No. 19 Vanderbilt (4-0 Overall, 2-0 SEC)
The Commodores enter the game undefeated and ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Poll. It wasn't long ago that Vanderbilt began a season with a 4-0 start during the 2005 season. It started off the season with four straight wins but went onto lose the next six games, finishing the season at 5-6. This current Commodore team appears to be stronger group than 2005, with victories over Miami of Ohio, Rice, South Carolina and Ole Miss.
The Vanderbilt offense is built around its 26th ranked rushing offense, which is currently averaging 202 yards per game. The ground attack is lead by running back Jared Hawkins, who has compiled 314 yards on 67 carries through four games. Quarterback Chris Nickson is second on the team with 270 yards rushing to go along with his 292 yards passing. Vanderbilt rarely features their passing game but Sean Walker leads the Commodores with nine receptions for 105 yards.
Linebacker Patrick Benoist leads the Vanderbilt defense with 37 tackles, including 3.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Vanderbilt is currently No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin, forcing 3.5 turnovers per game. It's one of the key reasons why the Commodores are undefeated through four games. Safeties Ryan Hamilton and Reshard Langford have teamed up for five interceptions this season, accounting for half of Vanderbilt's 10 interceptions this season.
Langford, pictured, is from Tarrant, Ala., while Nickson played his high school ball for Pike County in Brundidge.
Cornerback D.J. Moore currently leads the nation in punt return average with 203 yards on just seven punt returns. Bryant Hahnfeldt has connected on all seven of his field goal attempts this season. The senior place-kicker is having the best season of his career, coming into the season with a career 64 percent field goal percentage.
Inside the Numbers...
How is Vanderbilt undefeated with only 288 yards per game on offense? One key factor is their success in scoring when the opportunity is there. The Commodores have scored an offensive touchdown on every 17.8 plays. In comparison, Auburn has scored a touchdown every 44.2 plays.
* During Vanderbilt's last three games, the Commodores have averaged 6.0 yards per play on first down. Vanderbilt's success on first down has been essential in obtaining the most from their minimal total yardage. In the last three games, 59.1 percent of Vanderbilt's total yardage has come on first down. In comparison, only 37 percent of Auburn's total yardage has come on first down.
* Shutting down the Vanderbilt offense on first down will be a key for the Auburn defense. Vanderbilt currently has a pass rating of 61.6 on third down, converting only two of 20 obvious passing situations on third down in the last three games.
* In its last three games, Vanderbilt has run the ball 73.7 percent of the time, averaging 6.5 yards per rush. Though the Commodores haven't passed the ball often on first down, they have been successful when they have thrown the ball on first down. The Commodores have a pass rating of 141.2 on first down and 150.8 on second down.
* Of their 76 offensive snaps on first down during the last three games, only seven plays have gone for a loss. On the flipside, 33 of their 76 first down plays have gone for six yards or more.
* During its last three games, Vanderbilt has averaged 4.64 yards per play. This includes 6.0 yards per play on first down and 3.5 yards on their remaining downs.
* Vanderbilt is currently ranked 74th in the nation on third-down conversions (37.5%), while Auburn is 112th in the nation (29.3%). The Auburn defense is No. 1 in the nation in third-down defense and Vanderbilt is 65th.
* Vanderbilt is No. 1 in the SEC in scoring in the redzone (94.1%), while Auburn is 11th scoring 66.7% of the time.
Vanderbilt is +5 on offense and –11 on defense in scoring margins. They are currently scoring five more points per game on offense than what their opponent normally allows, while holding their opponent to 11 points less than what they normally score. Vanderbilt's average score this season has been 30-17. The Auburn Tigers are –1 on offense and –13 on defense with an average score of 20-11.
Taking Vanderbilt's average score against Auburn's scoring margins and Vanderbilt wins, 17-16. Taking Auburn's average score against Vanderbilt's scoring margins and the Commodores are victorious again, 16-9. Average the two scores and Vanderbilt wins, 16-12. Once again, everything points to a low scoring game settled by no more than seven points. For the record, the scoring margins from the Auburn versus LSU game indicated a LSU victory of five points and the scoring margins from the Tennessee game, indicated an Auburn victory of 12 points.
Unless Auburn gives Vanderbilt cheap scoring opportunities, the Commodores should score no more than 16 points against the Auburn defense. The question is whether or not the Auburn offense can score 17 points or more. Auburn is currently scoring 1.6 touchdowns per game and their TD ratio is 48th best over the last 49 Auburn seasons (1960-2008). Take away the defensive and special teams points and Auburn is averaging only 14.2 points per game.
From 1992-2007 Auburn's offense averaged 28.8 net yards per possession. The 2008 offense is currently averaging 23.5 yards per possession with the 1992, 1998 and 1999 offenses having a lower average. In the last 3 games, Auburn has averaged only 20.5 yards per possession with a season low of 16.1 yards against Tennessee. Through five games, only 31.4% of Auburn's offensive possessions have netted 30 yards. In comparison, the 2007 offense under Al Borges was 40.5% and 44.4% in 2006. During the 2004 season, it was 50.9%.
Another factor in Auburn's offensive woes has been field position. During the last three conference games, Auburn's average starting field position has been its own 25-yard line. Of its 42 possessions, 19 have started at its own 20 or worse. Twenty-seven of the 42 possessions have started at its own 30 or worse and only two have started at midfield or better. The average starting field position during Auburn's last seven possessions against Tennessee was the Tigers' own 12-yard line. On the occasions Auburn has played on a short field, the offense has scored on only three of six possessions when starting on the opponent's side of the field. This is Auburn's third lowest scoring percentage since 1992.
As each week passes, the glimmer or hope the Auburn offense will turn the corner begins to fade away. How many more times will the defense be called upon to make one more final stop late in the game to preserve an Auburn victory? The current status of the Auburn offense is like a building currently under complete restoration. All the walls have been torn down but there are no blueprints to rebuild the structure. To make matters worse, there is the distinct possibility of more than one building contractor involved in the renovation. All the numbers point to an upset in Nashville, mainly because the Auburn offense is simply that bad. However, I still believe in the one true strength of this Auburn team.
For at least one more week, the Auburn defense will carry the team to victory despite how ugly this one could get...
Auburn 17, Vanderbilt 13