Devil's Advocate (Auburn)

After limiting its first two opponents of 2009 to a combined 18 first downs and 26 points, Tennessee allowed its next two opponents to combine for 35 first downs and 46 points.

One reason is that Tennessee's third-down defense faltered. After allowing Western Kentucky to convert on just 1 of 11 opportunities in Game 1 and UCLA on just 3 of 14 in Game 2, the Vol stop unit lost its touch. Florida converted on 8 of 13 tries in Game 3 and Ohio on 7 of 18 opportunities in Game 4.

To recap:

The third-down conversion rate for UT's first two opponents: 4 of 25 (16.0 percent).

The third-down conversion rate for UT's next two opponents: 15 of 31 (48.4 percent).

Whereas the 16.0-percent figure is awesome, the 48.4-percent figure is awful. That's why the Vols could be in trouble Saturday night in Game 5. Auburn ranks among the national leaders in third-down efficiency, converting on 27 of 54 tries for a whopping 50-percent success rate.

"We've got to get better on third down," Tennessee head man Lane Kiffin conceded. "The first two games we were great on third down but the last two games we were not getting off the field on third down. We're playing pretty good on first and second down, then we're giving up third down."

It seems that EVERYBODY is giving up third down against Auburn this season. The Tigers converted 8 of 13 times in their opener vs. Louisiana Tech, 6 of 13 times in Game 2 vs. Mississippi State, 9 of 18 times in Game 3 vs. West Virginia and 4 of 10 times in Game 4 vs. Ball State.

One reason Auburn is so successful on third down is quarterback Chris Todd, who is having a spectacular season in 2009. He already has thrown for 1,012 yards, with 11 touchdowns and only one interception. He's averaging 16 yards per completion and ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency.

Todd's passing prowess has loosened up opposing defenses for tailbacks Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb. Senior Tate ranks 17th nationally with 103.0 rushing yards per game; freshman McCalebb ranks 31st with 91.2 per game. Obviously, they represent quite a 1-2 punch.

"They're kind of similar to ours," Kiffin said, referring to senior Montario Hardesty and freshman Bryce Brown. "You've got the old guy and the young guy."

He has a point. Hardesty leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally at 121.2 yards per game. Brown chips in 53.8 yards per game. Hardesty averages 5.8 yards per carry, Brown 5.0. Auburn's Tate averages 5.7 per carry and McCalebb 6.8.

"Their average per-carry is better than ours," Kiffin noted. "They do more than we do. They're kind of all over the place - moving 'em around. They have a bunch of different runs. You kind of know what we're going to do.

"The style we play is different but I think you have a pretty cool matchup of two older guys (Tate, Hardesty) who are way up there in the conference in rushing and two young potential superstars (McCalebb, Brown)."

The last time Tennessee faced such an explosive offense - Game 3 at Florida - the Vols utilized a very conservative game plan to try and limit the opponent's possessions. Perhaps the Vols will try the same thing against Auburn. Or maybe they'll open up the attack and try to beat the Tigers at their own game.

"That's going to depend on how the game goes," Kiffin said. "We're going to have to get a feel for it. There's a couple of different directions we can go. Obviously, that will be dictated by how the first quarter goes."

If the Vols don't do a much better job stopping third-down plays than they did the past two games, the first quarter could go badly.

Very badly.

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