A Must Win Game.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Must Win Game.

Can Auburn roll over Tennessee?
(Photo by Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports.)

     War Eagle, everybody! Saturday morning bright and early, the Auburn Tigers will host the Tennessee Volunteers. Both teams come into this game as damaged goods, and Auburn is a double digit favorite. Auburn has not been impressive offensively this season, but goes against a Tennessee defense that has given up a bunch of points against Power-Five opponents. Before the season started, many folks pointed to this game as Auburn’s easiest this season, in the SEC. Now, it becomes a game that the Tigers must win, or else face losing out on a bowl game, and staying home for the holidays.

     It has come to this. Auburn needs 6 wins to become bowl eligible, and currently has 4. The Liberty Flames are the only non-conference game left, which should get the Tigers to 5 wins. If Auburn can’t beat Tennessee, is it reasonable to expect them to beat Ole Miss, or Texas A&M, much less Georgia and Alabama on the road? Auburn has to face the Rebels, the Bulldogs and the Tide on the road. Only Texas A&M is at home, and Auburn has never beaten Texas A&M in Jordan Hare Stadium.

     Tennessee needs this game, too. Standing currently at 2-3 overall, the Vols need 4 wins in their last 7 to become bowl eligible. Only Charlotte remains, on the non-conference slate. Somehow, the Vols will have to get 3 wins out of a slate that includes at Auburn, Alabama, at South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and at Vanderbilt.

     Auburn has paper advantages, in this game. Both teams are remarkably similar, if one simply looks at team stats. What really separates these two teams is scoring defense, against Power Five opponents. Auburn is giving up 16 points per game against Washington, LSU, Arkansas and MSU. Tennessee is giving up 41.7 points per game against West Virginia, Florida and Georgia. Arguably, Tennessee has played a tougher slate. Nonetheless, this might be a chance for the moribund Auburn offense to get in gear. Unfortunately, the play calling must change. Too much this year, Auburn plays drives out like this: First down, run it up the middle for a yard or less. Second and long, try to get it back on a screen (sometimes successful), or a bomb (almost never successful.) Third and long, scramble well short, get sacked or throw it away.

     Tennessee has not run the ball well against Power Five competition, and Auburn’s strength on defense is stopping the run. At least until last week, against Mississippi State. Tennessee is averaging just 4.2 yards per carry, and that factors in a couple of mismatch games against East Tennessee State and UTEP. What should worry the Tiger defense is that Tennessee is averaging 8.6 yards per pass, a decent number. And, a lot of teams have thrown balls up for grabs against Auburn, and either converted 3rd and long, or gotten a pass interference flag and automatic first down out of it. Heck, that was LSU’s whole offensive philosophy, down the stretch in that matchup!

     A week ago, I’d have figured Auburn to have a huge advantage on special teams, but that’s only if Auburn doesn’t drop punt return opportunities on the ground this week, and turn the ball over. Tennessee is good punting, Auburn has been great, thus far. Auburn kicks touchbacks more often than Tennessee. Both teams have blocked punts, but that’s less likely against SEC competition. Auburn has a kick return for a touchdown, too. But Auburn must not drop those punts!

     I would look for some new wrinkles out of Tennessee, as they have had a bye week, to prepare for this game. Auburn needs some new wrinkles, like throwing on first down. See the play-calling narrative, above.

     Weather should not be a factor in this game, as hurricane Michael will be long gone by the time this one kicks off. It should be mostly sunny in Auburn, at around 70 degrees at kickoff, rising into the mid 70s by the end of the game. This game will kick off at 11:00 AM Central Time, and will be televised on The SEC Network. We’ll have our usual open thread up for this game, and a play-by-play at gametime. It’s going to be a strain on this night-shift guy!

A look at other SEC games this weekend, after the jump!

     In addition to the Auburn/Tennessee tilt at 11:00 AM, Florida visits Vanderbilt. This game is often closer than expected, but I don’t expect this one to be that way. Like him or not, Florida head coach Dan Mullen has Florida playing offense in a way not seen since Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer were patrolling the Florida sidelines. Vanderbilt has not scored more than 17 points against anyone with a pulse, this season.

     The SEC Game of the Week on CBS is Georgia at LSU. I thought that this might be a great game, a couple of weeks ago. However, LSU fans don’t get as stoked for an afternoon vs. evening game. And last week, when the LSU offense was asked to pick it up and drive the distance for a winner, they threw a pick six against a pressure defense. LSU’s defense may keep this game close, but I don’t see much offensive success for the Bengal Tiger, in this one.

     Also at 2:30, Texas A&M visits South Carolina. The Aggies held up at home surprisingly well against the undefeated Kentucky Kats. Can they do it on the road against a hot and cold South Carolina team?

     In the evening 6:00 PM slate, Missouri visits Alabama. I’m expecting that Alabama will continue to score 50 or more points, this week. Missouri might have some opportunities, offensively, but they won’t be able to keep up with the Tide.

     Ole Miss visits Arkansas in the late game, at 6:30 PM. After looking really terrible in early September, Arkansas has shown fight, although not successfully enough to win games. Might a home game against defense-optional Ole Miss be the difference? Arkansas will have to get a lot better at protecting the football, on offense.

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