Pregame analysis of Auburn's home game against Tennessee:
What: Tennessee Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) at Auburn Tigers (4-2, 1-2)
Rankings: Auburn is 21st in both The Associated Press rankings and coaches poll. Tennessee is not ranked.
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. Central
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn
Line: Auburn by 15.5
TV/Radio: TV: SEC Network; Radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)
1. Unfamiliar foe: Tennessee and Auburn share a conference and are located just 300 miles apart, but they haven’t seen each other much on the football field in recent years. After playing 48 times between 1900 and 2004, they have faced each other just three times over the past 13 seasons, with the last of those meetings coming in 2013. Saturday’s game will mark their first meeting at Jordan-Hare Stadium since 2008. Tennessee, led by first-year head coach and former Alabama and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, features an offense that ranks 91st nationally scoring 26 points per game and 63rd allowing 23.6. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 801 yards and four touchdowns; running backs Tim Jordan, Ty Chandler, Madre London and Jeremy Banks have each rushed at least 36 times for at least 161 yards; and junior linebacker Darrell Taylor leads the team with three sacks. Auburn has won six straight in the series.
2. Own your mistakes: Kevin Steele’s message to Auburn’s defense Sunday was “be accountable and then have an attitude of correction.” The normally stout unit was gashed for 349 rushing yards in a loss at Mississippi State this past Saturday, which is 200 more than it had given up in any game this season and the most it had surrendered in Steele’s three-year tenure as defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs used a lot of pre-snap motion, the Tigers didn’t get into the right positions or fit the right gaps to stop quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Kylin Hill, and on top of it all, they had an “uncharacteristic” number of missed tackles. The biggest issues came on first down, Mississippi State averaged a robust 7.8 yards per play and 8.5 yards per rush. The end result was Auburn’s defense being on the field for nearly 42 minutes. Look for Steele to get that corrected Saturday against Tennessee, which doesn’t have the personnel to run anywhere near the same type of offense.
3. ‘Let them make plays’: One of the things offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said he felt he needed to better after Saturday’s game was create more opportunities to get the ball into the hands of freshmen wide receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. The former caught a 46-yard touchdown the week prior against Southern Miss, but he wasn’t targeted at Mississippi State. The latter is arguably the fastest player in the country, but he was targeted only once in the passing game and carried once for 17 yards. There appears to be a chance Auburn will continue to employ the same strategy it did in the second half against Mississippi State, which was a barrage of up-tempo passes. If that is the case against a Tennessee pass defense allowing more than 7 yards per attempt, look for the two rookies to be more involved along with Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton, who combined for 22 targets in Starkville.
4. Back to normal?: Right tackle Jack Driscoll (leg) was close to playing Saturday at Mississippi State, and Lindsey said he probably could have. But the decision was made before the game that redshirt freshman Calvin Ashley making his first start gave Auburn the best chance, so that was the route the team went. Ashley struggled in pass protection and gave up a sack late in the game, but Lindsey said he thought “he did a nice job” in the run game. Still, it sounds like Driscoll is Auburn’s preferred option to at right there Saturday against Tennessee. “He’ll practice again today,” Malzahn said. “I think he’ll be better than he was last week. I can’t sit here and tell you today for sure he’s going to play, but I know he’ll want to play. Hopefully, he’ll be healthy enough.”
Auburn running backs vs. Tennessee front seven: The Tigers completely abandoned the running game in the second half against Mississippi State, calling for just five carries out of the backfield compared to 31 passing attempts. But that was against a very stout Mississippi State defensive front. Tennessee is not that. In fact, take out Alabama State, and the Volunteers have the worst run defense Auburn has faced this season. They rank 65th nationally giving up 158 yards per game and 99th allowing 4.7 yards per carry. They’ve been gashed in two SEC games, surrendering 201 yards to Florida three weeks ago and 251 to Georgia two weeks ago before an open date this past Saturday. Auburn has rushed for less than 100 yards in three straight games for the first time since 1999, but JaTarvious Whitlow gained 88 yards by himself on just eight carries against the Bulldogs and has two 100-yard games to his credit this season. The Tigers have not been successful in the run game, but they’re probably not going to be successful as an offense until they can find a way to move the ball on the ground.
By the numbers
74: National rank of Auburn’s 28.7 points a game.
82: National rank of Auburn’s 4.2 yards a carry.
100: National rank of Auburn’s 364.2 yards a game.
108: National rank of Auburn’s 53.3-percent touchdown rate in the red zone.
118: National rank of Auburn’s 32.5-percent conversion rate on third down.
Player of the week
Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, junior, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds: All eyes will be on Auburn’s starting quarterback this week. Stidham was supposed to be the face of just how good this offense could be in his second season on the Plains, but it seems instead he has regressed. He’s completing 60.1 percent of his passes for 196.2 yards per game and has thrown only five touchdowns through six games. He received plenty of criticism after he completed just 19 of 38 passes for a season-low 5.6 yards per attempt against Mississippi State, especially after he overthrew Slayton on what would have been a walk-in touchdown in the first half. Plenty of fans have even called on Auburn’s coaching staff to make a change under center and bring in Malik Willis. Lindsey said “Jarrett’s our guy” and that the Tigers are “committed” to him at quarterback, but it would help him to have a good showing against Tennessee on Saturday.
This is a game that, before the start of the season, looked like it might be a blowout win for Auburn. But after six weeks, it’s still difficult to predict what team the Tigers will be in any given game. They have had games where they have moved the ball effectively enough on offense to let an at-times dominant defense secure a win. Then there was this past Saturday’s game in Starkville, where the offense failed to score a touchdown and made far too many mistakes to make up for a subpar (for the team’s standards) defensive effort. The good news for the Tigers is that Tennessee has struggled even more in Pruitt’s first year at the helm and is still at the beginning of a full-scale rebuild of its talent base. This should be a get-right spot.
Auburn 26, Tennessee 10