One year ago today, Auburn sat 4-1 overall and ranked 15th nationally with its only loss coming against sixth-ranked LSU by five points at home. Like this week, they were preparing to make a trip to the state of Tennessee for a nationally televised game. Auburn's 14-13 loss to Vanderbilt would mark the beginning of the end for Tommy Tuberville and start a death spiral that resulted in Auburn going 1-6 to finish the season.
Things feel very different this time around. Yet, here Auburn sits again, preparing for another trip north in what many believe will be its first true test of the year. Despite putting up Playstation-like offensive numbers, Gene Chizik's team has gotten little respect nationally and has yet to crack the top 25 polls.
They will have a chance to change that Saturday night under the lights at Neyland Stadium. Like Chizik says, there are lots of imposters out there. With three conference road games in the next month, Auburn fans will know in a hurry how much progress has been made under this new coaching staff.
Chizik understands the task ahead is not an easy one. "I think we have to get a lot of things cleaned up," he said. "It (Auburn) is a very young team and it is a very thin team. That's a good football team we are going to play. That is going to be the beginning of a tough month, and we are going to have to play lights out to beat them."
The storylines to the Tennessee game are some of the most intriguing anywhere. There are many who still doubt that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's offense can consistently work in the SEC. Never mind that Auburn has topped 500 yards of offense in three of its four wins; or that it has scored 40 points or more three straight times for the first time in school history. To critics, it doesn't mean anything until you play upper-echelon SEC talent.
The Tiger offense will likely face its toughest test until Alabama comes calling in late November. Tennessee coordinator Monte Kiffin, long recognized as the top defensive mind in the NFL, has brought his system to Knoxville and the early results have been impressive.
Heading into last Saturday's win over Ohio, the Volunteer defense ranked fourth nationally and first in the SEC in passing defense. It ranks fifth nationally in total yards, yielding only 197 yards per contest.
Quarterback Chris Todd will have to contend with All-American safety Eric Berry, who may be the best to play the position in the last 10 years. Berry is currently the NCAA active career leader in interceptions with 13.
It looks like Tennessee will be without middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, who blew out his knee in the 34-23 win Saturday. Reveiz is currently the third leading tackler for the Volunteers with 19 on the season.
The biggest storyline will be the two new coaches, Chizik and Lane Kiffin. Hired at virtually the same time, the two have taken very different paths since arriving on campus. Turn on any television during the off-season and there you would find Kiffin. Whether it was accusing Florida's Urban Meyer of cheating or laying out his plans for a Tennessee victory, Kiffin was front and center.
Contrast that to Chizik, who outside of sending his assistant coaches around in limos to high schools or putting on Big Cat weekends, was virtually invisible. A month into the season, you still get the sense that Auburn's new man would rather be anywhere than in front of the cameras.
It's a posture that's being met with huge approval from the Auburn faithful. As for Kiffin, most Volunteer fans say they love the "in your face" personality of its new coach. But deep down, you have to really wonder.
At 2-2 on the season, this week's game is every bit as big for Tennessee. They welcome Georgia to town on October 10 and then make the trip to Tuscaloosa the following week. Kiffin knows its put up or shut up time.
It should be an interesting week of build up for these old rivals.
Auburn takes on Tennessee at 6:45 p.m. CT from Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The game will be carried live by ESPN and can be heard on the Auburn ISP Network.