Auburn at Tennessee
When: Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013; Time TBD
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Auburn at a glance:
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (1st year as head coach at Auburn)
All-time record: 732-414-47
2012 record:3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Returning starters:6 (offense) 9 (defense)
2012 overview:Just two seasons after reaching the pinnacle of college football with a national title, the wheels fell completely off on The Plains.
After showing some fight early in the season, such as a 12-10 loss to LSU, the Tigers failed to compete against SEC powers, falling by a combined score of 150-21 in the final three SEC games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
An ineffective defense, combined with an offense that couldn’t find a quarterback, led to a disastrous 0-8 campaign in the SEC. The season could’ve been even worse if not for an ugly 31-28 overtime win over Louisiana-Monroe in Week 3.
NCAA issues and an off-the-field tragedy piled on to perhaps the worst year in Auburn football history. The Tigers cleaned house after the season, firing head coach Gene Chizik and his staff, but they chose to return to recent history by hiring former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who led the offense during its national championship season in 2010 and who since took over as head coach at Arkansas State after the 2011 season.
His job will be to improve an offense that finished last in the SEC in total yardage and a defense that was second from the bottom in total defense.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Which team can find stability at quarterback?
Both teams enter 2013 with a quarterback competition and both will hope a clear-cut starter has emerged by this point in the season. The Tigers shuffled three QBs last year – Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace and Clint Moseley – with very little success. Frazier and Wallace return and will compete with three incoming options.
UT is in a similar situation with Justin Worley returning with some experience and competing with three who haven’t played – Nathan Peterman, Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. The team that gets the most out of this position could have the upper hand in this one.
2. Which defense can bounce back from 2012?
UT and Auburn finished near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every major statistical category defensively in 2012. Both have new coaching staffs and return a majority of their players on that side of the ball. Auburn will miss defensive end Corey Lemonier and linebacker Daren Bates, but the Tigers have recruited well and have several talented options such as defensive tackle Gabe Wright, defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Joshua Holsey to help turn the unit around.
Led by defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, linebacker A.J. Johnson and safety Brian Randolph, UT also is looking for a resurgence on D. Neither team will likely field a dominating unit, but there’s hope for both sides to improve.
3. Which team controls the tempo?
Malzahn likes to go fast. So does Butch Jones. Both teams will look to impose their up-tempo style on the other, meaning there could be a lot of snaps and perhaps a lot of scoring in this one. When done correctly, the up-tempo, no-huddle attack can be a great weapon, but with both sides still in Year 1 of the new system, there can be plenty of kinks. Slight advantage to Auburn here since many of the Tigers played under Malzahn in 2010 and 2011.
How will it play out?
On paper, UT should be the slight early favorite, but with both of these programs bringing in new staffs and many new players set to play prominent roles, it’s hard to make too many definitive statements on this one.
Auburn does have recent history on its side. The Tigers have won five straight in this series, including a 26-22 victory in Neyland in 2009 with Malzahn calling the plays.
But unless the Tigers find an upgrade at quarterback and make huge strides on D, it seems the Vols should have at least a decent shot at ending Auburn’s run in this series.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga