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It seems like forever since Auburn last played Tennessee. And last time they played, there was a lot on the line. How much has changed since 2005. The two programs have gone through tremendous changes and it seems that only Auburn is clearly headed in the right direction.
Despite the record, Tennessee has talent and there aren't many more intimidating places to play than at Neyland. They have already pulled off an impressive win at home against South Carolina and had Georgia beat, a fumble in overtime at the pylon losing the game for them against the Dogs.
As much as I would like to give them credit, I can't. Georgia was decimated with injuries entering the game and it only got worse during the contest. The South Carolina game was a much needed win for the Vols, but The Cocks are good for a boneheaded and flat game a year.
That isn't to say that I am entirely happy with the Auburn team that is on the road. Maybe I am being too hard on them, but the defense continued to look very suspect against the Hogs. The Hogs killed the Tigers on 3rd down. It didn't seem to matter what the down and distance was, they continually picked up the first down.
But, the defense came away with takeways and a critical 4th and goal stop. The offense looked terrific early, and Tre Mason looked unstoppable. The second half was frustrating to watch, though it was obvious that Coach Malzahn and Co just wanted to get out of Fayetteville with a win by running the clock.
We talked last week about the Hogs being a trap game. Could this be the not-so-fast double trap game leading into the two back to back rivalry games? It's easy to think so, especially considering where the game is being played. Will the Tiger's pat themselves on the back after first beating FAU, then going into Hogs den and getting a win only to forget the Vols?
Let's look at only the games that matter: SEC match ups.
The thing that jumps out the most is last week's game against Missouri. Mauk destroyed the Vols with his running and passing. The Vols gave up 340 rushing yards, 115 of those to the QB who also passed for 160 yards and 3 TDs. Alabama rolled up 45 points in an extremely balanced attack. Even in the win against USC, Mike Davis rushed for 140 yards while Connor Shad put up nearly 80. In their overtime loss to UGA, Murray ran for 40 yards while green rushed for 130, averaging 7.6 yard per carry. Looks to me like the Vols can't stop the run. And though a lot of TD passes are being slung on them, it's because of the room the run game is giving them. Seems like another great game to show maximum passing efficiency! I don't know if another 9 of 10 and 1 TD will keep me awake...but I will take it. I guess.
Guess what Auburn brings to the table? Perhaps the best rushing attack in college football. There is no doubt that Tre Mason has become the featured back, and will continue in that roll. Yet, though Marshall has compiled good rushing stats himself, we haven't quite seen him take on the roll we expected. In the past, we have seen the zone read be absolutely devastating in the red zone. But, we haven't quite seen the number of those plays where he was truly a threat to pull it in between the 20s. Don't get me wrong. He has pulled the ball on the read, especially when it mattered. Take the MSU game, for example. His long run broke the game winning drive wide open. We may see a little more of him pulling the ball this week as they prepare for the two ultimate tests in UGA and Alabama. Eh. I'd love to see what Marshall can really do with a high work load, but the Tennessee team, much like the Hogs, can't stop the run even when they know it's coming.
I foresee another 10 pass attempt game while riding the Tre Mason express. Tre Mason runs for 25 attempts, 150 yards and 3 total TDs. Marshall runs in 1. I think we will see Johnson a few more times than last week as his part in the offense expands. In fact, I can see him throwing for the 1 and only TD toss for the Tigers. My big question is, can Coates continue to break a game open with 1 target?
Worley isn't a very good QB. We all know that. The backup QB, especially when it's a young kid with some hype, is always the favorite player on the team. Unfortunately, Dobbs is young. He makes a lot of VERY young decisions, as can be seen by his TD to INT ratio of.....well, he has several INTs and no TDs. Additionally, there have been a lot of hay made about his ability to run. And yet, he had 45 yards in one game...33 from one play. That doesn't make him a running threat. But, it's the media and they have to hype up every game, I suppose. Personally, if UT relies on Dobbs to throw more than 15 times, I don't believe he will make it out of the game in one piece. That isn't to say I hope he doesn't, I am just stating that the Auburn D-Line has been very hard on QBs as of late. So, there you have it. If he drops back 15 times, or attempts more than 10 rushes...he won't make it out of the game.
On the other hand, Tennessee does have two very capable tailbacks in Neal and Lane. Neal has gotten the lion's share of carries this year. Additionally, he is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Although he doesn't have big time stats, he is the lone reason that the Vols have hung around in several games. He averages 5 yards per carry and has 9TDs. Additionally, he plays extremely well in front of his home crowd. Arkansas proved last week that the Tigers can have trouble with the run, especially against cutbacks, which Neal does very well. Most of the 3rd downs that the Hogs picked up were from either counters or against the grain cut backs. The MLB, usually Holland, was caught up in the flow and out of position. The weakside LBs had trouble making the tackles and the RBs were frequently in the 3rd level before being hit hard.
I believe Neal will find success in this game. I predict he finds the endzone twice and runs for 100 yards. If the Tigers don't improve against the misdirection rush as they showed last week, I could see Neal upping his long run of 53 yards this week. He will be the lone highlight of the day for the Vols. And, truth be told, if he finds running room, even the Freshman will be able to find holes to throw to. The last thing the Tiger's can do is give Dobbs the opportunity to make some easy completions to get in a rhythm. The Tiger secondary has shown the tendency to give a lot of underneath cushion. While it might prevent the long ball and allows the DBs to work better as run defenders, it does give an inexperienced QB the ability to make short completions. Additionally, it does a great job setting him up to throw as hard as he can down the field.
It's hard to be aggravated with the defense. They are doing well at limiting points. They are getting a lot of turnovers, at least compared to last years mark. But, the 3 and Outs are sorely lacking. You cannot put your boot on the throat of a team if you consistently can't get the 3 and Outs. And, you can't let SEC teams of any kind hang around. While the Arkansas game wasn't really close, it took a couple of late turnovers to make sure. Let's not discount what the Hogs were able to do...and that was move the ball consistently....even to the end. Really, until the late fumble, the game was still a contest.
I have a feeling that this will matter. One of the things that I believe will make or break Auburn down the stretch is the ability to swap fields with special teams. Auburn's punting game has been spot on. The return game has been a bit of a mystery in the last 5 years. The Auburn kickers have been pretty fantastic, but when they don't put kick offs out of the endzone, it seems that the Auburn coverage is surprised. They are giving up some big chunks. This would be a great game to showcase the return game. I know Mason and Grant are very valuable to the offense, but they are game breakers coming out of the endzone. Additionally, the punt return game must improve. I don't know who...but someone...needs to flip the field every once in awhile.
Auburn has not been penalized much. Offensively, they manage to get themselves way behind the chains sometimes and can rarely dig out. Defensively, they do very well. The Vols, on the other hand, are penalty prone. It is something that has been understated in their losses to Missouri and UGA. They cannot afford to give the Auburn defense a chance to come after them from behind the sticks. Additionally, they cannot allow the Auburn offense to have 1st or 2nd and short. That would be a quick way to get down by 2 scores.
Players to Watch
Kris Frost. We know what to expect with UT. They will be running the ball. A lot. And if they learned anything from the Hogs, it will be counters and cut backs at the weakside. I don't expect Holland to play past the 1st quarter. Can Frost get out of the bull rush and into position? Will he make plays in space? I predict he will. He is ready for a big game and this is the perfect storm. If he stays home and doesn't get sucked out of position a la Holland, he will be in a situation to stuff a lot of runs for minimal gains.
Robenson Therezie. Again. Much like Frost, Therezie will battle staying in position and making plays. Being at Star, he has the ability to read the play much more than Frost. Therezie made TD saving tackles last week in the 3rd level against the Hogs. UT stacks up very similar, except that Dobbs is no Allen, such as it is. I expect Therezie to be in the box a lot as a 3rd LB. He is also do for another turnover.
Tre Mason. This one is so obvious I don't even want to use the space. Big things from him, early at least. 160 yards on the ground. I am not convinced of this, but I could see his all purpose yards getting a big boost this week.
Sammy Coates. With a receiver corp that doesn't get a lot of targets, its awfully hard to single out a receiver as a Go To Guy. And yet the man has 640 yards and 5 TDs. He leads the nation in yards per catch. I can't remember anyone on any team where you could say that he breaks a game with only 1 catch. Yet, Coates can. Make 1 throw to him. Get 1 catch for 60 yards and a TD and break the game open. You simply can't pick against a guy like that.
I wouldn't be surprised to see UT take the ball in the first half and go up 7-0. They have a good enough line and very good running back. In a scripted series, they can move the ball effectively and score. But, it will be 21-7 at the half and 28-7 after the first possession of the 3rd quarter. Auburn can't put the Vols completely away, but when the battle of time of possession in the second half. They continue the streak of 35+ point games. The defense gives up yardage on the ground in the first half, but UT has to go to the air in the 2nd to stay in the game. Auburn piles up sacks and walks away with 2 INTs or 1 INT and a fumble recovery.