AUBURN — Auburn had a chance to put a bad team away at home early in the second quarter.
The No. 21-ranked team in the country led an unranked Tennessee team that had lost 11 straight SEC games by a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Marlon Davidson had just blocked a Brent Cimaglia field goal, setting up the Tigers with a first-and-10 at the Volunteers’ 46-yard line.
But on the second play of that drive, Jarrett Stidham made an ill-advised throw as Alexis Johnson Jr. dragged him to the ground.
Cornerback Bryce Thompson jumped in front of Anthony Schwartz to make the easy interception, and Tennessee marched down the field 59 yards on five plays to tie the game 10-10.
That was the first of three Stidham turnovers, and Tennessee came close to coming up with two more. Auburn lost 30-24 on its home field to drop to 4-3 on the season and 1-3 in the SEC.
"Obviously, very tough loss and very disappointing," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I really felt like we would come out and play our best game. Got off to a good start, things were going good.
“I think the big picture of the deal was the three turnovers and one of those turnovers led to a touchdown. That was really the difference in the game. Tennessee didn’t turn the ball over and they had a good third-down plan. They were almost 50 percent on third down, and their quarterback made some plays with the receivers and some one-on-one situations as far as that goes."
Stidham was intercepted again on Auburn’s next drive, that time on a similar double-reverse play out of the Wildcat that led to his missed touchdown throw to wide receiver Darius Slayton in last week’s loss at Mississippi State. The quarterback was pressured on that throw, too, but tried to dump it off to Ryan Davis in the backfield.
That interception didn’t lead to points, but Stidham’s lost fumble on Auburn’s second drive of the third quarter did — Johnson and Kyle Phillips sacked him on second-and-5 from the Tigers’ 30 and forced the ball out. Linebacker Darrell Taylor recovered the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown.
Tennessee had just taken its first lead over Auburn, and that fumble return for a score made it a 27-17 game less than a minute later.
Head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey never made the move to replace Stidham with sophomore backup Malik Willis, despite hearing plenty of boos from the home crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Stidham did do some good. He completed 28 of 45 passes for a season-high 322 yards. He hit freshman Anthony Schwartz for a 76-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter, and he threw a perfect strike to Slayton that would have been a 57-yard touchdown had the junior wide receiver not dropped it.
He also connected with Seth Williams for a 14-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
The loss can’t be pinned entirely on Stidham. Auburn’s defense played one of its worst games of the season, giving up close to 400 yards of offense to a Tennessee team that entered Saturday’s game just 2-3. The Volunteers converted on 10 of 19 third downs.
But the quarterback did turn the ball over three times, with two of those leading to 14 points in a game Auburn lost by just six.
The Tigers kept hope alive of finishing the season strong even after last week’s loss in Starkville, but Saturday’s loss brought up more questions than it answered.