By Special Guest Columnist Ryan Grant
Ah, there is nothing quite like the week of a big time SEC home night game. This week brings the excitement of the first true Neyland experience for Kiffin and his Vols. This is a crucial game for Tennessee as they begin a two game home stand that will likely determine the direction of their season. Win both and Kiffin’s first season in Knoxville will almost assuredly be considered a success. Lose them both and it’s likely Tennessee will once again be home for Christmas. This is a prime time ESPN game and Kiffin will want to show that the close game in the swamp was no fluke. Kiffin understands greatly the difficulties in recruiting at UT and wants to sell to the nation that UT is a team on the rise and elite prospects around the country should come play for him.
Tennessee comes into the game with a stingy defense and an offense with some fundamental problems. Offensively I look for Tennessee to use a similar game plan on offense as they did against the Gators. They are going to try and run the ball, control the clock, and stay in manageable down and distances. Kiffin is by nature an aggressive play caller who wants to attack down the field but with the quarterback and receivers UT has its just not possible. In the passing game they are going to throw to the backs - Bryce Brown in particular is a very good receiver- and tightends. They will also use rollouts to get Crompton out of the pocket, where he is most comfortable, and give him only half of the field to read. They will use play action to look for the big play 3 or 4 times a half as they know they can’t consistently drive the ball down the field against an SEC defense. If UT ends up with a lot of 3rd and longs you can look for the Auburn secondary to end up with at least 3 INTs and a long night for the Tennessee offense. The key for Tennessee on this side of the ball is Crompton and the UT passing game. If they can hit a few plays and not commit the costly turnovers that have plagued them in the past I think Tennessee comes away with the W. As it stands I look for Tennessee to have some success running the ball but continuing to struggle with the passing game. Without some help from the defense or special teams I’m just not sure UT can score more than 20 points.
Defensively Tennessee will no doubt try to limit Auburn’s run game and force Todd to beat them. In their last game with Ohio, Tennessee lost MLB Nick Reveiz to a knee injury. Reveiz was UT’s coach on the field and outside of Berry maybe their most indispensable player. It will be interesting to see how Monte handles the loss as Savion Frazier moves inside and looks like the starter for Saturday. If Monte holds true to form, expect Eric Berry, to spend most of his time near the line of scrimmage as a nickel back or fourth LB. Monte has used Berry there most of the season to great effect, but with Reveiz’s injury I expect to see him there even more. While this new role has allowed Berry to lead the team in tackles his INT numbers are down (1 INT) as he is not playing center field as much this season. That role has fallen to True Freshman Janzen Jackson. Jackson looks to be a star in the making, and he’s proven he’s not afraid of contact as Brandon James can attest. He also graded out higher than Berry after the Florida game which is no easy feat, but he’s still a freshman. Going up against a Malzhan offense will be as much a mental test as a physical one. The front seven for UT is light on depth and experience especially at LB but has so far proven to be capable of handling everything that’s been thrown at them other than Tim Tebow. I look for that to continue for the most part against Auburn but I do worry with UT’s inexperience at LB and the loss of Reveiz that Auburn will be able to confuse them and hit some big plays. This is where Monte will earn his money as he will hopefully have them ready to play. I think he will try to simplify his game plan in order to minimize mistakes and let his defense use their athletic ability. I think a healthier Tennessee defense responds after a subpar effort against Ohio but the loss of Reveiz leads to a few busts that Auburn will turn into big plays. Still I think the UT defense holds Auburn to its lowest point total this year.
As for the outcome of the game, I look for it to go back and forth late into the 4th quarter. I see both teams having some success running the ball, Auburn with a few big runs and UT grinding out some 10-15 play drives with both defenses holding each other to field goals. I think special teams kind of cancel each other out and the game will come down to turnovers. Having said that, I’m going with the team that doesn’t have Jon Crompton as its quarterback. I’m taking Auburn 26-20. Until Crompton plays well against an SEC team I just can’t see any way he doesn’t throw at least 2 picks that are the difference in the game.