Kevin C. Cox
If Auburn can't find a way to win in Nashville, the Tigers could very well be staring at an 0-8 conference record in 2012.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Vanderbilt was never supposed to be a must-win, and the game at Nashville certainly should not have been Auburn's only hope for an SEC win in 2012. Alas, the Tigers stumble into the Music City at 1-5 overall and 0-4 in SEC play. Considering the performances Gene Chizik's squad have provided this season, one has to squint pretty hard to see a victory against Texas A&M, Georgia or Alabama. Chizik made history in 2010, leading Auburn to its first national title since 1957. If he wants to avoid making history in 2012, he likely needs to win Saturday at Vanderbilt stadium. Otherwise, it will take a serious upset at some point for the Tigers to avoid their first winless SEC campaign since 1950.
|AU||SEC Rank||VU||SEC Rank||Adv.|
|3rd Down %||29.9||12||28.1||13||AU|
|Red Zone Scoring %||78.5||9||69.5||14||AU|
|Red Zone TD %||28.5||14||34.8||13||VU|
|Opp. Pass Rating||142.4||12||103.6||5||VU|
|Opp. 3rd Down %||35.6||10||33.3||t-6||VU|
|Red Zone Scoring %||76.0||6||89.4||12||AU|
|Opp. Red Zone TD %||48.9||4||42.1||2||VU|
A look at the overall numbers gives the impression that Vanderbilt has a big advantage in this game. And even though the Commodores are better than the Tigers in 18 of the 25 compiled statistics, that isn't really the case. Both teams have been fairly impotent on offense, and both teams have favorable matchups. This game will come down to which team can take advantage of its advantages.
For Auburn to be successful, the Tigers have to establish a ground game. Averaging 125.5 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry just isn't good enough, especially with the quarterback problems the Tigers are facing. Even when not taking sacks into account. Auburn averages 149.0 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. Those numbers are better, but they would still rank 10th and ninth, respectively, in the SEC. To sustain offensive success in Nashville, running back Tre Mason should receive a career high in carries this week. If he doesn't, the offense will likely encounter the same problems it has run into all season.
If Auburn is able to run the ball, it will fall on the quarterback's shoulders to manage the game well -- i.e. don't turn the ball over. Auburn has given the ball away too many times this year, evident in the Tigers No. 124 national ranking in turnover differential. It doesn't matter how well Auburn moves this ball if the Tigers end drives by handing the ball to the Commodores. Clint Moseley will be charged with making accurate throws and knowing when to throw the ball away. It will be up to Loeffler to give his quarterback the best possible chance at success. Allow the run to set up the pass, and then call easy underneath throws and deeper passes off play action. That gameplan worked in the first half against Ole Miss. There's no reason it can't work for 60 minutes against Vanderbilt.
On defense, it's time for the young faces to shine. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are set to see major increases in snaps. Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones should receive playing time at cornerback. Brian VanGorder said before the season that playing time would be based on production, not knowledge of the offense, and that finally seems to be the case. Some of Auburn's older players are giving way to their younger, more talented teammates. Against Vanderbilt, these players should give Auburn's defense a better chance at making stops. The Commodores shouldn't spread the field too often, which will allow the younger Tigers to just line up and make plays. The biggest challenge for Auburn will be limiting wide receiver Jordon Matthews without allowing Zac Stacy to run and Jordan Rodgers to throw underneath. If the Tigers back off Matthews, history shows that Vanderbilt will be able to eat up yardage in smaller doses and move down the field. VanGorder should employ bracket coverage on Matthews, but it will be up to Auburn's secondary to execute and shut down the Vandy passing game. This isn't a time to be tentative. If the Tiger DBs play aggressively in coverage, they'll be rewarded. If not, Vanderbilt will sustain long drives.
If the game is close and is decided by special teams, there isn't much separation between the Tigers and Commodores. Auburn kicker Cody Parkey has hit 9 of 10 field goals this year, and Vandy's Carey Spear is 10 of 13. There isn't much of an advantage to be gained by either team in hidden yardage, as the kickoff, punt and return numbers are similar. The one are Auburn could make an impact is kickoff returns. When Onterio McCalebb runs it back, he always has a good chance at going all the way to the end zone.
Looking at where Vanderbilt ranks in most statistical categories, it's clear that Auburn won't have a better opportunity at picking up an SEC win this season. Texas A&M's spread offense will give the Tigers fits, and Georgia and Alabama are Georgia and Alabama. For the Tigers, it's now or never. Auburn has much more talent than Vanderbilt, and if Chizik can get his players to meet their potential, they should be able to walk out of Vanderbilt Stadium with a win.
Unfortunately, nothing we've seen from Auburn this year points to that happening. With so many young players stepping in on defense, mistakes are bound to happen. And on offense, it's only a matter of time before Loeffler gets away from an effective gameplan or Auburn commits a crushing turnover. Saturday's game will be close through three quarters, but the Tigers' final-quarter woes will strike again, and the Commodores will put the game away. Vanderbilt 27, Auburn 17.