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Friday, September 26, 2008

Auburn-Tennessee preview

As promised (though a little later than I would have liked) here’s a look at the Auburn-Tennessee game for tomorrow, which I think could be closer than I originally thought.

I made the prediction of 27-13 Auburn in a writers pick ’em on AuburnSports.com, but the more I look at the Volunteers’ defense, which played much better than it appears in last week’s 30-6 blowout against Florida, the more I think it will be a lower-scoring affair. Revised pick: Auburn 20, Tennessee 13.

On a side note, Auburn’s favored by 6½ on most betting sites. And as usual, Vegas knows a heck of a lot more about predicting scores than I do. (On a second side note, I swear I made my revised pick before looking up the line. Really, I did. Why would I lie to you?)

ANYWAY, let’s break this sucker down position by position, shall we?

Quarterback: Neither team has a Heisman contender at this spot. Auburn’s Chris Todd had his moments against a pretty darn good LSU defense last week, throwing for 250 yards and making some big plays. I still don’t think his arm looks all too impressive and wonder, after his surgery last offseason, if it will ever be back to normal strength. Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton might be as difficult to figure out. He’s fourth in the SEC in passing with 197.0 yards per game, but has thrown four touchdowns and isn’t in the top-10 in the conference in passing efficiency. Whoever doesn’t kill his team with mistakes might be the better QB in this one. Advantage: Push.

Running back: It’s funny how much Brad Lester’s injuries have grabbed headlines the last couple weeks. Ben Tate, despite being a backup, has led the team in rushing in every game and will probably do so again on Saturday. Vols running back Arian Foster sounds like the real deal. Anybody who is closing in on being a school’s leading rusher has to be doing something right. The Tigers have more depth, though. Advantage: Auburn.

Receivers: Auburn’s wideouts looked better against LSU, making some big plays (honestly, though, what receiver wouldn’t have caught that pass Tim Hawthorne did when nobody was in the same zip code?). But it still doesn’t seem like there’s a No. 1 guy in the group. Tennessee’s got Lucas Taylor and Gerald Jones, who have the big-time receiver skills Auburn’s seem to lack. Advantage: Tennessee.

Offensive line: Tough to get the image of the look-out block left tackle Lee Ziemba gave that derailed Auburn’s final drive last week out of my mind. This unit needs to show improvement for the Tigers to get their spread attack going. The Vols, meanwhile, have allowed two sacks in three games. Two! Plus, Tennessee is rushing for 5.1 yards per carry. Auburn’s a yard behind at 4.1. Advantage: Tennessee.

Defensive line: Tough to find a group much better than Auburn’s with Sen’Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman both having all-SEC worthy seasons. The big stat here, I think, is how much pressure they’re putting on the quarterback. The Tigers have 10 sacks this year. The Vols have 3. Case closed. Advantage: Auburn.

Linebackers: There are few linebackers in the conference who have gotten in on more tackles than Tennessee’s Ellix Wilson, who is fourth in the conference with 25 stops. WLB Rico McCoy has made his share of plays too. Auburn’s linebackers probably had one of their worst games against LSU, which ran roughshod over the defense. Advantage: Tennessee.

Secondary: Both groups have been solid this year, though neither probably wants last week’s games on their résumés. Auburn’s depth is a problem here. Corners Jerraud Powers and Walter McFadden are basically pulling iron-man duties, and free safety Zac Etheridge has been banged up. Advantage: Tennessee.

Punting: I’ll break the special teams categories up because they all seem so important. Here’s a category that probably has the biggest disparity. Auburn gets Clinton Durst back after a bout with the flu last week. His absence was noticeable against LSU, when a pair of shanked punts cost Auburn late. Tennessee’s punting game is a mess. The Vols rank last in the SEC in net punting (22.0) and return yards (11.3 avg.). Plus, they gave up a return for a touchdown against Florida. Advantage: Auburn.

Kicking: Auburn’s Wes Byrum didn’t get a chance last week to shake off the short miss he had against Mississippi State. He’s still 5-for-8 on the season. Tennessee’s Daniel Lincoln, an all-SEC kicker last season, is 1-for-4, though two of those misses were from 50-plus. Advantage: Push.

Returners: Robert Dunn didn’t get a chance to do much last week for Auburn, held in check by good LSU punting. He’s still third in the SEC with a 21.4-yard return average. The Tigers’ kick return game has been abysmal, though, ranking last in the SEC with a 17.8-yard average. Tennessee, meanwhile, is second in kick returns (27.1), thanks in large part to Dennis Rogan, who has eight returns for 215 yards. It’s easier to negate punt returners than kick returners. Advantage: Tennessee.

Coaches: Both Tommy Tuberville and Phil Fulmer, the two longest tenured coaches in the conference, are as seasoned as it comes in the SEC. They know the ups and downs. Tuberville has the advantage of not being under as much pressure. Tennessee is off to its second straight 1-2 start and Fulmer is hearing it from fans (funny, since the Vols seemed to shake off last year’s slow start and make the SEC championship game). Let’s just say it’s never a good sign when the coach is promising fans during his press conference that the coaching staff hasn’t gotten stupid all of a sudden. Advantage: Auburn.

So there it is. Like I said, I think this matchup is a lot closer than a lot of people think. I’ll give the edge to Auburn because I think its defense is better, especially on the d-line, which should be motivated to prove last week was a fluke. And don’t discount the homefield advantage. I can’t picture Auburn losing two straight at Jordan-Hare.

Anybody else have some thoughts?

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