That is the opinion of Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, the dean of SEC football coaches. Fulmer, who is in his 12th year as head coach of the Vols, watched Auburn take a 34-10 victory over his team on Oct. 2nd in Knoxville.
Auburn is a heavy favorite to win on a neutral site at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and Fulmer says there is a lot to be impressed about with an Auburn team that is 11-0 and ranked third nationally.
"I have kind of watched them as they have gone through the year," Fulmer says. "They have done a good job of tweaking their offense and doing different things with their people--either different formations, personnel groupings and stuff, using their players really, really well. So they have grown, I am sure, as they have gone along."
Auburn leads the nation in scoring defense and Fulmer says the group's athleticism is a big reason for that. "Their defense, as far as a scheme, is very good, very sound, very aggressive. By this point of the season, we have seen most anything anybody could do, I would say. We will get ready for all of that we can.
"Offensively, you have got Jason Campbell, Carnell (tailback Carnell Williams), Ronnie Brown, a host of receivers and a very aggressive offensive line," Fulmer adds. "There is no way imaginable you can be ready for everything they have done for the entire year. You just hope your fundamentals of alignments, assignments and adjustments will take care of anything new that you have not seen. They have done a great job of using their personnel in a lot of different ways and some special plays to give them plays. It is a very hard offense to defend."
Fulmer says the Tigers have been strong with their special teams play, which is normally a trademark of Tennessee football teams. However, this year the Vols have been up and down in that phase of the game.
In UT's 37-31 victory over Kentucky on Saturday, Fulmer called his team's special teams performance "horrible." He adds, "It was no help in us winning the football game. It is a scenario we will continue to address. You hate to put a whole bunch of starters out there and we have them sprinkled in. We are young and we have a bunch of guys we lost who would have played on special teams or at least allowed other people to play on special teams. We have not come around like we would like to."
The Vols, winners of the SEC East, are 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC. In addition to losing to Auburn, UT fell 17-13 to Notre Dame on Nov. 6th.
Auburn leads the series vs. Tennessee 24-21-3. The Vols won the the only matchup in the SEC Championship Game, scoring a 30-29 victory in 1997.
Tennessee knocked off SEC East favorite Georgia back on Oct. 9th in an underdog's role and did the same thing to Miami last year. Fulmer says he believes his Vols are more energetic in those situations.
"Our team, I believe, thinks they are going to win whenever we play," he says. "That is what I hope they are going to do regardless of who we play. I am sure Auburn feels exactly the same way. When you are the underdog, you kind of get a burr in your side a little bit maybe more and your intensity level goes up. I certainly know the last two weeks the defense has not had the passion we are going to have to play with this coming week. We can't play like that and hope to win."
Tennessee's head coach says that Carnell Williams (24) will be a challenge for his defense to contain.
Fulmer says that he will be counting heavily on quarterback Casey Clausen to play well vs. the Tigers. He was on the bench for the first meeting, but with starter Erik Ainge sidelined and backup Brent Schaeffer listed as questionable, the redshirt junior is expected to be the main man again this week after taking over the job midway through the Notre Dame game on Nov. 6th. "He had one bad play in the second half," Fulmer says. "Otherwise, he played very well against Notre Dame.
"He has played with good confidence and execution in the last couple of ball games," Fulmer adds. "Of course, you can't hardly compare Vanderbilt's and Kentucky's defense to what he will face vs. Auburn's so everybody is going to have to play extremely well around him."
After giving up 33 points to Vandy and 31 points to Kentucky in its last two outings, Fulmer says he is concerned about his team's defense. Auburn is allowing opponents to score an average of 9.6 points per contest. UT is giving up 22.7.
"Defensively, we are not quite where we were a couple of weeks ago," Fulmer says. "We didn't have our best effort in the first half although we held Kentucky to 48 net yards in the second half, which was much improved from what was going on in the first half.
"Obviously, all of the attention is going to be paid to Auburn right now. When you watch them on tape they are just outstanding on offense, outstanding on defense and outstanding in the special teams area. It is a huge challenge for our football to try to get this thing done."
Fulmer says that he has been impressed with Auburn's new offensive coordinator, Al Borges. "I knew who Al was and I have met him. He has obviously done an exceptionally good job for them. He has them playing at a very high level.
"It is a fairly veteran football team and he came in there and obviously gained their confidence quick and did a super job with Jason Campbell not making any mistakes to speak of. He uses the personnel in a lot of different ways--the tight end and Ronnie Brown outside. Of course, obviously every time you get the ball to Carnell Williams that is a good decision. I am just really impressed with what they have gotten done in the multiplicity of the whole system that has been real impressive."
Looking at the Auburn defenders, Fulmer says, "It is a very fast defensive team they have put together with great speed and they are very aggressive and they play outstanding assignment football. You can block them, but you almost have got to block them twice because those guys get off blocks and make plays on you.
"Those two young defensive ends (Stanley McClover and Quentin Groves) have just done a tremendous job. The people inside are really good and their linebackers are fast and active and their secondary is as good as we have played around here in a long time. They have just got the whole package.
"Auburn is a really, really good football team," Fulmer adds. "Hopefully, we will play well enough to win the game."
Fulmer says that he is telling this Volunteers that Saturday's showdown with Auburn is a one game season. The winner is the SEC champion regardless of what happened in the regular season meeting in Knoxville. "Once you get to the SEC Championship Game, all bets are off," Fulmer says. "Anything can happen. It's one game. You just are going to have to play your very best once you get there."
The game will kick off at 5 p.m. Central and it will be televised by CBS from the Georgia Dome.
"Right now, I think Auburn is playing as well as anybody in the country and we are not at full strength in some ways," Fulmer says. "It should be a good ball game. We are going to do the best we can to hang in there with them.
"I think this team and this staff have done a really good job of hanging in there and fighting through a number of adversities and distractions during the course of the year," Fulmer says. "Certainly the injuries have been real challenging for us. I think all of us have done a good job to get to this point. Obviously, we want to try to finish it up very well.
"We will have to play really well to win. I think our team certainly knows that. We are playing against a team that is playing very well, playing very confident and really talented. Tommy (Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville) said it about us, but they have done a tremendous job as a coaching staff to overcome the losses they had on defense and it is not something that gradually happened. They were playing well really when we played them early in the year on defense. Then on offensive all that they do and how they use their personnel has been very impressive."