Devil's Advocate

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of punch/counter punch — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart choose sides and make their cases for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification. This week's contest is Tennessee at Auburn.



A gravely ill Tennessee offense is looking to get well this weekend. Unfortunately for the Vols, Auburn, Ala., is the wrong place to be looking.

Tommy Tuberville's Tigers rank No. 10 nationally in scoring defense (10.2 points per game), No. 19 in rushing defense (84.2 yards per game) and No. 20 in total defense (259.8 yards per game).

Auburn, Ala., isn't just a bad place to go if you're an offense looking to get well ... it's arguably the worst place to go. Ask the Mississippi State Bulldogs, whose offense mustered all of six first downs, 38 rushing yards, 78 passing yards and 116 total yards in a HOME GAME against the tenacious Tigers just two weeks ago.

Even if Tennessee's offense awakes from its season-long slumber this Saturday, the Vols will be hard-pressed to win this game. That's because Auburn's offense began to stir last weekend following an early-season nap. Tiger quarterback Chris Todd, looking more comfortable with each passing week, completed 17 of 32 throws for 250 yards last Saturday against an LSU defense that ranks with the best in America.

Auburn has a quality ground attack that will test Tennessee, as well. Florida's Emmanuel Moody (55 yards on just 9 carries) ran through the Vols like a gambler runs through his life savings last weekend. Auburn has two backs – Brad Lester and Ben Tate – who are better than Moody.

In addition to being superior to Tennessee on defense and offense, Auburn has an overwhelming advantage in the kicking game. The Tigers' Wes Byrum is 5 of 8 on field goals with a long of 52 yards; the Vols' Daniel Lincoln is 1 of 4 with a long of 47. Auburn has a net punting average of 37.8; UT's average is 22.0. That means the Vols will give up roughly 16 yards on each exchange of punts.

And, unless UT has fixed its punt- and kick-coverage problems, Robert Dunn will scorch the Vols this Saturday much the way Florida's Brandon James (78-yard punt return, 52-yard kickoff return) did last Saturday.

As if all of the above isn't enough to justify picking the Tigers, consider this: Since taking the Auburn reins, Tommy Tuberville is 3-0 against Phillip Fulmer – prevailing 28-21 in 2003 at Auburn, 34-10 in 2004 at Knoxville and 38-28 in 2004 at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.



Given the start to its 2008 season, making a case for Tennessee to defeat Auburn at Jordan Hare Stadium is like defending Charles Manson in a Texas courthouse, but since every man and team is entitled to a fair hearing a vigorous argument will be offered in the Vols behalf.

This game has always been intense, physical and critical to each team's championship pursuits. There are strong trends on each side of the equation. Auburn holds a three-game winning streak over the Vols and the Tigers are 8-0 following the LSU contest under Tommy Tuberville, who rarely losses two games in a row and is 52-13 at home during his 10-year tenure in Tiger town. The Vols are 12-0 in regular season games the week following Florida and Fulmer is 51-19 on the road at Tennessee.

Making a case for the Vols isn't as difficult as it sounds. Fact is Tennessee hasn't come close to getting a complete game from the offense, defense or special teams. There is a lot of room for improvement and the talent level is clearly better than it has shown.

At it's worst Tennessee's offense has been balanced which gives it a chance to move the ball and force opponents into their base defense more often. However the Vols haven't shown they have the receivers to stretch the field and make the safeties play it safe. That opens some opportunity in the running game and sets up play action. That's a way of attacking defenses deep without having the prototypical big, fast, athletic, go-to wide receivers.

The Vols have moved the ball well and are No. 5 in the SEC in total offense with 390.6 yards per game. They are No. 5 in the SEC in passing yards and No. 6 in rushing. It's a unit that has moved the ball well but failed to cash in on red zone opportunities. It's been plagued by penalties, turnovers, drops, poor communication and bad decisions.

In short the offense looks like it has had to focus so much on grasping the scheme that it has lost some fundamental soundness. While often effective at putting together long drives it hasn't had a ton of big plays in the mix. As the result the offense sometimes comes off as constrained. In order to make defenses cover the entire field UT has to get some elements of misdirection into the offense and it has to be willing to take some shots downfield preferably off play action. Another potential source of big plays is screens and draws.

I look for the Vols to open up the offense more and utilize the whole field. Mix in some misdirection with some screens, draws and play action to take some of the aggressiveness and momentum away from the defense. it's another aspect of being balanced offensively that is often overlooked. However it's exactly what Tennessee did when Phillip Fulmer was the Vols offensive coordinator before becoming head coach in 1992.

The Vols can't transform in a week but if the offense can avoid big mistakes and make a few big plays the defense can probably make it stand up against an Auburn team that is also struggling to score points.

In truth the jury is out on both of these teams. Auburn has home field advantage but Tennessee has played ranked teams on the road better than at home the last seven seasons. Don't be surprised if the Vols pull the upset.

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