By: Jeffery Stewart
I know you've all heard how utterly impossible it will be for Tennessee to beat No. 3 and undefeated Auburn, particularly in the Dome of Doom where life has been anything but a bowl of peaches for the Vols.
If you listen to radio talk shows by now you're familiar with the chorus of dread that precludes any discussion about UT's chances in this rematch. If you've read newspaper accounts of that first encounter you've undoubtedly been reminded of how Ronnie Brown ran over Jason Allen on his way to Neyland's south end zone. If you've visited Internet forums you know Big Orange fans are looking forward to Saturday's game like they would a trip to the proctologist. There's no way one can escape the foregone conclusion the Tigers will spank the Vols and cast them to the Cotton Bowl without dinner.
In Alabama the talk varies just slightly, as Tiger fans speculate on the matter of how bad Auburn needs to beat Tennessee to jump past Oklahoma and into the BCS title game. If an 11-0 record and 24-point victory over UT wasn't enough for the Tigers to climb to No. 2, will a 40-point win do the trick? How about a half-a-hundred shutout?
There's probably plenty of other presumptions about this encounter that you've heard. And you know what? Tennessee's players have heard that same speculation and those same opinions. They also clearly remember that first game and the cocksure way Auburn strutted about Shield-Watkins Field, and the derisive things said after the game by Tiger players and coaches, who didn't think they'd see Tennessee again this year or any other year this decade given the Conference's rotating schedule.
A loss of that nature sticks in the craw of a dedicated team and can often amp up the emotion, energy and determination when they meet again. A good example involves another undefeated team, Oklahoma, which thrashed Texas A&M to the tune of 77-0 in 2003. That was the worst loss in Aggie football history, but when the teams met three weeks ago, Texas A&M took the Sooners to the limit before dropping a 42-35 decision when a last second pass to the end zone was broken up. True, A&M is a better team this year than last but the same can be said for Oklahoma. Any way you look at it, we're still talking about a 70-point swing.
Of course, the Aggies weren't good enough to make up that type of difference on their own. The help came from an Oklahoma team that may have taken Texas A&M too lightly in light of last year's blowout. Confidence is a curious component. If you don't have enough of it you're in serious trouble. If you have too much of it you're dead. That's not to say the Tigers won't take the SEC title game seriously, but they could well come without that the fear of failure that can be such a powerful motivator.
Auburn will also come in with two weeks rest and an extra week to prepare. The off week can help a team recover its legs but the extra week to prepare doesn't make that much difference for teams that are playing each other twice in one season. There can also be a downside to having an off week, especially for a team on a roll. How many Super Bowls have you seen when one or both teams fail to resemble the clubs that steamrolled their way down the home stretch and through the playoffs? Auburn has only played twice since Oct. 30, a span of five weeks or more than enough time to erode its razor sharp edge.
The Tigers are coming into this game feeling they not only have to win, but they have to win by a large margin. That can be a tall order against a motivated opponent that has a lot of talent.
Besides the pressure is all on Auburn in this rematch and pressure can produce aberrant performances. For example: Tennessee beat LSU 26-18 in the 2001 regular season, but in a rematch in the SEC Championship Game the Vols were beaten 31-20.
That upset (UT was a seven-point favorite) took place despite the Vols taking a 17-7 lead and knocking out the Tigers' starting quarterback and tailback. With a national title game in the balance, the Vols came in ready to play, but they had a letdown and couldn't sustain momentum against the resurgent Tigers and mounting pressures. Auburn faces a similar situation on Saturday against the Vols who are being led by No. 3 QB, Rick Clausen. UT is also without starters on both sides of the ball, including two of its team captains. That won't help the Vols field a better team but it might affect Auburn's focus.
The key for Tennessee is to keep the game close and win it at the end. That's what the Vols did in six other contests this fall — Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky — they won by margins of two, five, four, four, five and six points, respectively. Those last two victories, vs. the Dores and Kats, didn't reassure many people the Vols have a chance against Auburn. Neither did it set off alarms down on The Plains where the focus has been on polls and opinions. Will the Tigers be ready to answer the bell?
Furthermore, how will the Vols be able to keep it close? Well, to begin with they can secure the football much better and not give Auburn six turnovers as they did in the first meeting. The Tigers finished with a plus-four turnover ratio that October evening in Knoxville. Kentucky nearly beat Tennessee with a plus-one turnover edge and Vandy almost defeated Tennessee with a two turnover disadvantage. So it's really no surprise Auburn won 34-10 with four extra possessions.
The Volunteers' year of living dangerously has prepared them to perform under such conditions. By contrast, Auburn has only played one game this season that was decided by a touchdown or less and, consequently, may not respond as well to the unfamiliar do-or-die scenario.
Finally, the Tigers are 13-point favorites to defeat the Vols. This is the fourth time in the last three years that Tennessee has been a double-digit underdog. The Vols won all three of those games against Florida, Miami and Georgia outright.
Oh yeah, all three games were on the road, too.