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GAME PREVIEW AND OPEN THREAD: #23 Auburn vs Tennessee

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Tigers. Vols. Football again.

I’m sure you’ve heard the quote that reads something akin to the following:

“THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY FRIEND”

This is the way that Auburn and Tennessee have seen their rivalry over the years. It’s not the Iron Bowl, it’s not the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. There’s no cool nickname, there’s no trophy, there’s really no connection between the schools except that they play in the SEC, and both hate other teams in the conference.

If you’re too young to remember the events of the early 2000s, Alabama thought that Tennessee was their biggest rival due to the Albert Means scandal and Phil Fulmer’s snitchariffic tactices. There are still Bama fans that want to beat Tennessee the most because the Vols were a more competitive and bitter rival back in the 60s and 70s. Both Auburn and Tennessee hate Alabama, and they both hate Georgia. If Auburn played Florida more often, they’d be united in that dislike as well. What I’m saying is that these schools should be mutually interested in both being solid competitive clubs. You both beat Alabama and Georgia and make Atlanta more often than they do, then the SEC is run by the Tigers and Vols. It’s more competition for teams that both sides play every year. Auburn’s interested in Tennessee being good, and vice versa.

For many of the younger SEC fans, Auburn and Tennessee are just kind of two teams in opposite divisions that play once in a while. It’s like that neighbor that you see out walking your dog, but only when you venture to the very far end of the neighborhood.

In fact, after the divisional split got installed in the SEC, Auburn and Tennessee didn’t play for the first six regular seasons and only met for the first time as cross-divisional opponents in the 1997 SEC Championship Game. They met the next two seasons, but then they’d have to wait until 2003/2004, and 2008/2009 for the next meetings.

Once the conference expanded again, Auburn and Tennessee’s rivalry was in danger of becoming even more endangered. The two met in Knoxville in 2013, but then it took five more seasons before the Vols came to Auburn. Before the sporadic nature of this matchup, Auburn and Tennessee played every single year from 1956-1991.

Okay, so it’s like old friends meeting once again. With the way Tennessee’s last decade has gone, coming to Auburn should be like visiting your old buddy and seeing his nice house with his pretty wife and his well-behaved kids as he talks about his great job and his hefty brokerage account. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s been a barista at Starbucks the last several years as they wait for their acting gig to pan out. However, the Vols’ last visit culminated in them spiting the Tigers and leaving an upper decker in the guest bathroom. We haven’t forgotten.

Looking back at 2018, that loss was described as one of Gus’ worst at Auburn (before this year’s South Carolina game). We had no business losing to Tennessee that day. I was there, with my wife, who was wearing the Peyton Manning jersey I’d gotten her since I figured that would be the only enjoyment she’d have that day. Instead she sang Rocky Top in my face the whole time. Awful.

Now, the Tigers have a chance to redeem themselves today. Auburn’s playing its best football of the year (or was... three weeks ago). We’ll assume the rhythm and cohesion is still there after an extended time off. Tennessee, on the other hand...

Things were looking so great for the Vols earlier this year. They boasted the nation’s longest winning streak after LSU lost the opener, and they handled South Carolina and Missouri to start the year before heading to Georgia. In Athens, Tennessee led the Dawgs at halftime, and then had a witch cast a spell of lethargy on them in the locker room.

Since the half at Georgia, Tennessee has been outscored 136-37. Is that bad? Their record? 0-4. Overall? 2-4. Jeremy Pruitt’s chicken wing mask hasn’t helped hide the fact that the offense is struggling mightily and the defense can’t stop the run. Still, as a head coach or defensive coordinator, Pruitt’s teams have gone 5-1 against Gus Malzahn.

Will the Tigers retain the rhythm that they found in the win over LSU? Will Tennessee continue to suck? Or will the time off have reversed everything that we learned during the first half of the season? We’ll find out today.

SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads the all-time series with a 28-22-3 record against the Vols, including the longest winning streak in the rivalry’s history. That came on a six-game spurt from 2003 until the Vols broke that streak in 2018.

LAST MEETING: Two years ago we got GOT in Auburn. Jeremy Pruitt outsmarted Gus Malzahn, and Jarrett Guarantano threw jump balls to Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings, and Marquez Callaway all game long. Tennessee ended up winning 30-24, as Auburn turned the ball over three times at home.

LAST WEEK: By “last week” I mean “three weeks ago”. Auburn got the best win of the season, beating LSU 48-11 behind 380 total yards from Bo Nix and a mean defensive effort. Tennessee, meanwhile, lost 24-13 to Arkansas for their fourth consecutive defeat.

KEYS FOR AUBURN:

  1. Keep the rhythm rolling. We touched on it above, but after the loss to South Carolina, Auburn scored the gutsy win at Ole Miss and then destroyed LSU with every single part of the team looking sharp. Heading into the bye week, you figured we had another game against a putrid MSU team to iron out any more kinks and rest guys that weren’t needed. Now, thankfully the whole team is going to be rested, and injuries should be healed, but we have no idea how the time off will affect both sides. Auburn was flying high, and the Vols were in the dumps. Have to keep that dynamic going today. Plus, we don’t know who’s going to be out for both sides as a result of positive COVID tests. That’s something that you can’t predict and won’t be able to assess damage on prior to kickoff.
  2. Continue to improve on both lines of scrimmage. What helped Auburn against Ole Miss and LSU was a solid performance on the offensive line to start. The Tigers ran for 224 yards in Oxford before going for another 206 against LSU. They’ve hit the 200 yard mark in four straight games, and it seems like the offense figured out what it wants to do. Across the way, the defense has made strides as well. The huge rushing performance from Ole Miss aside, Auburn limited LSU to 32 yards on the ground, and the defense has forced five turnovers in the last two wins, largely in part to big efforts from guys like Derick Hall on the line.
  3. Avoid the things that make games kooky. Two years ago, it was two picks by Jarrett Stidham. In the loss to South Carolina this year, we didn’t know what the offense needed to be. Same things with the Athens debacle. For Auburn, they’re a more talented and established team this season, and the most likely way to give Tennessee the confidence to win arrives in the form of something bizarre happening to give the Vols momentum. At just 2-4, this is a team looking for a reason to quit, and with the way they’ve played the last four weeks, they don’t seem to be putting up much of a fight. Jump up early and don’t give them a reason for happiness.

STRESS-O-METER:

Well, Phil Fulmer has COVID, and I’m ready to watch Auburn roll the Great Pumpkin’s guys down Donahue Drive.