Auburn, Ala.--Winners of five consecutive games, the Auburn Tigers (6-2, 4-1 SEC) will play host to Vanderbilt Commodores (4-4, 1-3 SEC) in what is the final home conference game for Gus Malzahn’s football team on Saturday (11:00 a.m. CDT, ESPN).
The Tigers landed in the top ten in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2016 season coming in at the No. 9 spot. Not many would have predicted that after the third week of the year when the Tigers sat at 1-2 with losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, but Auburn has turned things around led by the SEC’s top rushing attack and a stingy defense with one of the top defensive line units in the country.
However, this Vandy defense might be the best one Auburn will face since it has started this strong run except for LSU. The group is captained by former Pinson Valley, Ala., High star Zach Cunningham (85 tackles, one forced fumble, one pass defensed). The junior linebacker has been shooting up draft boards with some projecting him a first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Cunningham’s standout performance came a few weeks ago in the 17-16 upset win over Georgia where he had 19 tackles and the fourth down stop that clinched the game for the Commodores.
Zach Cunningham is an outstanding junior linebacker for the Commodores.
Senior Ja’karri Thomas (44 tackles), junior Landon Stokes (12 tackles, 1/2 sack, one pass defensed) and junior Oren Burks (29 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, one interception, five passes defensed) round out the other LBs in head coach/defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s 3-4 scheme.
Vandy’s defensive line consists of nose tackle Adam Butler (14 tackles, two sacks) as well as defensive ends Jonathan Wynn (14 tackles) and Nifae Lealao (13 tackles, one 1/2 sacks). Another contributor up front is senior Torey Agee (seven tackles), the son of former Auburn great Tommy Agee.
The leader of the Commodore secondary also comes from Alabama out of Daphne. Cornerback Torren McGaster (40 tackles, one interception, six passes defensed) can lock down wide receivers on the outside. His corner partner is Tre Herndon (27 tackles, two interceptions, five passes defensed). Both safeties Ryan White (54 tackles, two forced fumbles, five passes defensed) and LaDarius Wiley (51 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble) will spend plenty of time near the line of scrimmage trying to stop Auburn’s downhill running game.
Things haven’t gone as swimmingly for the ‘Dores’ offense so far this season. Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have settled on sophomore Kyle Shurmur (106-200 passing, 1,089 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions) as the starting quarterback in 2016 after playing musical chairs at the position throughout most of last year.
It’s not the passing attack that Vandy relies on to try and score, though. Shurmur hasn’t thrown 30 passes in a game this season and that’s due to the Commodores wanting to establish the run with the second-leading rusher in the SEC, Ralph Webb (164 attempts, 855 yards, six touchdowns) and their change-of-pace back in Khari Blasingame (61 rushes, 301 yards, seven TDs).
When Shurmur does drop back to throw, mostly in play-action situations, he will look towards Vandy’s top receivers Kalija Lipscomb (20 catches, team-leading 253 yards and two touchdowns) and C.J. Duncan (team-leading 21 receptions for 225 yards), who hails from Montgomery, plus tight end Jared Pinkney (13 catches, 163 yards, one TD).
No matter what it’s most likely going to be tough sledding for a Commodore squad that ranks 124th in the country in yards per game offensively (309) and 118th in points per game (20.8). This is certainly the case when you consider their opposition: the Auburn Tiger defense which respectively ranks at 30th in yards allowed per game (358) and eighth in points allowed (16.0).
The kicking specialists for Vanderbilt include junior place kicker Tommy Openshaw (8-11 on field goal attempts, long of 48) and freshman punter Sam Loy (44 punts, average of 43.2 yards per punt).