published Saturday, November 9th, 2013

Tennessee, Auburn again facing off under first-year coaches

University of Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Antonio Richardson (74) celebrates the Volunteers' 23-21 upset victory over the #11 University of South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 19.
University of Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Antonio Richardson (74) celebrates the Volunteers' 23-21 upset victory over the #11 University of South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 19.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NO. 7 AUBURN (8-1, 4-1 SEC) AT TENNESSEE (4-5, 1-4)

Noon * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * ESPN

The matchup

What do Oregon and Missouri have in common? Both the Ducks and Tigers use a blend of an up-tempo style of spread offense that utilizes a running quarterback and gets the ball to speed guys out on the perimeter. Those teams also ran up 687 and 502 yards of offense against Tennessee’s defense, the most the Vols have allowed this season.

Auburn, which leads the SEC in rushing at 306 yards per game, follows a similar pattern. Missouri ran for 339 yards last week against Tennessee, which hasn’t held a BCS conference opponent to less than 200 yards on the ground this season.

Though the Tigers will try to get the ball to the edges, Steve Stripling’s unit must play better than it has in the past two games.

“We’re not getting it done,” the defensive line coach said. “I really do think it’s just a breakdown in fundamentals. For whatever reason, we were not executing and not where we should have been all the time.

“There’s no secrets. It’s grind it out, narrow your focus, get back to basics and get back to your basic responsibilities.”

One to watch

After its most disappointing performance of the season a week ago, the onus is on Tennessee’s offensive line to bounce back and help the Vols take control of a game. The Vols ran for 94 yards at Missouri last week, and first-year head coach Butch Jones has been on his veteran line in practice this week.

With its defense facing an unfavorable matchup against an Auburn offense that’s clicking right now, Tennessee must rely on its front five to set the tone, sustain drives, control the clock and chew up rushing yards to help true freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs, who’s making his second career start.

How does the Vols’ line respond to Jones' challenge?

“If you take great pride in your performance it should [motivate you],” he said. “Our kids understand the standard and the expectation, and I like their workmanlike mentality. It’s part of our job to motivate them. It’s a standard and an expectation by which we’re going to play football here. That’s the standard of our football program.”

“He’s a very confident player and a very confident person.”

In the end

The last two times Tennessee played in Neyland Stadium, it pulled off an upset of South Carolina and took Georgia to overtime. It’s no secret the Vols have been a much better team at home. The simple change of location should help Tennessee play better than it has the past two weeks in blowout losses to Alabama and Missouri.

Yet there’s two major factors working against the Vols.

Auburn is leading the SEC in rushing yards by a wide margin, and the Tigers have run for 213 or more yards in all but one game -- it's lone loss at LSU. The Vols, on the other hand, are last in the SEC at stopping the run. Running quarterbacks have killed Tennessee all season long, and Auburn’s Nick Marshall may be the best runner the Vols will face this season.

Prediction: Auburn 34, Tennessee 19

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee and Auburn have performed this dance before.

When the two football programs last met in 2009, the Volunteers and Tigers -- who met annually for decades before the SEC expanded to 12 teams and split into two divisions in 1992 -- were under the direction of first-year head coaches like they are this season.

It was Lane Kiffin and Gene Chizik that night. Today, it will be Butch Jones and Gus Malzahn.

Auburn was a disaster during a 3-9 season in 2012, but Malzahn, who was at Auburn for four successful seasons, returned after one season at Arkansas State and has the Tigers 8-1 and ranked in the top 10.

"When Gus was there, we won eight games every year plus a national championship," said Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who spent the previous four seasons at Auburn. "They were scoring points, and that was the theme of us. Those kids believe. The system is there, kids buy into it early and they don't change who they are.

"It's easier to roll into it, and it's not going to change. When they put in plays, they don't change for many people. They're going to run their plays, they're going to run them well and they're going to run them fast."

The Vols' first season under Jones has been much bumpier.

Tennessee is facing a top-10 opponent for the third consecutive week and for the fifth time in 10 games this season. The Vols followed up an overtime loss to Georgia with a signature win against South Carolina. Blowout losses at Alabama and at Missouri the past two weeks have brought the Vols back down to Earth.

Jones has recruited exceptionally well, but his first team is 4-5 and scratching for the program's first bowl since 2010.

"Let's make no mistake about it: I want it now," he said. "Our players want it now. Our former players want it now. Our fan base wants it now. Our administration wants it now. We all want it now, but I see the positives each and every day."

There's been no wait for Auburn. The Tigers claimed one of the biggest wins in the SEC season at Texas A&M last month. One of the league's biggest surprises, Auburn still controls its own destiny in the SEC West race with home games against Georgia and top-ranked Alabama looming after today's game.

Why has Auburn been so successful so soon under Malzahn?

Thigpen pointed to a "comfort level" and the continuity the program attained by bringing back Malzahn, the 48-year-old coach who recruited many of the players who now run his offense.

Two years after Malzahn and quarterback Cam Newton joined forces to average 499 yards per game on the way to the 2010 national title, Auburn had the SEC's worst offense (305 yards per game) last season with Malzahn in Jonesboro, Ark.

"It wears you down, and that's the whole deal," Thigpen said of Malzahn's up-tempo spread offense. "They try to wear your defense down, especially your defensive front. The tempo is as fast as any you're going to see.

"The ball is snapped every 10 to 15 seconds, and the whole deal is to try to neutralize your defensive line and make sure they stay on the field so he can wear them down. They want to run the ball, and that's what they've had a lot of success with."

Entering Thursday's games, Auburn was one of eight teams averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game. Four of those teams (Oregon, Ohio State, Baylor and Northern Illinois) have one loss among them, and two others (Army and Georgia Tech) run an option offense.

At tailback, Tre Mason is 79 yards away from a second straight 1,000-yard season, and Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are averaging 8 yards per carry between them, while quarterback Nick Marshall is making it all go.

"I think it starts up front," Malzahn said. "I think our offensive line has improved throughout the season, and then the fact that we've got three running backs that are all a little bit different, that gives us a little versatility. Then of course, you add in the fact our quarterback can run fairly well. I think all three of those factors combine with that."

According to Rivals.com, Auburn's last four signing classes have finished fourth, seventh, 10th and eighth nationally.

"The personnel is there," Thigpen said.

Jones, Tennessee's third head coach since Chizik's team beat Kiffin's that night in Knoxville four years ago, is facing a more daunting rebuilding task at a program that's had four losing seasons to Auburn's two in the past five years.

"We're making great strides," Jones said. "We have to put our heads down, eliminate all the clutter and just keep getting better as a football program. I'm just as encouraged right now as I've ever been. I see growth. I see maturation.

"I see attracting the best of the best, student-athletes who have great competitive character that want to be in the process of getting Tennessee football back. I'm extremely encouraged. Do we have a lot of work to do? You guys see what I see, but I'm also encouraged by where we're going."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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