When David Cutcliffe left Tennessee for the second time to become the head coach at Duke—where the Blue Devils are currently averaging 252 yards passing, 158 yards rushing, haven't thrown an interception, and are scoring 31 points per game—many in Knoxville welcomed the new hire of Richmond's Dave Clawson.
Clawson was outside the Tennessee Family, where the same "vanilla" scheme had been run for the better part of the last three decades. Clawson promised to get the ball to the playmakers. And the words that've spread through the SEC like honey on our lips—the spread offense—began to be whispered in Knoxville.
We hadn't seen it, but we loved it.
Down on The Plains, Auburn got a glimpse of it.
Al Borges, whose arrival at Auburn in 2004 coincided with the Tigers' 13-0 season and the sudden maturation of Jason Campbell, resigned late last season as offensive production had declined. In Auburn's nine losses from 2005-2007, the Tigers averaged only 16 points per game.
Whether it was depleted talent, coaching, misfortune, or all of the above, Borges gave way to the one and only Tony Franklin.
Franklin came from Troy with a previous stint in Lexington and a history of installing "his offense" on the high school level, and what he did in two weeks of practice in preparing the Tigers to face Clemson in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl was remarkable: Auburn put up 423 yards of offense against the No. 6 defense in the nation, War Eagle won, and undoubtedly optimism was high in the state of Alabama.
As Tennessee and Auburn prepare to face off on the last Saturday of September, things have changed.
In Knoxville, the Vols had a fairly decent day against the worst defense in the FBS. But that performance against UAB was bookended by two separate exercises in futility.
At UCLA, the Vols had nine three-and-outs, couldn't convert on four first half interceptions, and watched a pass-heavy offense go 19-of-42 and ultimately lose to the Bruins, 27-24.
Last week against the Gators, Tennessee picked up only 258 yards and looked completely lost at times, especially in the red zone, where the Vols made it to the three-yard line twice and came away with nothing.
Throwing out the UAB performance and Nevin McKenzie's interception return for a touchdown against UCLA, the Vols are averaging only 312 yards of offense and 12 points per game. That includes the performance against a UCLA team that's been shredded by BYU and Arizona for a combined 90 points.
Auburn has only lost once, and even that was in a close game against the defending National Champions. However, the Tigers defense and special teams have been opportunistic, scoring three touchdowns.
Take those away from the totals, and the Tigers offense is only slightly ahead of Tennessee, averaging only 16 points per game. That includes the brutal 3-2 win over Mississippi State. The yardage has been better, at 355 per game.
But it's not what either of us wanted.
Now the two paths cross on Saturday afternoon, and honestly, I have no idea what to expect.
But I know it's a tremendously important Saturday for both teams.
A solid Auburn defense gave up 178 yards rushing to LSU last week, giving Vol fans some hope. But for Tennessee, there's no solid evidence that this offense can move with consistency and efficiency.
For Auburn, even with slightly better efficiency, the presence of Chris Todd and Kodi Burns leads to the always frustrating quarterback controversy.
Chris Todd has been the trigger man for the last three weeks, though many of his completions have been dumps to the backs and tight ends. But in talking with Jay Skipworth at Gridiron Breakdown, I get the sense that Auburn's quarterback situation is still a large point of contention among the fanbase, even though Kodi Burns hasn't taken a snap in the last two games.
When things aren't going well, a dual-quarterback system or a quarterback controversy is an absolute nightmare. No matter who is ultimately responsible, the minds of fans and media will always immediately jump to "the other guy should be playing!" in the face of turmoil.
Tennessee learned this lesson in 2005 with Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, Virginia Tech is learning it right now, and Auburn will find themselves in a tough situation if the offensive inefficiency and losses continue.
More from Jay on the Auburn offense:
Having seen this offense installed at Troy, I know it works when you have the right personnel. And right now, Auburn is trying to run an up-tempo offense with a bunch of converted power players. Chris Todd has the intellect of the offense down; he's like a coach in what he knows about it....
I fear Auburn is feeling such a push from the competition (particularly that in the state) that they may not be patient enough to get it in place. I know the fanbase is running out of patience. And in spite of his ardent support, we all wonder when or if Tuberville will run out of patience for it as well.
One thing I like about Franklin is how he's blunt and direct. When the Auburn offense isn't playing well, he says so. There's no hidden coachspeak or generalities. He says the things the fans are thinking, and for that I like him.
There's precedent for a team winning with a new system and old players—the Gators did it two years ago. And it's only September, with plenty of time still for success in 2008.
Which is why Saturday is so important for both teams.
No matter how it looks, one team is going to win and one is going to lose. For the winner, the season still carries hope and the team is still relevant. No matter how many yards are gained, it's another week for that offensive system to gain its footing.
For the loser, you're unranked and suddenly unimportant in the SEC picture. And especially if that offense continues to struggle, even against what are probably good defenses on both sides, it's another huge step backwards.
If Auburn needs patience, losing to Tennessee won't provide it. If Tennessee needs more rhythm and consistency, a 1-3 start will bring the biggest difference between the two to further light.
Franklin might be disliked by some, but Tommy Tuberville is safe.
Dave Clawson might be disliked by some, but Phillip Fulmer will be the target.
The winner Saturday gets another week for their new offensive system to gain strength, and for Franklin or Clawson to prove that their systems are better than the shockingly low numbers they've produced thus far. Expectations were too high and the on-field result is too low on both sides right now.
The winner on Saturday gets to take a big step in the right direction, both for their season and their offense. The loser takes a backseat ride through the rest of the SEC race and is nationally irrelevant.
Both teams desperately need this win—and for Dave Clawson and Tony Franklin, one man's offense will earn a week's reprieve, while the other's goes further into the depths of fan frustration and football irrelevancy.