Grades Offensive for UT vs. Auburn

If Tennessee fans felt they had died and gone to the Peach Bowl Saturday night, it's understandable. For all practical purposes the lopsided loss to Auburn looked nearly identical to consecutive post season meltdowns in the Georgia Dome.

The difference is that instead of going back to the drawing board and recruiting wars, Tennessee has to go between the hedges to play No. 3 ranked Georgia which is fresh off a 41-16 triumph over defending national champion LSU, and prepared to run its string against UT to five straight. It's a daunting challenge for a team that was dominated at home by No. 9 Auburn in virtually every phase of the game.

Here's the top to bottom ratings for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. (We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense.)

RUNNING BACKS (71) Although the early deficit forced Tennessee away from it's ground game, Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs generally performed well. Houston had 55 yards in 15 carries and Riggs gained 43 yards in seven carries. That's an average of 4.4 yards per run which is actually better than the combined 4.1 yards per carry averaged by Auburn's celebrated tandem of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Still, Houston seemed a little slow finding holes at times and missed a couple of cutback opportunities. Riggs was quicker to the line and ran hard but he also dropped a third down pass that hit him between the numbers. There was some confusion in pass protection as the Vols failed to pick up a few blitzes. Fullback Corey Anderson scored UT's only touchdown on a short pass from Erik Ainge. He also gets a passing grade as a lead blocker.

RECEIVERS (68) UT's wide receivers caught most of the passes within reach although they had more problems getting open than at any time this season. There was also too much miscommunication on routes which led to both interceptions and incompletions. How many of those were the fault of the receivers is difficult to say, but there was enough throws of that variety for all to share the blame. UT's wide receivers caught 15 passes, led by C.J. Fayton's four receptions. The Vols had 11 completions of 10 yards or more by seven different receivers, although Derrick Tinsley's team-long catch of 21 yards points out the problems UT had getting open deep against Auburn's secondary. Tight end Justin Reed was injured early and never became a factor for the Vols.

OFFENSIVE LINE (67) This is the lowest score by UT's offensive line this season, although it performed good enough to pick up 18 first downs, including 10 through the air. Auburn also finished with only one sack but that stat is deceptive since Auburn kept pressure on Tennessee passers throughout the game. The Vols were getting beat one-on-one too often and the Tigers had far too many rushers in the quarterback's face. In fairness to the front five, the Vols were put in such a deep hole by the defense early that they didn't get a chance to wear down Auburn's line. Tennessee's six turnovers also denied the Vols scoring opportunities.

QUARTERBACKS (42) A dramatic drop off from prior performances this season, although not one that was totally unexpected. Auburn was the first opponent to effectively exploit UT's youth behind center and the payoff was profound. Erik Ainge opened the game with three incomplete passes to Tony Brown, none of which were close to finding their mark. The Oregon freshman was wild high most of the night and had four passes intercepted in addition to a fumble on his own 1 yard-line that cost the Vols dearly. He missed an open Bret Smith in the end zone on one scoring opportunity. He had a pass picked off in the end zone on another. He also threw interceptions at Auburn's 13 and 30. Brent Schaefffer had only one turnover, an interception that was the equivalent of a punt, but he never appeared comfortable and was unable to establish any rhythm or break Auburn's containment. This was the type of game UT fans feared when they considered using two freshmen QBs against SEC opponents, but it's also the first time they failed to come through. The story of their season will be told in how they respond to adversity. Questions are sure to be asked about the change to Ainge as the starter when he appeared comfortable coming off the bench. However it's doubtful that sticking to that formula of success would have yielded drastically different results. Auburn's defense was quick, physical and opportunistic.

OVERALL OFFENSE (59) Losing can often alter perceptions beyond all reason, but this was a loss in which Tennessee was never in the game despite playing on its home turf against an opponent that had beaten it the year before. In that respect, it was much like the defeat suffered against Georgia last year at Neyland Stadium which cost the Vols national respect and ranking. Any defeat at home would have been damaging but a 24-point setback in a high-profile game between top 10 teams is a particularly hard hit for the UT program. There's no defense against turnovers and the Vols are minus six in the turnover ratio against SEC opponents this season. Until that figure improves Tennessee will be hard pressed to beat a quality opponent regardless of where the game is played.

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