Featuring a powerful running game and stingy defense, the Vols are the early leaders in the race for the SEC East crown and will come into Auburn looking for their fourth consecutive victory over the Tigers in the series after wins in 1997, 1998 and 1999. One of the players anxious to tee it up this weekend is defensive tackle Spencer Johnson. A veteran of many SEC wars, he's looking forward to his only appearance against Tennessee coming up this weekend and knows this will be a tough matchup for the front seven.
"We've watched them on film and watched them on TV," Johnson said. "We know they have a great football team. The mental part of it is already done. We know what we have to do. We have to go out in practice and work hard and go into the game expecting a knockdown, drag-out game until the end. It's not tough coming off the competition level because we know we have to step up."
Spencer Johnson attacks a blocker during Wednesday's practice. The defensive line has worked all week on being more physical against the running game.
While the pressure has been on the offense much of this season to produce, this weekend it may shift to the defensive front facing a tough running game from Tennessee. Second in the league in rushing, the Vol running game sets the tone for the entire offense and Johnson said that's something they'll have to work hard to slow down on Saturday night if they hope to come away with a win.
"That's where it all starts on offense and defense, up front," Johnson said. "They have a great offensive line. They are big and they are experienced. They have a little mean streak to them. If we can control the line of scrimmage and make it hard for the running backs to pick their hole and run through and allow Karlos and D.T. to run around and make plays then it will be a good game for us. It's very important for the defensive front to go out and play well this weekend."
While it's true that each game counts as much as the next, there is no doubt this game will be one of the biggest for the Tigers this season. This game could either signal the emergence of the Auburn team many thought they would see this year or keep the questions alive about what is wrong. Either way Johnson said this is a game the Tigers simply must win if they hope to stay on course for their dream of playing in Atlanta.
"It's big because of the way we started," Johnson said. "We didn't expect to start off 0-2, but things happen. We just have to focus. Now it's a game where we have something to prove. It's a team ranked in the Top 10 and with all the teams that have been losing it's a great opportunity for us to go out and prove to us and the fans and everybody that we are a contender. It's a SEC game and that's one of the goals we set at the beginning of the summer, to win the SEC. It's a game that we have to win to do that."
Taking advantage of a beautiful fall day on the Plains, the Tigers spent just over two hours on the practice field on Wednesday. With no power in the athletic complex, the coaches and players moved to the practice fields and had meetings outside along with a short walk-through before practice. Tuberville said the distraction didn't seem to bother his team a great deal.
"The game plan is in and tomorrow we'll kind of brush up on it," Tuberville said. "We worked today on a lot of the kicking game. It looks like with the weather and coming back to play the first conference game at home the guys are really excited. It should be a good game.
"After practice we went in and watched a little bit of film (when the power came back on)," he added. "We've still got a little bit of time on our four hours. It was a little bit of an inconvenience, but there wasn't anything we could do about it."
Injury-wise the Tigers appear to be in good shape for Saturday's game with Jay Ratliff the only player questionable for the contest. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill returned to practice for part of the day on Wednesday and should be ready to go. The pain in his back has subsided following treatments each of the last few days and he'll likely be in the lineup Saturday night. If he's unable to go sophomore Drew Kirk could see some action at tackle as well as senior guard Monreko Crittenden, who has played both guard and tackle in his career. If Crittenden makes the move that would move Danny Lindsey to guard and junior Jeremy Ingle would take over the center duties.
One of the interesting things from Wednesday's practice was walk-on tight end Danny Perry doing the punting during special teams drills. No, it's not because he's challenging starter Kody Bliss for the job, he's left-footed just like Tennessee punter Dustin Colquitt. The SEC leader and second nationally with an average of 49.2 yards, the junior has been a major weapon for the Vols and something Tuberville hopes will be negated by Auburn getting used to a different spin on the ball.
"That will give them a chance to get used to something that looks totally different," Tuberville said of having Perry kick in practice. "The thing you have to do is just try to return the ball, you can't let it hit the ground. He does a good job of kicking the ball inside the 10 and you never return it inside the 10. There's not a lot you can do about it. He's a great punter and you have to do the best you can and hopefully you can make up for it in other areas. He's a big-time weapon."
The Tigers will practice Thursday in Auburn and head out of town Friday per their normal routine. Kickoff for Saturday's game is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. and can be seen nationally on ESPN.