War Eagle, everybody! Time now for another in the series of previews of 2009 Auburn football opponents. On October 3rd, Auburn travels to Knoxville Tennessee, under the light of a nearly full moon, to play the Tennessee Volunteers, in both squads’ 5th game of the season. There are many similarities in the two teams, leading up to this game. Both have hired new coaches after disappointing years. Both will have played a national power by this time, and likely will have at least one loss. Auburn will likely fall to West Virginia at home, and Tennessee will likely lose to Florida in Gainesville. Both schools get a “breather” game, afterward, Auburn against Ball State, and Tennessee against Ohio. Both schools return fairly salty defenses, and both were miserable on offense. Both schools have been publicized for secondary NCAA violations, during the past off-season.
On defense, Auburn and Tennessee face a bit of a learning curve, as both teams are switching to what amounts to a Tampa-2 style of defense. Auburn has been running parts of the defense since head coach Gene Chizik’s tenure as Auburn defensive coordinator from 2002-2004. Tennessee faces a steeper curve, after basically running a 3-deep zone under former coordinator John Chavis. One of the inventors of the Tampa-2, Monte Kiffin, is now the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and will likely do well in Knoxville. It may take Kiffin time, though, as he only returns 5 starters on defense, and 17 lettermen on that side of the ball. The unquestioned star of the returnees, of course, is junior all-everything safety Eric Berry. It will be important for Auburn offensive personnel to know where this dangerous man is, at all times!
A familiar face takes over the Vol special teams, former Auburn assistant coach Eddie Gran. The Vols have some weapons returning, including record-setting return men Dennis Rogan and Gerald Jones. Less certain are things beyond returners. The Vols return an average kick coverage unit, a suspect punt coverage group, and inconsistent kicking/punting.
Offensively, both teams were abysmal, last season, although Tennessee showed improvement down the stretch, while Auburn seemed to get worse all year. While Lane Kiffin and John Chaney favor a West Coast-style attack, it’s not NEARLY as complicated as what Dave Clawson brought in a year ago, and one would expect the Vols to be a little bet better at executing it. Both squads had underachieving receiver corps, and suffered more via graduation. Outsiders are asking if either school has an SEC-worthy quarterback. By game five for both teams, the matchup will be an interesting comparison between Kiffen/Chaney and Auburn’s Gus Malzhan. Who will have a consistent offense up and running, by mid-season?
It’s worth noting that Neyland Stadium is a tremendous home environment for the Vols, and an intimidating one for opponents. Auburn will need some early success, to silence the Tennessee faithful, or else things could snowball.
Auburn defensive line vs. UT offensive line: The Auburn line basically had their way with Tennessee, last fall, but the focal point, SenDerrick Marks, is gone. The Vols lose two starters from a year ago, and one of them was the solid Anthony Parker. Senior center Josh McNeil is a three-year starter, and senior left tackle Chris Scott should anchor the Vol line. Beyond those two, however, the Vols will be looking for answers against a shifting, speedy Auburn front. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. UT backs: Auburn’s apparent strength a year ago, has become its weakness. Only two Tigers return that can be considered salty veterans, juniors Craig Stevens, and Josh Bynes. Neither distinguished themselves a year ago, and the likely third starter is JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman. Tennessee loses a threat in Arian Foster, but senior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Tauren Poole are capable. The Vols also bring in some freshmen threats, including David Oku. At fullback, the junior Kevin Cooper is a bruiser. Advantage: UT.
Auburn corners vs. UT receivers: The big news out of Auburn this week was the Achilles injury to senior corner Aaron Savage. He will be missed. However, the Tigers have a pair of capable starters, senior Walter McFadden and sophomore Neiko Thorpe, as well as a bit of young depth. Tennessee is looking for depth at receiver, as only junior Gerald Jones and senior Austin Rogers return with more than 10 catches. The Vols are looking for help from senior Quentin Hancock, who had no catches a year ago, but snagged 8 balls in the spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. UT secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s veteran safeties Zach Etheridge and Mike McNeil should be full-strength by October. Tennessee returns good tight ends, but questions at quarterback. The Vols have about a half-dozen good tight ends, with varying degrees of blocking, and possession-receiving capabilities. The leader is junior Luke Stocker, who is a decent blocker, and a better receiver. At quarterback, senior Jonathan Crompton and junior Nick Stephens return. Prior to this summer, B. J. Coleman was in the mix, too, running at the second position. Coleman has since left the team, with much vitriol towards the Kiffin staff. Neither Crompton nor Stephens was terribly effective a year ago, and it will be up to quarterbacks coach David Reaves to put a capable starter on the field. Reaves has been the QB coach through the past few seasons’ carousel at South Carolina, so take that for what it’s worth. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn returns a good one in Clinton Durst, with a 42.1 yard average, and a coverage unit that gave up 7.0 yards per return. Gerald Jones averaged 10.0 yards per return, for the Vols. The Vols return junior Chad Cunningham, who started the first five games of 2008. Cunningham was inconsistent, and averaged a pedestrian 39.5 yards per punt. In coverage, the Vols were shaky, giving up a whopping 12.6 yards per return. While Auburn is not settled at the return position, one has to figure that it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn’s Wes Byrum won the job with a steady performance in spring drills, averaging over 65 yards. Chad Cunningham barely managed 60 yards a kickoff, a year ago. Auburn’s coverage gave up 21.5 yards per return, Tennessee’s 21.0. Tennessee’s return men are very good, Dennis Rogan averaged 24.9 yards per return a year ago. Auburn’s most experienced return guy is junior Mario Fannin, who averaged 22.5 yards per return. Slight Advantage: Auburn, mostly on leg strength.
Placekicking: It’s a tale of two placekickers who are eerily similar. Both Auburn’s Wes Byrum, and Tennessee’s Daniel Lincoln burst onto the scene hitting nearly all their kicks, and earning freshman accolades. Byrum hit only 11-19 as a sophomore, but has held off all challengers this spring. Daniel Lincoln hit 10-18 as a sophomore last year. Lincoln’s inconsistencies have continued this spring; he missed a 30-yarder in the spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. UT defensive line: Auburn performed dismally at year ago against the Vols, being unable to open many holes against a 4 man front with the linebackers dropped back ten yards. Auburn returns a veteran crew led by junior Lee Ziemba, and by all accounts, they are bigger and stronger than a year ago. Stout senior tackle Dan Williams returns for the Vols, but they are combing the depth chart for help beyond that. 257-pound end Wes Brown moved inside to tackle, to help out. Don’t cry too much for the Vols, though because there is plenty of talent, it’s just a matter of fitting it all together well. 312-pound redshirt freshman Montori Hughes was said to be unblockable this spring, for instance. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. UT linebackers: One has to like Auburn’s combination of power and speed returning at tailback, including senior Ben Tate. Less impressive are the lead blockers, led by Mario Fannin and John Douglas. Tennessee loses two starters at linebacker, but second-team All-SEC senior Rico McCoy returns. Tennessee does have talent, but it is young at linebacker. The big worry for the Vols will be chasing speedy Auburn backs and slot receivers, with starters like junior Nick Reveiz, who aren’t terribly fast. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. UT corners: Auburn’s underachieving unit from a year ago gets even younger, this season. Strides were made in spring drills, and help is on the way from stellar signee DeAngelo Benton. For the Vols, juniors Brent Vinson and Dennis Rogan are solid, speedy, and experienced. Advantage: UT.
Auburn secondary receivers and QB vs. UT safeties: Auburn was shaky a year ago at both spots, and didn’t get many answers out of spring drills. Senior tight end Tommy Trott should be solid, and junior Mario Fannin showed flashes in the slot, but quarterback play in the spring was as spotty as ever. Tennessee headlines their media guide with junior free safety Eric Berry, who might be the best player, period, in the SEC. The Vols will be green at strong safety, which brings a ray of hope. Advantage: UT.
Auburn appears to be more settled in most positions, and appears to have a particular advantage along the defensive front. It could also be argued that Auburn will have less of a learning curve on both sides of the ball. Neither team is terribly deep, and injuries by game five could wreak havoc at spots, on either team. Tennessee is at home, which will count for a lot. Auburn’s offensive scheme, however, seems like a perfect scenario to hound a Vol front seven suspect on speed. Both teams’ fortunes will hinge on the signal caller’s ability. Can either team find a capable quarterback?
Prediction: Auburn makes fewer mistakes than the Vols, and Gene Chizik pulls out his first “quality” SEC win, 17-16 in Knoxville!