Did you enjoy your mini-vacation, Vols fans?
When Tennessee’s matchup with Texas A&M was postponed last week due to COVID-19 issues within A&M’s roster, there was a collective sigh of relief from Vol fans across the country. They were able to enjoy their Saturday in peace, and not have to tear their hair out over terrible quarterback play, a lifeless second half performance, and what would have likely been a fifth-straight loss to a red-hot Texas A&M team.
At 2-4, the Vols are back in action this week, heading down to The Plains to take on No. 23 Auburn, a 4-2 team that has not played since a 48-11 beatdown of LSU on Halloween. Last time Tennessee played at Auburn; things went pretty well. The Vols upset the Tigers 30-24 in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season behind one of the best performances of Jarrett Guarantano’s Tennessee career.
Does anyone expect the same outcome this time around? Not after the way Tennessee has played over the last four weeks. Quarterback play has been hard to watch, offensive play-calling has been extremely vanilla, and Tennessee’s defense has regressed after a strong start to the season. After stringing together eight straight wins between the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, Pruitt needs a win badly to alleviate some pressure, and stop the bleeding on his third season.
3 Things to Watch
Coaching matchup: Auburn has had two extra weeks to prepare for this game, and Tennessee has had one with the postponement of the Texas A&M game. However, nothing has transpired in the last month to suggest Tennessee’s coaching staff can out-scheme Gus Malzahn and his staff. Halftime adjustments, or lack thereof, have doomed the Vols, who have been outscored 61-7 in the third quarter during this four-game losing skid.
On the other hand, Pruitt has more experience facing a Malzahn-coached unit than he does any other coach in the conference. Throughout his five years as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, Malzahn is the only head coach Pruitt faced in every single season. Pruitt was 5-0 in that span, and his defenses allowed just over 15 points per game. This was evident in the 2018 win at Auburn when Pruitt was calling defensive plays and displayed one of the best coaching performances of his Tennessee tenure. If Pruitt is able to telegraph Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ gameplan, Tennessee might have a shot on Saturday.
Tennessee’s defense vs Auburn’s rushing attack: Tennessee’s rush defense is far from a strength of this team, in the bottom half of the SEC this season allowing over 160 rush yards per game. In fact, the Vols’ front has taken a step back in this category since Pruitt fired defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and took over that position group following the Kentucky game. Through the first four games, Tennessee allowed over 156 rush yards per game. In the last two games with Pruitt as the defensive line coach, the Vols have allowed 185 rush yards per game.
Auburn runs the ball well, at a 171 yards per game clip. Freshman running back Tank Bigsby is putting together an impressive season, with over 500 rush yards and five touchdowns to this point. Tennessee’s defensive line must win its battles in the trenches on Saturday to keep Auburn from controlling the game and setting up play-action for quarterback Bo Nix.
Quarterback play: The third, and most obvious key for the Vols is the quarterback position. It has been a pile of hot garbage engulfed in flames in 2020. Jarrett Guarantano’s wild inconsistencies have continued, JT Shrout’s lone pass attempt of the season was an interception, Brian Maurer looks like a chicken with its head cut off when he’s on the field, and this staff appears to be terrified to trot out freshman and former 5-star Harrison Bailey. Bailey entered the game late in the loss to Arkansas, mostly taking check downs in garbage time.
In the last four games, Tennessee has thrown four touchdown passes against six interceptions, hardly giving itself a chance on offense. Guarantano has been in concussion protocol since the loss at Arkansas but was back practicing this week and will be with the team at Auburn. It is unclear who will take the first snaps at quarterback for the Vols, and there simply is not a reliable option right now. Whoever it is, Tennessee simply has to stop beating itself at the most important position on the field.
Tennessee wins if….
The Vols could come away with the upset if they are able to replicate the 2018 performance that allowed them to beat the Tigers on the road. In that game, Alontae Taylor scooped up a Jarrett Stidham fumble and scored, and Tennessee picked Stidham off twice while sacking him twice. Guarantano was 21-of-32 in that game, for 328 yards and two touchdowns.
Quite simply, Tennessee must find ways to force turnovers and get its defense off the field. This has been a constant struggle all season. The Vols have only forced two interceptions this season, and they came in the first two games. No matter who starts at quarterback, it has to be a clean game, and Tennessee fans need to hope Pruitt continues to be an Achilles heel for Gus Malzahn.
Tennessee is in a tailspin right now. Pruitt is in danger of losing this fanbase, and there is no quicker way of doing that than turning four straight losses into five.
Tennessee Volunteers at No. 23 Auburn Tigers (-10.5)
Location: Auburn, Alabama (Jordan-Hare Stadium)
TV Broadcast Crew: Joe Tessitore, Greg McElroy, Allison Williams
Radio: Vol Network, 104-5 The Zone
Radio Broadcast Crew: Bob Kesling, Tim Priest, Kasey Funderburg, John Wilkerson, Brent Hubbs
Weather: Clear skies, high of 72 and low of 52