By: Randy Moore
First the bad news: Tennessee couldn't stop Auburn's offense last fall.
Now the WORSE news: Auburn's offense is even better this fall.
That tidbit comes from no less an expert than Phillip Fulmer, whose Volunteers host the Tigers Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
Coach speak? Maybe. But there's a ring of truth to Fulmer's assertion. There is no better tailback tandem in college football than Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. They're the reason some analysts picked Auburn to be a top-five team capable of winning the national title in 2003.
Things didn't pan out last fall but they might this fall. That's because Williams and Brown have considerably more help from the supporting cast than they did a year ago.
''Auburn has made a significant amount of improvement on the offensive side of the football,'' Fulmer said. ''They're still able to run the football as well as anybody in the country. Those two running backs have dealt out a lot of misery since they've been there but their quarterback and their passing game are much improved. That makes them a much bigger threat to manage in trying to stop 'em.''
One reason for the improvement in Auburn's attack is first-year offensive coordinator Al Borges. He has installed a West Coast offense that is more quarterback friendly. It creates simpler throws for senior QB Jason Campbell, who is benefiting greatly from the new attack scheme.
''They've done a much better job in the short passing game with the bunch sets that have become popular in the last four or five years,'' Fulmer said. "They've got a crosser and a flat guy and a guy who's somewhere in the intermediate area. It's hard to cover 'em when all of that unfolds AND support the run, too.''
Campbell is no Eli Manning but he is proving capable enough this fall to exploit defenses that devote too much attention to Williams and Brown.
''Campbell's obviously taking to (the new offense),'' Fulmer said. ''A fifth-year senior ought to understand what's going on but he's doing very well with what they're asking him to do. The throw he made (in the final minute) to win the game against LSU was as good as anybody in America could do it.''
Auburn was an annual opponent when Fulmer played at Tennessee and when he served as Vol line coach and offensive coordinator in the 1980s. He still has strong feelings for the Vol-Tiger rivalry.
''I look forward to this football game -- I really do -- as much as any we've played in some time,'' the coach said. ''We'll see what happens.''
I suspect I know what will happen. Auburn will run the ball down Tennessee's throat for two quarters ... just as it did last year. As Fulmer notes: ''Auburn had their way with us pretty good last year.''
If the Vols couldn't stop Auburn's ground game last year -- when they had more depth in the front four, a healthy Kevin Simon and a senior-laden secondary -- how can they expect to stop the Tigers this year?
They can't. Sure, Tennessee will make some halftime adjustments to slow down the ground attack, but Campbell will pick holes in a youthful Vol secondary that was riddled by Florida's Chris Leak in Game 2 and picked apart by no-name passers from UNLV and Louisiana Tech in Games 1 and 3.
Finally, Tennessee's offense has been clicking on all cylinders through three games but it hasn't faced a defense as stingy as Auburn's. The Tigers allow just 6.5 points per game.
Odds are the Vol rushing attack is going to stall at some point, and this game may very well be that point. If so, how will freshman QBs Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer respond when they're forced to carry the load instead of merely sharing the load?
I don't think this is an unwinnable game for Tennessee but the Vols will have to play a lot better than they have to date if they plan to be singing in the locker room late Saturday night.
FIT TO COMMAND
By: Jeffery Stewart
There are two things for certain when Tennessee meets Auburn Saturday night. The Vols haven't seen a defense as good as they'll see Saturday and the Tigers haven't encountered an offense like the one that awaits them at Neyland Stadium.
Neither have the Tigers seen the crowd they'll contend with on the first Saturday in October. Let's face it, Starkville isn't Knoxville when it comes fan intensity and that's the only road game Auburn has played this season. Athens and Baton Rouge are a closer comparison, but Auburn didn't play either Georgia or LSU close on the road last season — losing to those other Bulldogs, 26-7, and losing to those other Tigers 31-7. In the 2001, 2002 and 2003 campaigns combined Auburn was an unimpressive 7-8 on the road.
Make no mistake Auburn had its way with Tennessee's run defense last season, but so did every other team during a five-game span that included: South Carolina (44 carries for 217 yards), Auburn (57 carries for 257 yards), Georgia (45 carries for 186 yards), Alabama (61 carries for 258 yards) and Duke (48 carries for 180 yards).
The Vols improved measurably down the stretch and have generally played well against the run this season. UT didn't allow an opponent to go over 125 yards on the ground during the last four regular season games in 2003. And they are allowing 121.5 through three games this fall. UT's primary problem has been the result of over pursuit, but teams haven't knocked them off the ball like they did last year during that dismal midseason defensive slump.
The Vols have better D-line talent now than when they last played Auburn. Jesse Mahelona is a solid run stopper in the middle and there's more depth at defensive end. Justin Harrell is improving every game at defensive tackle and Tony McDaniel has the potential to be outstanding. True, the secondary lacks experience but it also has outstanding speed which is a key to slowing down Auburn's powerful ground game.
The Tigers have reshuffled their O-line from last year and rank behind Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas in the rushing department despite having two better tailbacks than any of those other SEC squads. The reason? While there's no denying the tailback is a critical part of the running game, it's simply not as important as the people blocking for the tailback. That includes the fullback, the tight end and wide receivers.
Undoubtedly, the Vols need to be more disciplined and better tacklers to slow Auburn down, but they can't be so preoccupied with the Tigers tailbacks that they forget the quarterback, Jason Campbell, who can hurt defenses with the pass and the run. He's also been good in the clutch which is a greater concern tha having him pass you dizzy.
There's a lot of talk about Auburn's change to the west coast offense, but it's hard to prove it's had a major impact given the way the Tigers have performed to this point. They are No. 6 in the SEC in passing despite playing a weak schedule that includes the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and The Citadel. Yes, I know they also played LSU, but a 10-9 victory hardly evokes memories of Joe Montana in the Super Bowl.
In truth, Tennessee has had problems with virtually every passing attack it has seen this season, but it has also made good adjustments as the game has progressed and has built valuable minutes in the experience bank. The personnel is there for an excellent secondary and it won't be long before it is good.
But the best defense against Auburn is a Tennessee offense that is capable of scoring from any point on the field and controlling the football on long time-consuming drives. Last season, UT's running game was virtually nonexistent against Auburn (16 carries for four yards) and the Vols still had the ball inside the Tigers 20 yard-line in the final minute of play before a second-down interception ended their chances to tie or win the game.
This year the Vols come into this SEC showdown as the nation's No. 7 team in total offense and No. 10 in rushing offense. They rank ahead of Auburn in every significant offensive category. Suffice it to say, the Tigers' defense will have at least as much to worry about as the Vols.
Add in a strong revenge motive, a substantial homefield advantage, perhaps the best freshman QB in America in Erik Ainge, along with a kicking game that is second to none and you've got to like Tennessee's chances.