My pick: Tennessee 20, Auburn 14

When you're facing the NCAA's second-ranked defense, you'd better not be predictable. When the Auburn Tigers know what you're going to do, they're going to stop you. So, you'd better do the unexpected if you're planning on moving the football.

That's the task facing the Tennessee Vols Saturday night at the Loveliest Village of the Plains.

Most people -- including Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, presumably -- expect the Vols to come out in a two-back set (fullback, tailback) with a tight end and try to beat Auburn at its own game, smash-mouth football. Since Tennessee never throws to the tight end and rarely gives the ball to the fullback, Auburn need not account for these two players. Throw in the fact Vol quarterback Casey Clausen is no running threat, and Auburn only has to account for three players -- tailback Cedric Houston, wideout Mark Jones and wideout Tony Brown. If you stop those three, you stop Tennessee.

When Tennessee goes to its three-wideout alignment, however, you can add James Banks (the Vols' most dangerous big-play threat) to the mix. This sacrifices the blocking of tight end Victor McClure but spreads the defense by putting a home-run threat on the field. The three-wide set worked quite well last weekend against South Carolina.

''We started the game in three-wides and played a lot of the first half that way,'' offensive coordinator Randy Sanders notes. We had some success -- scoring after the blocked punt, then going 70 yards to score (on possession No. 2). The next possession we had a little drive going, then stalled and punted.''

After scoring 17 first-half points, however, Tennessee head man Phillip Fulmer elected to insert McClure at tight end and try to play smash-mouth football in the second half. The Vols promptly were held scoreless in quarters 3 and 4.

''The second half we went to a tight-end set and had some success,'' Sanders says diplomatically. ''We had a seven-play drive but didn't get any points out of it. And we had a nine-play drive but missed the field goal. It's not like the tight end stuff didn't work. We just didn't score when we had the opportunities.''

Maybe so, but when the Vols got an opportunity in overtime, they returned to the three-wide set and promptly scored the game-winning touchdown.

The ''tight end stuff'' seems to work well when the Vols are physically superior to the opposing defense -- as was the case against Fresno State and Marshall. But it didn't work particularly well against Florida in Game 3 or South Carolina in Game 4. And it probably won't work against Auburn, which has much better defensive personnel than either Florida or South Carolina.

That's why I look for Tennessee to rely more on the three-wide sets this weekend, even though quarterback Casey Clausen has not been particularly sharp in the Vols' first four games.

''Casey's playing well but he's not playing perfect,'' Sanders says. ''There's very few times that you see a perfect game out of a quarterback but he's playing well. If we can get everybody playing at his level, we'd be OK.''

If Tennessee could just get its receivers playing at Clausen's level, that would help a lot. One reason the passing game has sputtered all season is the fact that Clausen is adjusting to four new pass-catchers -- a converted safety (Jones), a converted quarterback (Banks), a converted tailback (Derrick Tinsley) and a true freshman (Jayson Swain). This has made the aerial attack a bit inconsistent.

''Sure,'' Sanders says. ''We've had six guys (Jones, Banks, Swain, Bret Smith, Corey Larkins, Jabari Davis) catch balls that had never caught a pass in a game before this year. We've got a lot of new receivers. If those guys had been playing together for three years, you'd see them on the same page all the time.

''There's still a few instances where we're not quite on the same page with the quarterback and receivers. It's nobody's fault. We've just go to get those guys more more game experience and keep them coming as hard as we can.''

Whereas Tennessee lacked talent at the receiver positions last fall, that is not a problem this season. The Vols only lack experience. As the wideouts become more polished, the passing attack will begin to click.

If the air game struggles Saturday night, Tennessee will lose. But I see signs that it's coming around. Banks, in particular, is becoming a touchdown threat whenever he's on the field. He'll be on the field a lot if the Vols go with more three-wide sets Saturday night. I'm guessing they will. I'm guessing they'll HAVE TO. And, if they do, I think they'll win.

My pick: Tennessee 20, Auburn 14.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories