By Acid Reign
Hard on the heels of a collision with LSU, Auburn will play host to the Tennessee Vols, on September 27. The Vols will have been already tested, having played at revamped UCLA, a tuneup against UAB at home, then they host the Florida Gators, before traveling to the Plains. Tennessee could be flying high at 3-0, or they could be as low as 1-2, depending on the development of a new offense, and a rebuilt front seven. This game should command a prime TV slot, regardless. The only other major game that day, is Alabama at Georgia. Expect either a CBS or ESPN prime time appearance.
It’s a dangerous game for the Tigers, who will be coming off a physical, emotional game with LSU. In the past four seasons, Auburn has struggled the week after the LSU game. In 2004, we piddled around with the Citadel, fumbling the ball away twice in the first half. The 2005 hangover was a lackluster 27-3 win over Ole Miss. In 2006, we struggled in the first half with Buffalo, scoring only 10 on the Bulls. Ole Miss took us to the wire in 2007, and the game was only over when Rod Smith broke away with a slant in the final moments.
As with Auburn’s previous opponents, there are new coaches on the staff. Long-time Vol David Cutcliffe took the Duke head-coaching job at the end of last season, and took two Tennessee assistants with him. UT head coach Phillip Fulmer looked to the NCAA Championship Subdivision (I-AA) semi-finals for his replacements. New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson comes in from a head-coaching stint at Richmond, where he compiled an 11-3 record, and a loss to Appalachian State in the semi-finals. It was the best year in Richmond Spider history. Clawson is loosely categorized as a West Coast Offense guy, but much like Bobby Petrino, one really can’t pin a single style on him. Auburn will face a diverse attack.
Unlike the past few years, Tennessee has mobile quarterbacks to work with, which certainly pleases Dave Clawson. While he’s apparently installed such radical features as a “G-Gun” spread offensive package, it’s likely that Tennessee will still feature a lot of “two-back and a tight end” formations. Given the fact that there are new quarterbacks, and that tailback Arian Foster is one of the best in the league, the Vols will rely heavily on the run again, this year.
Clawson and Fulmer brought Richmond wide receivers coach Latrell Scott in to coach the UT receivers. And in a bit of a coup, Fulmer snared former Florida running backs coach, Stan Drayton. At the end of last season, Drayton resigned from the Florida staff, believing that running backs had largely been eliminated from the Florida offense. Drayton has previously coached such backs as Jerious Norwood, and Brian Westbrook.
On defense, coordinator John Chavis brings a strong, fast group to the table, this fall. At the beginning of last season, UT suffered mightily in the defensive backfield, as young players developed. This group was shredded early by teams like California and Florida, but finished the season shutting down LSU and Wisconsin. For the first time in years, UT has depth in the secondary. The line features two return starters at tackle, who should be good ones (junior Dan Williams, and senior Demonte’ Bolden), but has two new defensive end starters. The ends are quick, but can they stop the run? The loss of Jerod Mayo leaves a huge hole in the linebacker corps, but junior Rico McCoy looks like he could be a star.
On special teams, UT suffered a serious loss when senior Britton Colquitt was suspended for the first five games on a DUI incident. Sophomore replacement Chad Cunningham kicked well in UT’s spring game. The Vols return a solid kicker, Daniel Lincoln, and they have speed to burn on their return teams.
Auburn defensive line vs. UT offensive line: Auburn fields a dangerous, mostly experienced line with a lot of speed. Most of the Vol offensive line is back, this year, after allowing only 4 sacks all last year, the best in the NCAA. This is a dynamite pass-protection unit, but there are questions about their run-blocking ability. The Vols have had to move some folks around due to injury, most notably to junior center Josh McNeil. Some say that the moves have affected consistency. One key matchup will be between junior left tackle Chris Scott, and Auburn’s speedy ends Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter. If Auburn is to get a pass-rush on the Vols without blitzing, it will start here. Also, SenDerrick Marks must hold his own against mammoth junior guard Jacques McClendon. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. UT backs: Auburn is deep, talented and fast at linebacker, and will play a lot of them. Vol stalwart senior Arian Foster returns, and he looks a step faster, this spring. Behind Foster, sophomore Lennon Creer looks solid, and freshman Tauren Poole looks like a future star. The Vols were looking for big things out of junior Montario Hardesty, but he’s again in the shop with a leg injury. UT features a massive, 250-pound, senior fullback in David Holbert, but Cutcliffe’s offense a year ago was more wide-receiver/tight-end oriented. Given Auburn’s success in shutting down running backs a year ago, advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. UT receivers: Tennessee is very talented and fast at this position. Despite the loss of Lucas Taylor, the Vols will be deep. Sophomore Gerald Jones is an electric player who will be tough to stay with. Jones also plays QB in the “G-Gun” package. Junior Quentin Hancock is a tall, fluid player who’s played well this spring. Auburn counters with junior Jerraud Powers, and either Aaron Savage or Walter McFadden. Advantage: Tennessee.
Auburn safeties vs. UT secondary receivers and quarterback: Although the vols replace 4-year starter Erik Ainge this season, junior Jonathan Crompton is no green rookie. He has been a part-time starter for the past two seasons, when Ainge was hurt. Crompton has reportedly adapted well to the new Clawson system, and has had a better work ethic than in the past. If there’s a knock on Crompton at this point, it’s a tendency to gamble. Crompton brings mobility to the Tennessee pocket, something that’s been missing for quite a while. Sophomore Nick Stevens and redshirt freshman B. J. Coleman got a lot of work, and are reportedly picking up the new offense well, but neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Tight ends Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker are experienced, but they have largely been used as blockers in the past, as have the Vol fullbacks. Redshift freshman slot receiver Ahmad Paige is a burner, at 6’1″ and 180 pounds. Auburn’s safeties are a pair of talented sophomores, Mike McNeil and Zack Etheridge. Advantage: Even.
Punting: The loss of Britton Colquitt could be huge for the Vols, if Auburn is able to rattle sophomore Chad Cunningham. Cunningham punted well in the Vol spring game, though. Auburn should be able to punt well, with 3 capable guys. Tennessee fields punts with sophomore Dennis Rogan, a 5’10″ speedster who averaged 9.7 yards per return a year ago, after taking over the job late in the season. Auburn gave up only 6.5 yards per return. Auburn will field punts with veteran senior Robert Dunn, who averaged 9.4 yards per return. UT gave up 10.3 yards per return, with two touchdowns. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Last season, Tennessee used its punters on kickoffs, splitting duty between Britton Colquit and Chad Cunningham. Auburn answers with Wes Byrum. The UT pair managed 4 touchbacks vs. 7 for Byrum, who was only the kickoff man part-time. Dennis Rogan will return kicks, this year, for the Vols, sporting a gaudy 29.5 yard per game average from a year ago. Auburn counters with Tristan Davis. Tennessee allowed 20.6 yards per return, Auburn allowed 21.2, on a unit that rapidly improved. Advantage: Even.
Placekicking: Auburn’s Wes Byrum hit 17 of 23 attempts, with a couple of game-winners. For UT, sophomore Daniel Lincoln hit 21 of 29 attempts. Advantage: Even.
Auburn defensive line vs. UT offensive line: Auburn returns a young, but veteran bunch with players on the Remmington watch list (Jason Bosley), and a potential All-American (Tyrone Green). UT will face Auburn’s interior stars with two stout tackles in senior Demonte’ Bolden and junior Dan Williams. While those two are capable, there appears to be little depth behind them, although senior Walter Fisher did improve towards the end of spring. Phillip Fulmer was noted for repeatedly citing backup tackles as underachievers, this spring. At end, UT should be faster, with some new starters, but there are questions about run-stopping ability. Sophomore Ben Martin was getting rave reviews last fall, before blowing out a knee. If he returns healthy in next fall, the Vol line could be dangerous. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. UT linebackers: Tennessee loses the SEC’s leading tackler in Jerod Mayo. Rico McCoy should be able to lock down the back side, but there are questions otherwise. UT is going with lighter, 215-225 pound guys that are largely untested. Particularly concerning is the strong side, where injuries have thinned depth. Against Auburn, the strong side backer will be asked to cover guys like Tommy Trott or backs out of the backfield, and thus far, it appears to be a glaring weakness. Auburn brings a variety of experienced, speedy, capable backs, although there is no lead blocker with experience. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. UT corners: Auburn made strides this spring in this area, but they face a battle-seasoned, talented set of UT defenders. Senior DeAngelo Willingham is a prototypical NFL corner, with size and speed. On the other side, 2007 starter Brent Vinson missed spring with shoulder surgery, but converted safety Dennis Rogan moved over and proved he could add quality depth. Advantage: UT
Auburn secondary receivers and QB vs. UT safeties: Auburn will start a pair of young quarterbacks in Kodi Burns and Chris Todd, but Auburn has some dangerous slot receivers, tight ends, and backs. UT has arguably the best safety tandem in the SEC, with sophomore Eric Berry and junior Demetrice Morley. Both Berry and Morley are versatile players, good at both coverage and hard-hitting tackles. And there is depth behind them. Advantage: UT
Auburn appears to be the slightly stronger, deeper team, and Auburn is at home, while UT has superior playmakers in their receiver corps. A key for Auburn will be keeping drives alive and wearing the Tennessee front seven down. A strong running/screen game will be a must. When Tennessee has the ball, Auburn must shut down Arian Foster, and pressure the QB. Auburn’s secondary will suffer if Crompton is allowed time to sit in the pocket and wait on his receivers to come open.
Prediction: Auburn successfully plays ball-control, while Tennessee survives on a few big plays. In the end, Auburn runs the clock out on a 24-21 win.