Auburn travels to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville Saturday for an 11 a.m. CT game against Tennessee, an opponent the Tigers haven't faced in four years. To get a little insight from the other side of the matchup, we swapped questions and answers with Joel Hollingsworth, editor-in-chief at SB Nation Tennessee blog Rocky Top Talk.
College and Magnolia: How are the early days of the Butch Jones era going? What was the fan reaction when he was hired, and have opinions changed at all after his first nine games in Knoxville?
Joel Hollingsworth: It is still early, but I think most Vols fans would say that things are right on track. The most obvious goals going into Jones's first season were (1) get bowl eligible, (2) hold on to the recruiting class, and (3) get that elusive "big win," loosely defined as a win over a ranked team, which we hadn't done in an agonizing 19 tries. Even with Missouri and Auburn being much tougher opponents than expected, we're still on track for bowl eligibility just by beating Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which we are expected to do. We got the upset against South Carolina a few weeks ago, we nearly got another one against Georgia the week before that, and thanks to Auburn doing so well, we have yet another opportunity for one this weekend at home. And the Class of 2013 is not only holding strong, it almost seems to be picking up steam, and it's looking like it will indeed finish in the Top 5 when all is said and done, perhaps even Top 3. We're not done yet, but we've hit one of three goals, we have an opportunity to exceed the goal in that category, and the remaining goals are still looking attainable, so we're feeling pretty good about the trajectory and the job that Butch Jones is doing.
CaM: The Vols seem to be a much, much better team at home. What are they doing in Neyland that they're failing to do on the road? Do you expect that trend to continue this weekend?
JH: Well, they're not playing playing No. 1 Alabama or (now former) No. 2 Oregon at home for one. But it is also a team that lacks experience with winning big games, and it is extremely difficult to get a "here we go again" mentality turned around. It's really hard to pinpoint any one thing, but if I had to pick, I'd say it's just that they believe better at home, and as silly as that sounds, it matters. Neyland Stadium, much like the football team, had become a bit stale over the years, and Jones has done some things to bring some energy back to the gameday atmosphere, and I think that is actually paying some dividends. Just a couple of examples: During the South Carolina game, he played a clip that was an inspirational message (not just a "Here's Butch talking video" but an emotional clip with game footage) from him directly to fans crediting them for their part in the near upset of Georgia the previous week and asking them for a similar effort against the Gamecocks. They have a former player/DJ on the sideline who pumps up the crowd from the sideline now. They used to play what I called a lullaby before the 4th quarter, but that's gone. Now, the team sprints to the other side of the field before the 2nd and 4th quarters as a message to the other team (and to themselves) that they are more ready to finish than the other team. All of this kind of stuff translates into a belief you can see on the sideline, and while it doesn't always translate into wins, fans love it, and it creates an exciting symbiotic relationship between the team and the fans that almost certainly isn't there to the same degree for road games.
CaM: What's Tennessee going to try to do on offense against Auburn? Will freshman backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs being forced into action affect the gameplan?
JH: This is Dobbs' second start, so we're still trying to figure that out ourselves, but my best guess is that you'll see more of what you saw against Missouri, but hopefully (for us) better execution. There should be a fair amount of read option with Dobbs actually keeping it much more often than we'd seen when Justin Worley was at quarterback, but also with a nice balance in the run/pass ratio. Our offensive line and running game was embarrassed last week against Missouri and called out this week in practice, so you'd expect them to come out ready to prove something, so we're hoping for a much more productive running game, fewer penalties, fewer negative plays, and fewer dropped passes and mistakes.
CaM: What about the Vols' defense? How will Tennessee try to stop Auburn's attack?
JH: Most people I know are, like me, terrified of Gus Malzahn and Auburn's rushing attack against our rush defense. Two of us have only half joked in separate and independently-written posts this weeks that Tennessee should put two guys on Sammie Coates and the other nine guys in the box to (try to) stop the run. (I actually said this; Chris hinted at it.) We don't have the defensive line/blitzers to stop plays behind the line of scrimmage before they start, so that doesn't work. We don't really have speed in space, so once you get loose, we're in trouble. If Auburn decides to try to run up the middle, that would be playing into a relative strength. But apart from that, our defense is probably in for a long day. Our best chance is probably for our offense to keep up.
CaM: I would imagine Tennessee's last-in-the-SEC rush defense vs. Auburn's best-in-the-SEC rush offense is your biggest matchup concern. But what matchup gives you hope? Where might the Volunteers have an advantage?
JH: Yeah, you could say that. Auburn's passing offense is mysterious. It certainly looks like the one place where Tennessee might have a true advantage, at least when you look at total passing yards per game. But we've also noticed that the Tigers are just fine at passing efficiency and passing yards per completion, so it's probably more a matter of "they don't pass" rather than "they can't pass." Still, because they don't, it's an area that needs to be tested, so I'd expect us to load up and focus on selling out to stop the run. If we can do that, it will be interesting to see how Auburn's passing attack fares against what has been a pretty opportunistic pass defense for Tennessee.
CaM: How do you think the game plays out? What's your final score prediction?
More from College and Magnolia:
- Breaking down Nick Marshall vs. Joshua Dobbs
- Auburn vs. Tennessee: TV schedule, key players and more
- Wednesdays with (Oscar) Whiskey: 'ville to 'ville to victory
- College football viewing guide: Week 11
- Auburn in the NFL: Week 9