Good Offense, Bad Offense

At the risk of boring the Dickens out of you, the performance of Tennessee's offense vs. Auburn on Saturday could best be described: It was the best of games. It was the worst of games.

Against the nation's top scoring defense and the conference's second ranked rush defense, Tennessee rang up 28 points, which was more than any other Auburn opponent this season. The Vols compiled 233 yards on the ground and averaged an incredible 9.5 yards per carry compared to Auburn's modest 3.8 yards per rushing attempt. Add a 70-yard scoring run by Cedric Houston that was called back and Tennessee's totals rise to 35 points, 303 yards rushing and 12.1 yards per carry. All of this was accomplished without a single fumble or turnover.

If you had seen those same figures in a crystal ball before the game you might have been tempted to quit your day job and place a considerable chunk of change on the Vols winning this game without the benefit of a 13-point handicap.

On the other hand (or should we say palm?), if your future football forecast told you the Vols would finish the SEC Championship game with only nine first downs, eight pass completions for 69 yards and a mere 20:29 in time of possession, it's understandable that you would have decided to scalp your ticket and placed the proceeds on an Auburn victory. (Just call it your "Cotton Bowl or Bust" slush fund.)

As you can see, it was a difficult game to foresee and perhaps more difficult to understand in light of the offensive statistics. With that qualifier set forth, let's examine the offensive grades for the SEC Championship Game.

Here's the top to bottom defensive 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 average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but highly problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing against any quality opponent. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense.

RUNNING BACKS (99) This is as close to perfect as it gets and the highest mark awarded any unit this year on either side of the ball. Before this game, Gerald Riggs had already proved himself a capable feature back with the size, strength and speed to test a solid defense. Against Auburn, he finally displayed the great running skills that made him a high school all-American at Chattanooga Red Bank in 2001. His improvement over unproductive freshman and sophomore seasons is due to maturation, inspiration and good health. On Saturday, it all came together as Riggs rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, a mind-boggling 16.5 yard per-carry clip. On his 80-yard gallop in the third quarter, Riggs hit the hole with authority and blew past a bevy of Auburn all-American DBs like they were standing still, as he raced to the end zone untouched. Riggs had a 50-yard dash that was even more impressive on which he demonstrated uncommon vision, a great juke move to get into the open field and balance as he sprinted down the sideline. Riggs also exhibited a nose for the end zone when he powered his way to pay dirt from nine yards out in the fourth quarter. Cedric Houston finished with 37 yards in his 11 carries, including a two-yard TD. He showed breakaway speed on the 70-yard TD run that was wiped out for holding and he added an eight-yard reception to his total. Houston's only fault found in extensive film study was a slip heading up field that cost the Vols a first down. (Sometimes it appears the talented senior attempts to cut before planting is drive leg.) Fullback Cory Anderson gained 11 yards in his only rush and he caught two passes for another 11 yards. Moreover, he had his best game as a lead blocker since the victory over Georgia.

OFFENSIVE LINE (80) This beleaguered unit has been beset by injuries most of the season and was without senior captain and four-year starter Michael Munoz at left tackle against Auburn (rotator cuff tear). The return of Cody Douglas after a three-game absence helped stabilize the right side and Arron Sears continues to prove himself one of the SEC's best while playing through pain. Rob Smith had the key block on Riggs' 80-yard run and remains UT's most consistent O-linemen. Rich Gandy is improving in an ever expanding role, but he negated a long pass play with a holding penalty on Carlos Groves. In fairness to Gandy if he hadn't hooked Groves, UT's Rick Clausen would have been sacked or could have had the ball stripped as he cocked to throw. Fifth-year senior center Jason Respert saved his best season for last and is the only UT starter in the offensive line vs. Auburn that won't be back next season. Albert Toeaina had his share of moments when drive blocking, but he can improve his footwork as a pass blocker. Toeaina was also flagged for being down field on another play. While the Vols front five did a great job getting the team back in contention in the second half, it didn't get the job done in the first half and left the defense on the field far too long for it to remain effective. UT didn't allow any sacks in the game although that had as much to do with short drops and fewer attempts (20) as it did great protection.

QUARTERBACK (78) Clausen wasn't nearly as sharp throwing the ball against Auburn as he was against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. However, considering the strength of opponents that's not that surprising. What Clausen did do was run the offense efficiently and make no major mistakes. In short: he gave the Vols a chance to win and his numbers (8-of-20, 69 yards, one TD) would have been much better if not for four drops and two completions erased by penalties. In three games as a starter, Clausen led Tennessee to point totals of 38, 35 and 28. That's not bad for any signal caller much less one who didn't start but one college game in four years before taking over late this season.

RECEIVERS (59) Outside of Robert Meachem — who made an outstanding diving catch for a 17-yard TD and beat Carlos Rogers on a 45-yard reception that was called back for holding — UT's receivers didn't step up the way they needed to against the Tigers. Tony Brown led UT with two catches for 28 yards but also dropped two passes, including the Vols' last offensive play which would have given them a first down and kept alive their upset bid. Chris Hannon wasn't able to haul in a deep throw that hit him in the hands and he was called for holding on Houston's long TD run. Brett Smith had one catch for five yards. Jayson Swain didn't catch a pass the entire game. UT's wideouts caught just four passes against Auburn. The only thing that keeps this grade for being lower is a good down-field blocking.

OVERALL (77) Take the good and bad, a tale of two halves and what you have is a better than average performance against an outstanding opponent that featured a spectacular game by Gerald "Don't Call Him Junior" Riggs.

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