No. 7 Auburn at Tennessee
Saturday, noon ET
Neyland Stadium (102,455) . Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (106.5 FM Chattanooga)
Series Record: Auburn leads 27-21-3
Why Saturday is important
The gauntlet known as Tennessee’s 2013 schedule continues with another top-10 team. This week it’s Auburn, a team that won just three total games in 2012, but has stormed back to the near the top of the SEC in coach Gus Malzahn’s first season as head coach on The Plains. For Tennessee, the season’s objectve is now simplified. Win two of the last three and the Vols return to the postseason for the first time since 2010. Auburn, meanwhile, has much more at stake. The Tigers control their own destiny in the SEC and still have an outside shot at a national championship run.
Three things to know about Auburn
. Though based out of the spread, Auburn’s offensive attack starts with the run game. The Tigers, who utilize three running backs regularly, are averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground so far in 2013. Junior Tre Mason is the most experienced back of the bunch. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Mason has 161 carries for 921 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.
. After fielding one of the worst defenses in school history last year, Auburn has improved in that area under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Auburn is just 11th in total defense in the conference, but, more importantly, the Tigers are third in the SEC in scoring defense. How do they do it? Sacks and turnovers have helped, but red zone defense is the biggest factor. The Tigers are second in the league in that category, only allowing opponents to cash in on 70-percent of their trips inside the 20.
. Some quarterbacks might be described as being quick as a defensive back, but Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall literally is. A former DB at Georgia, Marshall has rejuvenated his career as a scrambling quarterback for the Tigers after a stint in junior college. He’s better known as a runner, but he can throw as well. He’s gone over 220 yards in the air three times this season with seven touchdowns to four interceptions. Tennessee has been using walk-on defensive back Michael Williams to simulate Marshall’s speed in practice this week.
What you should know about Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
A high school coaching legend in the state of Arkansas, Malzahn got his college coaching break in 2006 when the Razorbacks hired him as their offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach. . After one season there he moved on to Tulsa for a two-year stint as the offensive coordinator/assistant head coach. . His offenses were among the best in the nation there, leading to another chance as an SEC offensive coordinator – this time at Auburn. . Malzahn’s offenses put up huge numbers at Auburn as well and, with a lot of help from Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, the Tigers won the national championship in 2010. . Malzahn became the head coach Arkansas State in 2012. Without his guidance on offense, the Tigers struggled to a three-win campaign that ultimately cost head coach Gene Chizik his job. . The Tigers brought Malzahn back, this time as the head coach, and Auburn is off to an 8-1 start. . Known as one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football, Malzahn uses a variety of formations and misdirection plays as part of his power-spread attack.
Tennessee players to watch
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs will get most of the attention, but the true freshman needs more help from his supporting cast. That includes his backs, receivers and especially the offensive line. The Vols need a better effort from the front five and the tight end if they are to have any chance on Saturday. Coach Butch Jones has been pushing that unit hard in practice all week after it gave up two sacks and failed to lead the rushing attack to 100 yards at Missouri.
Auburn player to watch
With most of the attention on the offense, defensive end Dee Ford is a name to watch on the other side of the ball. Ford has recorded at least one sack in each of the last five games. His two sacks on the final drive at Texas A&M helped the Tigers pull off one of the biggest upsets of the year against the Aggies. Scouts will be paying attention to how he matches up against Tennessee’s NFL-bound offensive tackle duo of Tiny Richardson and Ja’Wuan James.
Random facts to impress your friends
Auburn is on a five-game win streak in the series with UT’s last win coming in 1999. . The Vols haven’t defeated a team in the top 10 of the AP poll since knocking off Georgia in 2006. . Auburn is the seventh ranked team UT has played this year – a school record for the regular season. . Tennessee is the first team since Pitt in 1993 to play seven ranked teams in eight games. . Auburn is the third straight top-10 team Tennessee has faced, the first time since 1964 that UT has faced such a three-game stretch. . Malzahn was the offensive coordinator for Auburn the last time these teams met. The Tigers knocked off UT 26-22 in that 2009 contest. . Two UT assistants, Tommy Thigpen and Willie Martinez, are former Auburn assistants.
“They have so many different packages. You look at it and again, they can throw it out there. They can just hand the ball off. They can do it on the run. They can do it from the formation. They can do it anywhere they want to. [Malzahn] is very creative. If they see something one week and you didn’t fix it, you’re going to see it again.”
– Tennessee linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen, who worked with Malzahn at Auburn from 2009-11
The Vols will win if …
They limit Auburn’s run game, force Marshall to beat them through the air and get some stops via turnover. Tennessee will likely need at least four touchdowns to have a shot in this one and it would be a bonus if one came from the defense or special teams.
The Vols will lose if …
They aren’t more physical on both side of the ball. They must protect Dobbs better and get some disruptive plays from the defensive line. If those things don’t happen, the Vols could be in for a long day and an extended losing streak to the Tigers.
Unofficial UT injury report:
Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, LB Curt Maggitt, WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Maurice Couch (ineligible)
Probable: DT Trevarris Saulsberry,QB Riley Ferguson, QB Nathan Peterman, WR Pig Howard, G Alex Bullard, TE Brendan Downs
Auburn 38, Tennessee 21
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga