Whose ground game will click?

The running game looms as the key to victory for each team when Tennessee and Auburn play Saturday night on The Plains ... and that doesn't bode well for Tennessee. The Vols' ground game never really got off the ground last weekend vs. South Carolina.

Tennessee averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry (25 carries, 73 yards) through the first three quarters. The Vols finally got a little bit of a ground game going in the final quarter and overtime, rushing 11 times for 44 yards ... 4.0 yards per carry.

When a team's running game stalls, the natural tendency is to blame the blockers. That might be a mistake in this case, however. Tennessee's star tailback, Cedric Houston, was slowed by a hip pointer that clearly limited his effectiveness. He did not appear to be as quick as usual and he did not exploit the running lanes he sometimes was given.

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders conceded that Houston and backup Jabari Davis were not particularly effective.

''I thought they ran well -- better than a lot of backs run -- but not as well as they normally run,'' Sanders said. ''That's not a knock against them. It was one of those nights when they had opportunities to make people miss, and they didn't. They got tackled.''

Worse, the Vol backs seemed to miss some holes that could've produced big gains had they made the proper cuts.

''We did miss a couple of cuts, and that's a good lesson for them,'' Sanders said. ''I thought our line played pretty well. There were some opportunities that we didn't necessarily get all we could out of them.''

If Houston and Davis struggle again this week, No. 3 tailback Gerald Riggs, Jr., could get an opportunity. He missed the two previous games with nagging injuries.

''If Gerald keeps progressing the way he has the last week or two, I would expect him to play,'' Sanders said. ''He seems to be pretty healthy and moving around at fullspeed. I don't think he's at 100 percent but he's much closer.''

Sanders says the Auburn defense is similar to those of UT's last two opponents, Florida and South Carolina, except that Tiger defenders are ''bigger and faster, and they probably have a little more experience.''

Overall, it's probably the stiffest test Tennessee's offense has faced thus far.

''I think it's definitely the best we've seen this year,'' Sanders said. ''We've played some awfully good defenses in the past -- Miami was really good last year -- but Auburn is definitely the best we've played to this point.''

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