving up big yards against teams like Georgia or Alabama will cost the Tigers dearly.
Against Tennessee, Auburn surrendered 353 total yards of offense. Luckily, Tennessee is also a team that gives up tons of yardage, particularly on the ground which plays right into the strength of Auburn. Georgia and Alabama, on the other hand, don't give up nearly as many yards on the ground, and are each capable of big offensive performances in their own right.
The old cliche is "defense win championships." A lot of people hate cliches, but they're cliches for a reason; defense is supremely important for teams that want to win a championship. Just ask Oregon.
If Auburn can't find a way to get some critical stops against the more prolific offenses in the SEC, there won't be any championships to add to the Tigers' trophy case this season.
Against Tennessee, Auburn put up 55 points and 479 yards. That's what we typically see from teams like Oregon or Florida State this season. It's certainly not the typical SEC offense, a conference that has made its name mainly on suffocating defense.
If Auburn can find a way to limit arch nemesis Alabama with a defense that's less than dominating, the Tigers should be able to run the ball straight into the SEC title game and a BCS berth come December.
Heck, with the entertaining numbers Auburn is putting up, it's conceivable the Tigers could even fail to reach Atlanta and still find its way into a BCS at-large spot.
We'd like to be able to say that Tre Mason was in rare form against Tennessee. He had 20 carries for 117 yards and three touchdowns. But that's not really all that rare anymore for Mason, the SEC's leader in rushing touchdowns.
Mason is quickly becoming one of the nation's most entertaining backs to watch, with a bruising style combined with some shifty moves that lead to touchdown after touchdown.
Auburn has long been known for its ability to run the football. With names like Cam Newton and Bo Jackson sprinkled throughout the SEC record books, another Auburn Tiger—Mason—is again putting on highlight-reel performances and could be setting his own records before all is said and done.
This is pretty simple. Prior to Gene Chizik's firing, Auburn's football program was in free-fall. The Tigers had gone from 14-0 and a national title in 2010 to an abysmal 3-9 finish in 2012, which included losing every SEC conference game.
Gus Malzahn comes back to Auburn and immediately changes the culture. No longer is "almost" good enough for the Tigers. That 0-8 SEC mark from last season has suddenly become a 5-1 record in 2013, and there's now no limit to what Auburn can accomplish.
When a coach is hired by any program to replace a predecessor who was fired, a turnaround is always on the agenda. But to go from 3-9 in 2012 to 9-1 thus far in 2013 probably wasn't on anyone's radar screen, other than Malzahn, that is.
His ability to reshape Auburn's fortunes is such a short period of time easily has Malzahn up among the top candidates for Coach of the Year, not just in the SEC, but nationally.
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