In his first season back on the Plains after spending a season at Arkansas State, new AU head coach Gus Malzahn has his team at 8-1 overall, which is the biggest improvement of any FBS (Division I-A) program this season. The Tigers, who will be trying to extend their winning streak to six when they take the field on Saturday in Knoxville, worked out in full pads with contact as preparations for game 10 moved into high gear.
Last year going into game 10 the Tigers had won just twice on the way to finishing the season with a 3-9 record. Buffalo, which has improved from 2-7 to 6-2, is having the second biggest turn-around followed by the undefeated Baylor Bears, who were 4-4 at this point of the season in 2012.
Tennessee, which also features a new head coach, comes into the game at 4-5 overall and 1-4 in the league after dropping back-to-back road games to Alabama and Missouri. Last season the Vols fired Coach Derek Dooley as UT finished 5-7 with just one SEC victory, something that also happened in 2011.
Coach Butch Jones is hoping his Vols can pull off an upset on Saturday.
A key matchup for Tennessee in preventing the Tigers from winning this week will be to slow Auburn's potent ground game. Auburn is averaging an SEC-leading 306.2 rushing yards per contest.
Junior running back Tre Mason is leading the charge. He is third individually among SEC rushers with his average of 102.3 yards per game.
"We want to be the best rushing team in college football, period," Mason said on Tuesday after he and his teammates took the day off on Monday to recuperate from last weekend's road trip to Arkansas. "We are working towards that goal and I don't think we're too far."
The Tigers are ranked No. 6 nationally in rushing yards per contest. Army is first with 336.6 per game, Oregon is second at 331.5 followed by New Mexico at 313.6, Northern Illinois at 312.7 and Georgia Tech at 311.2.
Last year the Tigers rushed for an average of 148.4 yards per game. Mason gives the offensive line major credit for Auburn's improvement. "Those guys are getting the job done and making my job a little bit easier, and we're just looking forward to getting better," the running back said.
Coach Gus Malzahn noted that he is pleased with how Mason has been progressing. Against Arkansas the Auburn back was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 168 yards and four touchdowns on a career-high 32 carries last Saturday night.
"He's really coming on," Malzahn said. "He wanted the ball the other night. You could tell that he was real explosive. He was breaking tackles. He's a veteran guy and was wanting the football, and we just kept giving it to him.
"Moving forward, we'll spread the ball around.," the coach added. "We have got two very talented other running backs (Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant), but he was hot, and that is what we go with."
Going back to spring drills Mason has been adamant that the Tigers were going to be a much improved football team. He said going through a miserable 2012 season made the Tigers work hard to prevent a repeat in 2013, even calling it a "blessing in disguise."
"We needed a season like that because a lot of people didn't know what it's like to go 3-9 and we don't want that again," he said.
Despite Tennessee's losing record, Mason contends that the Tigers are taking this week's opponent seriously. "They're a pretty good team," he said. "You have got to respect your opponent. They have been playing really good at home and we are going to respect them as a defense and just come out and do our thing."
The Volunteers have really struggled on the road this year, but are 4-1 on their home field, 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium.
"Our mindset is we're not too much worried about the environment," Mason said. "The crowd is going to be loud regardless of where we go. We are just focused on executing our offense, period, and tuning out all other things that will distract us."
With eight wins in nine starts while averaging 494.9 yards per game, Mason pointed out the Tigers feel good about the way they are performing offensively.
"I feel like once we catch a groove it's kind of hard to stop us," he said. "We feel like we are a pretty high-fired offense A lot of people can get the ball in their hands, and we have got a lot of playmakers. We just feel like we are a big freight train and once we get started it's hard to stop us."
After the 35-17 victory over Arkansas, Malzahn pointed out that the Tigers have plenty of room to improve. On Tuesday he said they will need to play better than they did against the Razorbacks when they face a Tennessee team that has had success at home.
"There's no doubt about that--just the fact that they were able to beat a South Carolina team and had a chance to beat Georgia both at home," Malzahn said. "They're a different team at home and we know that we are going to get their best.
"We have got to keep improving," the head coach added. "We have got to play better than we did last week. They do have some talented players, and they have got a very solid coaching staff that is good at what they do."
In other news:
*Senior Steven Clark continues to be tough to set up returns against. Last year opponents returned just five of his punts for a not-so-grand total of four yards. This four of his punts have bee returned for a total of 16 yards.
Clark said his teammates are playing a major role in Auburn's punt coverage success. "I'm spoiled," he said. "I have got some of the fastest guys on the team (in coverage). Plus Sammie (Sammie Coates) has got some nice hands on him, too. It makes my job real easy. Just put it down there and let them go get it."
Auburn is third in the SEC in net punting average at 40.4 yards.
*Saturday's game will kick off shortly after 11 a.m. CST and will be televised on ESPN. Dave Pasch will do the play-by-play, Brian Griese is the analyst and Tom Luginbill will be the sideline reporter. Radio coverage of the game is available on Channel 91 on both Sirius and XM.
*The Tigers and Vols will be playing for the first time since Auburn took a 26-22 victory at Neyland Stadium in 2009. Auburn leads the series 27-21-3 and has won its last five matchups vs. the Vols.
*After scoring 35 points at Arkansas the Tigers go into Saturday's contest looking to reach the 30-mark for a sixth straight time. When the Tigers have scored that many points they have an 84-game winning streak.
*Tennessee has lost 19 consecutive games vs. teams ranked in the AP Top 10. The Tigers are ranked seventh in the AP Top 25, eighth in the Fox Sports Top 30, ninth in the BCS rankings and 10th in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.
*One of the major points of emphasis for the Tigers in fall practices has been situational work on third down plays, both offensively and defensively. The Tigers are ranked fifth in the SEC in both categories. They are converting 45.7 of their opportunities on offense and allowing opponents to convert 34.8 percent of the time.
Last year the Auburn offense was successful on just 30.8 percent of its third downs while the Tigers allowed opponents to convert 40.8 percent of their third downs.
*Saturday's game is Homecoming for the Vols, who have an all-time record of 69-17-3 in those games including 27 wins in the past 29 Homecoming contests. The last Homecoming loss for the Vols was a 13-7 setback to Wyoming in 2008.
*With starter Justin Worley out for the season and backup Nathan Peterman also injured last week, Tennessee started true freshman Josh Dobbs vs. Missouri. In the process the Vols became just one of eight FBS teams to start three or more QBs this season. Dobbs completed 26-42 passes for 240 yards vs. Missouri. He was intercepted twice and did not throw for a touchdown. He rushed for a team-high 45 yards on seven carries as UT's top rusher for the season, Rajion Neal, was held to eight yards on eight carries by Mizzou.
Dobbs is the eighth true freshman to start a game in UT history. One of those games was vs. Auburn when the Tigers defeated the Vols 34-10 in 2004 with Erik Ainge the starting quarterback for the Vols.
*Against Arkansas the Tigers saw their streak of scoring on the opening possession end at four consecutive games. For the season the Tigers have scored on six of their nine opening possessions.