Keys to the game

The Tennessee Vols have been taking Southern hospitality a bit too far this fall. Unless that stops tonight at Neyland Stadium they may give away a football game to the Auburn Tigers.

Tennessee's hospitality has taken the form of giving opponents the football - something the Vols have done with alarming regularity through their first four games. They rank 11th among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in turnover margin at minus-3. That's due to 11 giveaways and only 8 takeaways.

Moreover, Tennessee's turnover margin would be minus-5 except that two Big Orange giveaways were overturned. A fourth-quarter interception vs. UCLA in Game 2 was nullified by an offsides penalty and a fourth-quarter fumble vs. Ohio U in Game 4 was reversed on review because the recovering player had one foot out of bounds.

The Vols' problems with ball security are magnified by the fact Auburn leads the SEC and ranks No. 5 nationally in turnover margin at plus-7. The Tigers have 12 takeaways and just 5 giveaways this season.

Tennessee's turnover struggles are due primarily to problems in the passing game. The Vols have thrown 8 interceptions, a figure which ranks dead last in the SEC and 119th nationally. Making matters worse is the fact Auburn leads the SEC in passes intercepted with 8.

When a team prone to throwing interceptions faces a team adept at recording interceptions, it's pretty obvious where the key to tonight's game lies: The Vols must exercise good judgment when throwing the ball against an Auburn defense that surrenders a lot of yards but also records a lot of takeaways.

"They've got a bunch of really athletic players that have good ball skills and are making plays," Vol head coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "They got a ton of turnovers in the West Virginia game, which was kind of like our (Ohio U) game last Saturday. It was raining at the beginning of the game and created a sloppy game."

Gene Chizik's Tigers took advantage of the sloppy conditions that evening to record a whopping six turnovers against West Virginia, including five interceptions.

"I'm sure Coach Chizik would tell you turnovers were the big thing in that game because West Virginia outgained them and really moved the ball on them," Kiffin said. "When you give 'em four turnovers in the first half, that's a big deal."

There are two positive notes for Tennessee heading into tonight's game:

One, the Vols' propensity for throwing interceptions is on the decline. After throwing three in Game 2 vs. UCLA, the Vols threw two in Game 3 vs. Florida and one in Game 4 vs. Ohio.

Two, the Vols may be losing interceptions but they are not losing fumbles. Tennessee players have coughed up the football just eight times through the first four games, losing possession on just three occasions.

"We are doing a decent job at ball security, when you look at fumbles," Kiffin said. "None of the skill guys fumbled at Florida and last Saturday (vs. Ohio) we had a fumble that we got back. Against UCLA we had a fumbled snap. We're doing good at that.

"We've got to do better, obviously, at the interceptions. There's 120 Division 1 teams, and we're 119th in interceptions. Only one team has thrown more interceptions than us. That's why we're 2-2."

If the Vols want to be 3-2 Sunday morning, they probably need to win the turnover battle tonight.


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