SEC preview and predictions: Championship Game

Nicholas finished the regular season with a perfect week and just shy of the 80 percent mark for the year. His preview and prediction on Auburn-Tennessee in the SEC Championship game.

Last week: 4-0 (100.0%)

Season: 66-18 (78.6%)

TENNESSEE vs. AUBURN (SEC Championship Game, Atlanta, Ga.)

Game within a game: UT quarterbacks vs. AU outside pass rush

Even though this game holds the same interest for Alabama fans as does a keen bout of nausea, this rematch between Auburn and Tennessee has drama on multiple levels. Can Auburn win the game by a large enough margin to sway BCS voters? Can Tennessee QB Brent Schaeffer play, and better yet, can he be effective? If not, can Rick Clausen limit his costly mistakes while at the same time leading an effective passing attack?

Auburn and Tennessee met Oct. 2, and the results were not pretty for the Volunteers – a 24-point loss, and a game they were never really in. Since then, Tennessee has been up and down, and while the Volunteers did win their final two games to close out a nice 9-2 record, those wins were over Vanderbilt and Kentucky and the outcome of both was in doubt. That's not supposed to happen even to the most mediocre of Vol teams, to say nothing of an outfit that is representing the SEC East division in the conference championship game.

Tennessee's hopes of beating Auburn rest squarely on the shoulders (and legs) of whatever quarterback is chosen to lead the Vols from under center. Erik Ainge, the starter for most of the year, is probably out for this game. Brent Schaeffer, who was splitting time with Ainge for most of the year, is trying to come back from injuries to his shoulder and collarbone. He says he'll be ready to play in this game, but given the fact he was only a true freshman to begin with, his effectiveness at 50 percent is questionable.

That leaves Rick Clausen, the junior transfer from LSU and the brother of Casey Clausen, who led Tennessee to many big wins over the previous four years. Clausen threw for more than 300 yards against a pretty good Kentucky pass defense last week, but he got picked twice (once for a touchdown), which mimicked his performance against Notre Dame, where another untimely interception led to the winning score for the Fighting Irish. Clausen is capable of leading Tennessee, but he must limit his mistakes.

It's imperative that whoever is leading the Vols start clicking early. Auburn can be hurt defensively in one area, the pass. When Auburn doesn't have to respect the pass, as it didn't against Alabama, the Tigers can stack the line and shut off the rushing attack. Tennessee without a rushing attack is as lost as a teetotaler at Mardi Gras.

Notice we haven't discussed the match-up between Auburn's offense and Tennessee's defense. That's because it doesn't matter. If Tennessee can't figure out the Auburn defense, Auburn could let Tommy Tuberville himself quarterback the offense and still win this game. Tennessee's offense is prone to make mistakes when put in pressure situations; the Vols are ranked 63rd in the country in turnover margin. Auburn is ranked 22nd. That fact alone should scare UT head coach Phil Fulmer into wetting the bed.

But if Tennessee can keep Auburn's defense on its heels, the Volunteers can win. The Tennessee front seven is every bit as good as Auburn's, particularly when DT Jesse Mahelona isn't slowed by a leg injury. The UT secondary is the trouble spot, but if Tennessee is scoring on offense and forcing the game into the hands of AU QB Jason Campbell, there is a shot.

More likely, though, is a repeat of the Oct. 2 mauling. If Tennessee loses the turnover battle, it loses the game. If it turns the ball over early, the margin of the loss will lose respectability. Auburn 38, Tennessee 17.

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