Many Tennessee fans assume that the 4-0 Vols will be too much for 2-2 Auburn in Saturday night's showdown on The Plains. That's wishful thinking.
Auburn might be the best 2-2 team in college football ... and Tennessee might be the worst 4-0 team in college football. In addition, Auburn has a significant homefield advantage.
The biggest factor weighing in Auburn's favor, however, is the fact it has three outstanding tailbacks -- Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and Brandon Jacobs. The Vols struggled mightily last weekend with a South Carolina team that boasted just one quality tailback. The Gamecocks' Demetris Summers burned Tennessee for 158 rushing yards on 27 carries.
Asked how much stiffer the challenge is to stop an Auburn offense that features three quality backs, Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis deadpanned, ''It's three times as much. Really, they've got four backs. Don't forget Tre Smith. He rushed for over 200 yards last year against Alabama, which was the best defense in the conference last year.''
Cadillac Williams might be the premier back in college football, yet he's splitting time this year with Brown. That's because Brown stepped in when Williams was injured in 2002 and ran for better than 1,000 yards, earning All-SEC recognition. The guy who could give Tennessee the most problems, however, might be Jacobs, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound juco transfer.
''The junior college kid is 260 pounds and faster than anybody we've got on our defense,'' Chavis said. ''You've got the two they feature (Williams and Brown), and their third and fourth guys (Jacobs and Smith) are outstanding.''
Tennessee made Summers look outstanding last weekend, routinely leaving their gaps and leaving cutback lanes for the Carolina freshman. Even when the Vols held their gaps, they missed a bunch of tackles.
''We've obviously got to play better than we did against South Carolina,'' Chavis said. ''The big portion of that (rushing yardage) came in the first quarter (when the Cocks piled up 112 rushing yards), but we didn't play as well as we thought we were capable of playing.''
Like Carolina, Auburn is a run-oriented team. But the Tigers have a stronger and more varied ground game than the Gamecocks.
''I think we'll see a different animal (vs. Auburn),'' Chavis said. ''We'll see a bigger, more physical offensive line, three or four running backs that are on everybody's All-America team, and receivers that can catch the football.''
Given all of this, it's a safe bet that Chavis will mass his defense to stop the run. Of course, that's what Vanderbilt tried in a 45-7 loss to Auburn three weeks ago. Western Kentucky tried the same ploy last weekend and fell 48-3. Clearly, teams who load up to stop the run run the risk of being burned through the air.
''You load up, work like heck to stop the run, and the play-action pass and screen produce big chunks of yardage,'' UT head man Phillip Fulmer notes. ''Our kids have got to be disciplined.''
Chavis says that's easier said than done.
''You can't load up on the run and NOT play the passing game,'' he said, ''but you'd better try to slow the run game down for sure.''
Tennessee had better slow down Auburn's attack because the Vol offense is unlikely to put up many points against a Tiger defense which ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense, allowing just 237.5 yards per game. Auburn has not allowed a third-down conversion in the first half of their last three games (0-for-17) and has allowed just 10 points and 415 total yards over its last nine quarters.
Clearly, this is not a game you'd want to entrust Tennessee's offense to win.
The question is: Can Tennessee's defense win the game?
The good news: Auburn's offense produced next-to-nothing vs. Southern Cal and Georgia Tech in Games 1 and 2. The bad news: Auburn's offense piled up the points in Games 3 and 4.
The million-dollar question: Have the Tigers solved their offensive woes?
''I hope not,'' Chavis quipped. ''But you've got to expect their best. That's what we usually get from everybody. Hopefully, we'll play at OUR best.''
Tennessee's coordinator always speaks respectfully of the opposing offense but there is nothing hollow about his praise for the Tigers.
''There's great players everywhere you look,'' he said. ''We're playing at their place but, hopefully, we can get ready to play. We're taking a really young defense in terms of experience, and it's a little bit nicked up.
''I just hope we can go down there and hang with them a little bit.''
For Tennessee to ''hang with'' the Tigers, it must play considerably better than it did against South Carolina. That's asking a lot. Perhaps too much.
Vols Have Right Stuff to Top Tigers
Auburn came into this season with high hopes and great expectations. Picked by The Sporting News to win the national title, the Tigers were regarded by most experts as the king of SEC beasts.
Armed with an arsenal of great ground gainers that is the envy of every college football program in America, Auburn fans envisioned the return to bygone glory days when Bo Jackson and James Brooks ran roughshod across the Plains and into gridiron lore.
However, a stunning 23-0 home setback to Southern California in the season's opener, followed by an equally surprising 17-3 defeat the next week at Georgia Tech, brought the Tigers and expectations crashing down to Earth.
Most of the focus entering Saturday's showdown has been on Tennessee's defensive challenge of stopping an Auburn squad loaded with great tailback talent, led by an athletic QB, who is growing in comfort and confidence while operating behind a big, experienced offensive line. Unquestionably, UT's D has a tall task, but this game is more likely to be decided by the performance of UT's offense.
Tennessee will present many of the same problems for Auburn's offense that USC did. And the Trojans have provided a good blueprint on how to attack the Tigers. Blessed with outstanding speed at linebacker and a solid secondary, Tennessee will give Auburn's O-line and quarterback Jason Campbell a lot of looks while bringing a ton of pressure. UT still lacks the push in middle but defensive coordinator John Chavis can unleash heat from the edge. The quartet of Kevin Burnett, Kevin Simon, Constantin Ritzmann and Parys Haralson is exceptionally quick, extremely athletic and highly motivated. They bring the type of pressure that can make an offensive line unsure of itself and give a quarterback the jitters.
Certainly nothing the Tigers have seen in routs of Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky has prepared them for this contest and they failed the test against Southern Cal and Georgia Tech so completely there has to be residual doubts approaching Saturday. That's something the Tigers need to quickly correct going into a series of conference games against Tennessee, at Arkansas and at LSU over the next four weeks.
That makes this game, arguably, the most important of the season if Auburn is to recover and contend for an SEC championship. However, that may not be such a good thing. In a couple of such pressure home contests last season, Auburn lost to Arkansas 38-17 and to Georgia 24-21. Both of these opponents, like S.C., featured strong running games and aggressive defenses. In their last 11 home games, the Tigers have gone 6-5 with wins over LSU, Louisiana Monroe, Western Carolina, Vanderbilt, Syracuse (in three overtimes), Georgia (in overtime) and Western Kentucky and with losses to Louisiana Tech, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and USC.
Conversely, Tennessee has gone 12-1 in its last 13 road games with two wins at South Carolina, two wins at Florida, two wins at Vanderbilt and one win each over Arkansas, Alabama, Notre Dame, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Memphis. The only loss on that ledger was last year's 18-13 setback to Georgia in Athens in which Clausen was injured and true freshman James Banks went most of the way at quarterback.
Obviously the Volunteers are far from road kill. In fact they appear to find their focus better away from Knoxville than they do at home. Coach Phillip Fulmer indicates practices this week have gone very well and his squad is fully aware of what's needed to win in front of a hostile crowd at Auburn.
"We had a good day," he said after Wednesday's workout. "The kids have been focused and certainly, I think, understand the magnitude of this football game for both teams. They understand the challenge we're going to have going to Auburn and handling the noise and the much bigger problem of handling a really good football team that we're going down there to play. It should be a good game."
The odds reflect that assessment, as Auburn opened a two-point favorite and has since fallen to one. Slim as it is, that one point still makes the Tigers the favorites and it tightens the screws a little tighter on the pressure cooker. Additionally, being an underdog might be taken as a slight by Tennessee's players since the No. 7 Vols are 4-0 and unranked Auburn is 2-2.
After last season, outside observers, both in and out of the media, soured somewhat on the Vols and were looking for signs of a relapse this fall. That occurred last Saturday when 15-point underdog South Carolina came to K-Town and took UT to OT on TV. Florida's struggles at Kentucky negates some of the dividends of the the Vols second straight win at Gainesville, while Auburn's blowout victories added to the intrigue of this contest which shapes up as a season maker/breaker.
Given South Carolina's success on the ground, some see Auburn's depth at running back as an even greater problem for Tennessee. As strange as it undoubtedly sounds, Auburn's backs, though greater in number, may pose fewer problems for the Vols. Explanation: Along with quarterback, tailback is the most stylized position in football and S.C. freshman Demetris Summers' has a style all his own. His ability to stop and start took advantage of quick pursuit and played against the Vols attacking style while his ability to make tacklers miss made UT look bad. Auburn has bigger backs, stronger backs and faster backs, but none like Summers.
Another point: Although Auburn has four outstanding tailbacks, there is only one football and it's not so heavy that it requires multiple carriers. When most effective, depth provides some relief for your featured back while forcing defenses to adjust. When reps are divided by three or four, it's hard for the No. 1 back to develop a rhythm and the backups may never get comfortable in their brief appearances. Carnell Williams likes to take on tacklers and gains much of his yards after contact. In order to be at his best Williams needs carries.
Neither team has been turnover prone or productive this season which means this is likely to shape up as a low-scoring affair with special teams playing a major role. That should favor the Vols who have an incredible punter, outstanding kicker and very fast coverage and return units.
Tennessee may also have an edge with an offense led by a battle-tested senior Casey Clausen and powered by a big, veteran offensive line. Clausen is the best passer the Tigers have seen this season and UT is the greatest test the Tigers secondary has seen. Add a healthier Cedric Houston, the return of Gerald Riggs and a receiving corps in metamorphosis, and it's clear the Vols are poised for a breakout game. Whether that breakout occurs this weekend is another matter.
"They see it themselves," Fulmer said. "They know that a little here, a little there, and we could be hitting on all cylinders. Some of that's youth, some of that's inexperience. Some of that's guys that are learning how to play and how to win. And some of it's just football. You have a ball that's not thrown that well or a route that's not run that well or a missed tackle. All you can do is come out here, practice every day and try to get better. But they have a good attitude. They know they're not the best yet."
Playing their best game to this point of the season may be enough to knock off Auburn.