Can Tennessee and Auburn Turn Things Around This Season?

Douglas WebbCorrespondent IAugust 14, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 2:  Cedric Houston #21 of the Tennessee Volunteers is swarmed by the Auburn Tigers defense at Neyland Stadium on October 2, 2004 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen."

The phrase originally came from the Bible. It's used mostly these days to refer to companies or sports franchises that have fallen on hard times.

The Auburn Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers programs have grown accustomed to battling for their respective conference titles. Both teams had seen signs of decline or inconsistent play the last couple years.

Neither fanbase was expecting the season that hit them in 2008, though.

Both teams finished 5-7 and saw their longtime head coaches fired.

The hires both teams made were widely questioned inside and outside their respective fanbases.

Gene Chizik at Auburn was coming off a 5-19 coaching record. He had also suffered through a 10-game losing streak to end his final season at Iowa State.

Lane Kiffin was hired at Tennessee fresh off of being fired by the Oakland Raiders. Kiffin had gone 5-15 in parts of two seasons with the Raiders.

The fanbases quickly rebounded and rallied around their respective coaches. At that point you really have no other choice but to support them. To do otherwise would hurt recruiting, alumni donations, and season ticket sales. Those are three things no program can do without.

Tennessee appears to have been left in much better condition overall as a program. While they do have a few depth issues that need to be addressed, they are overall in good shape.

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Auburn, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Tommy Tuberville, known as a solid recruiter, dropped the ball his last three seasons on the plains. He seemed to lose one-third of every class his last three years. The losses came from injuries, academics, and dismissals.

They opened this year's camp with only 71 scholarship players. The linebacker spot is one injury away from disaster. The receiver position has more numbers but no experience behind the starters. One starting receiver going down with an injury could totally disrupt their entire passing game.

Chris Todd was chosen as the starter. He was not a fan favorite to get the job. Gus Malzahn apparently liked his performance this fall as well as his experience. His arm strength is said to have improved during his recovery.

Tennessee has also had quarterbacking issues. They only have three quarterbacks on scholarship. Nick Stephens and Jonathan Crompton both struggled last season. Nick Lamaison joined the team this fall from junior college. Injuries at the quarterback position could be a killer for the Vols.

Both fanbases expect their programs to win now, though neither team is expected to challenge for a title this season.

The Volunteers should have a solid defense. Their secondary will be anchored by Eric Berry. Berry is probably the finest safety in the country. They will need to find someone to complement him at free safety.

Their linebackers should be solid if they can find a starter at middle linebacker. Their defensive line could be a problem with the loss of Robert Ayers and Demonte Bolden. They must find adequate replacements if they hope to be able to stop opposing running games.

They need a quarterback that can step up and manage their offense while avoiding turnovers. He doesn't have to throw for big yardage for the offense to work.

They have very good talent at running back. They need their line to be able to open running lanes. Their running backs will take care of the rest.

Auburn also has a group of strong tailbacks. The Tigers' starting line must open holes while staying healthy. They cannot afford to lose either Lee Ziemba or Ryan Pugh to injury.

Malzahn is known for having a big passing game. If he deviates too far towards the passing game, Auburn will likely struggle. Their running backs are the strength of their offense, and they should play to that strength.

Auburn's defense has issues. They have solid defensive ends, but their interior linemen are average. Their starting linebackers will be fine if healthy. They have absolutely no depth behind the starters. Any injuries at linebacker and the Tigers defense is in trouble.

Auburn's secondary is overall the strength of their defense. Their front seven must be able to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If they don't, good corners will be made to look very average.

The Tigers could see another 5-7 season or worse this year if things go badly. If they don't have injury issues, they could go 7-5 and reach a bowl game.

If the Tigers can get to a bowl game this year, Chizik will have done a very good job of coaching. There are just too many questions facing this team to expect much more.

The Volunteers could reach 8-4 this year. To do so, they will have to avoid injuries in key positions. They must also have a good year in turnover ratio.

Injuries at quarterback or on their offensive line could be disastrous. If that happens, they may only win five or six games.

If they stay healthy, only poor coaching can keep them from reaching a bowl game.

Both fanbases will need to be patient this season. Neither team is likely to have a huge turnaround. They will need at least another recruiting class under their belts before that will happen. Another year under their respective systems will help as well.

It took longer than one season for these two programs to reach the situation they're in.

It will likely take more than one to get out of it.

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