By Eddie McCoy
The (4-0) Auburn Tigers will travel to Knoxville this weekend to face the (2-2) Tennessee Volunteers led by 1st year Head Coach Lane Kiffin. This marks the first time a Gene Chizik led Auburn squad don the white jerseys in their first road game of the season. The Vols have already been dealt two hurtful blows in their losses to UCLA at home and to Florida at the Swamp. This game is a make or break type game for Tennessee, so expect them to take their best shot in front of a home crowd that is looking for something good to happen. Let’s take a closer look at Tennessee’s Offense, Defense & Special Teams:
The Volunteer offense is led by Sr Quarterback Jonathan Crompton who is off to a shaky start at best. Crompton has completed 58% of his passes for only 625 yards and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 7 to 8 that has Rocky Top screaming for his head on the talk shows on a regular basis. The Volunteer offense as a whole has found success on the ground by averaging almost 200 yards per game and is statistically the 31st best rushing team in the country while they are near the worst at passing the ball by only averaging 171 yards per game that gives them a dead middle ranking of 60th out of 120 teams in total offense. In the two losses this season, the Volunteers have only averaged 116 yards rushing so that is an area of concern that this Volunteer squad will be looking to improve on. The biggest threat in the rushing attack is Sr Tailback Montario Hardesty who is averaging just over 121 yards a game that is good for best in the SEC and 8th best in the country. Hardesty is not the only back that can give defenders fits for there is also True Freshman phenom Bryce Brown who averages just over 50 yards a game in a more limited role. The wide receiving corps has taken some blows that started off this summer by losing starter Austin Rodgers due to an ACL injury, while Gerald Jones was sidelined with a high ankle sprain but is back and the Vols most recent loss in the team leader in catches, Quintin Hancock due to a broken jaw in the Florida game. The rest of the WR’s with the exception of Gerald Jones, whom some still say is not completely healthy, are pretty green in playing time and trying to pick up the pace and become viable targets for Crompton. The offensive line is a little more stable by returning three starters from last season. Against Ohio, the Volunteers unveiled an additional wrinkle to the playbook when they lined up in the wildcat formation with true freshman Nu’Keese Richardson at the wildcat quarterback. I look for Tennessee to try to establish the run against an Auburn defense that has allowed a sub-par 154 yards on the ground in order to keep the high octane Auburn offense on the sidelines and wear out the thin Tigers defensive front. If the Vols can establish the run, you can expect them to run safe play action passes and plenty of screens. Bryce Brown is the second leading receiver on the team, so look for them to try to hit him up on the wheel route also.
The Volunteer Defense is led by All-American Eric Berry who is one of the best players in college football and Tampa-2 guru defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin of NFL fame and father of head coach Lane Kiffen. The Tennessee Defense is stout as it is ranked 15th in rushing defense, allowing 87 yards per game, 30th in passing defense, allowing 103 yards and 8th in total defense. The Vols did suffer a crushing blow when middle linebacker Nick Reveiz suffered a season ending knee injury against Ohio last week. Reveiz was considered by teammates to be the emotional leader, coach on the field and quarterback of that defense and the Volunteers also lost his backup Herman Lathers when he suffered a concussion the same game and is expected to miss this game. They are currently looking at playing a true freshman or moving over a backup weakside linebacker to take Reveiz spot. With all that said, the defensive front for Tennessee has been solid with Defense End Chris Walker leading the way with four sacks. The secondary is one of the best in the nation led by Safety Eric Berry, but not to be overshadowed is Dennis Rogan who has held up his side of the field pretty well. The corners are more inexperienced than the safeties, but those safeties are intimidating and take some pressure off of the young corners. The matchup of the game is going to be the chess match played between Monte Kiffin and Gus Malzahn. I look for Kiffin to try and slow down the Auburn run by bringing pressure but at the same time trying to keep it disguised. If / when he forces Auburn into passing situation, he will turn his defensive front loose, and try to disguise his coverage and hope to force Chris Todd into a costly mistake. This chess match will be very interesting to watch and it will ultimately determine the outcome of the game.
Tennessee has struggled in this area. The Vols allowed a 95 yard kickoff return against Ohio and opponents in general are averaging 27 yards a kickoff return and a healthy 9 yards on punt returns. The punter, Chris Cunningham is averaging just over 40 yards a punt and place kicker Daniel Lincoln is 6 of 7 on field goals with a long of 49. The punt return game for the Volunteers is fairing a little better due to Nu’Keese Richardson averaging just over 10 yards a kick and he is currently 2nd in the SEC while the kickoff returns are primarily handled by David Oku who is just averaging almost 19 yards a return. Tennessee is looking for improvement in this area and will look to take advantage of consistent Auburn kicking game miscues to do so.
KEYS TO THE GAME
· Sounds simple, but eliminate turnovers, especially in the kicking game.
· Run the ball successfully to relieve pressure off of Chris Todd and not forcing him to throw in bad situations.
· Most importantly to me is that the tempo of the offense needs to pickup. I think that it has been too slow the last two games and I look for that to change.
· On Defense, Auburn has to force Crompton to make plays. If it can do that, it could be a long night for the Volunteers.