Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday preview: Tennessee

Quick programming note: I know I need to get the second road trip post up, but I'd hoped to get more of it finished yesterday afternoon and wrapping it up now might mean no UT preview. So here's this, and hopefully road trip part 2 will show up either later today or tomorrow a.m. JCCW management apologizes for any inconvenience.

Montario Hardesty is quite possibly Tennessee's best offensive weapon, which is why Dave Clawson gave him five carries against Florida.

Cheese Puffery? The last one I managed to complete, yes; it's available here.

At stake: For Auburn, any realistic hopes of bagging an SEC title or BCS bowl bid. Pulling out the LSU game might have given them a one-respectable-loss margin for error, but that sort of luxury is dust in the wind now. It's either win out until the Amen Corner, or start playing for a New Year's Day invitation and good ol'-fashioned pride. Sad, tough, but true.

For Tennessee, despite the noxious atmosphere surrounding the program in the wake of their second straight evisceration at the hands of the Gators, I'm not convinced yet that Fulmer can't once again drag his career kicking and screaming back from the abyss. With the momentum of a win on the Plains, the Tide coming to Neyland, and the remainder of the schedule relatively cushy--sure, trips to Columbia and Nashville and the game against Kentucky won't be easy, but they're toss-ups at worst no matter how far the Vols sink--it's conceivable Tennessee could finish the season taking eight of their last nine, win their bowl, and wrap things up at a blissful 10-4.

Then again, it's equally conceivable--and perhaps even a bit more likely--that road losses to Auburn and Georgia boot the season into a death spiral and the Vols pack it in to the tune of 5-7 or even 4-8. Fulmer's last best chance to steer his team onto the former road rather than the latter comes this Saturday.

When Tennessee has the ball: maybe the band should be cueing up the Keystone Kops theme?

Because, yeah, Tennessee's been that sloppy. Their offense isn't actually that terrible at moving the ball--55th in total offense despite playing 2/3rds of their games against BCS defenses, as opposed to our beloved Auburn Tigers, who sit at 73rd after taking on Sun Belt and C-USA representatives--but it's a wonder they can even walk across the field given how often they shoot themselves in the foot. Against UCLA, the Vols had drives of 51 and 73 yards end in a missed FG and a crushing Arian Foster fumble, respectively, for a total of zero points. Against Florida--in a game in which the Vols actually outgained the Gators 258-243 en route to somehow losing by 24 points--the Vols first successfully drove 72 yards (and ate eight full minutes off the clock) just to give Jonathan Crompton the chance to botch a goalline handoff for a Gator recovery. Then, on their very next possession, the Vols drove sixty yards to the Gator 1 only for Crompton to toss an incompletion on third down and a pick on fourth. Total points: again, zero. Total number of aneurysms induced in the Vol faithful: untold thousands.

Part of me wants to think that the random nature of most turnovers dictates that eventually Tennessee's going to find a way to turn all those yards into points, but most of me thinks that's way too much evidence not to think it's a continuing (and delightfully welcome) trend. It's not like the Vols have been a disciplined team to this point outside of the opponent's red zone; they committed nine penalties apiece in the two losses and rank 108th in the country in penalty yardage.

What Auburn wants more than anything else, then, is to keep the Vols from connecting on the big scoring play. Rhoads and Co. have to force Crompton--in particular--to execute his way all the way down the field and into the end zone on play 10 or 11 of a drive, rather than letting him avoid the killer mistake by scoring long-distance-style on play five or six. I'd be more confident about Auburn's chances to accomplish this if they hadn't failed so miserably at it against LSU, watching the Tigers score from 39, 22, and 18 yards out. Gerald Jones aside, Tennessee won't bring the same caliber of receivers to the table LSU brought, but that doesn't mean Auburn can afford the same kinds of breakdowns in the secondary they had last Saturday.

If Auburn can avoid catching the Crucial Mistake bug themselves from the Tennessee offense, they should be able to keep the Vols mostly under wraps. The Clawfense had plenty of success on the ground against UCLA and UAB but found the sledding much tougher against Florida, averaging just 3.1 yards a pop over 31 carries. Crompton's 5.8 yards-per-attempt mark against Florida isn't awful, but the nine yards-per-completion mark sure as hell is and it's possible even those numbers are a result of Florida's still-questionable secondary; Crompton passed for an eye-gougingly bad 4.5 yards-per-attempt against UCLA.

To be clear, Tennessee's not Mississippi St. For starters, their offensive line is good enough that they're going to give Hardesty and Foster some holes, especially given the way LSU shoved Auburn around for the duration of the second half. It's obvious Crompton has talent if he can ever get his head screwed on correctly and Auburn's not likely to pressure him much; Florida didn't record a sack. After their modicum of success against the Gators, it seems unlikely the Vols aren't going to put together at least a couple of drives. There's plenty of potential here.

Nonetheless, unless the misalignment and conditioning issues Auburn showed last week are more serious than we're led to believe, until Tennessee's offense accomplishes something other than self-destruct against a defense with a pulse, I don't see why we'd expect them to do otherwise.

When Auburn has the ball: it should not look the way it looked when Auburn had the ball against LSU.

Gimpy arm and all, it made sense for Chris Todd to air it out against LSU. Their secondary was--and is--something of a question mark. The run game was going nowhere. They were pretty seriously overplaying the underneath flips and screens that worked so well against Southern Miss.

But the bombs-away approach is not going to fly against Tennessee, not no way, not no how. Both safeties--Eric Berry at SS and Demetrice Morley at FS--were rated as bona fide studs coming out of high school and have done nothing to disprove those assessments; Berry is an All-American candidate as a sophomore. Brent Vinson is the proverbial lockdown guy at one corner and there's depth galore behind him. The Vols picked off UCLA four times, UAB three times, and frightened the Gator coaches into basically skipping the passing game altogether--Florida ran 39 times while only attempting 15 passes all game, and even those only resulted in a distinctly un-Tebow-like average of 6.4 yards-an-attempt.

So, having Chris Todd and his Magical Rubber Arm throw between 30 and 40 passes again, with many of them of the 15-yards-or-more variety? Bad, bad idea, unless you like the idea of Berry dancing 60 yards for a touchdown the other way. UCLA had great success throwing intermediate routes over the middle of the field (thanks in part to DC John Chavis's criminally slow reaction to this strategy, as Hooper points out below) and this seems worth a shot if Todd can make smart decisions with the ball. But it was those kind of routes that got him in trouble against UL-Monroe and off the top of my head, I can't remember Franklin asking him to throw them much since. Despite Robert Dunn's emergence, Todd and the Auburn receivers taking on this secondary is far and away the biggest mismatch in Tennessee's favor. If Franklin makes good on his veiled threats to throw into the teeth of this mismatch anyway, the Vols will win the game, end of depressing story.

Meaning that Auburn has to get of their running game, oh, about 2,347 times what they got out of it against LSU. Although UCLA went nowhere against the Vols, there's hope otherwise; UAB (!) averaged 4.2 a carry on 26 attempts and Florida gained 3.8 a pop (and punted just one time) despite essentially telling the Tennessee defense "Hey, we're about to run the ball" for the duration of the second half. While the Vol front four looks stout, they're breaking in a couple of new linebackers and it hasn't looked like Chavis has put them in the best position to succeed. Theoretically, an offensive line of Auburn's quality should be able to get the likes of Lester and Tate past the front four and into areas where they can pick up some yards.

But, of course, theories only mean so much when 1. over the past three games Auburn has averaged a whopping 2.98 yards per carry (with one of those games against the less-than-sterling Southern Miss rush defense) 2. our best running back--that's Lester--hasn't yet moved out of his apartment over the Indian burial ground 3. our offensive coordinator seems mostly unconcerned with such matters, even if the head coach isn't. The guess here is that Auburn sees more success on the ground than we saw against LSU--they couldn't have less, could they?--but that the mythical, sought-after BREAKOUT game will still have to wait.

And given how badly the thought of Todd throwing one of his patented "This Pass Can Be Used as a Flotation Device" duck jobs anywhere near the vicinity of Berry gives me the heebie jeebies, I think it's safe to say the same goes for the offense as a whole. If they pull off the same two-TD performance they did last week with just maybe one or two field goal attempts tacked on, I won't complain. Much.

When special teams is on the field: Auburn has to win the game.

To be frank, even as good as Auburn's defense has been (second-half vs. LSU sort of excluded) and as mistake-prone as the Vols' offense seems to be, I don't think Auburn's O matches up against their D any better than vice versa. Maybe even worse, depending on how accurate Todd manages to be. I'm not expecting total yardage to lean heavily to one side or the other, in other words, not planning on seeing one team rip off march after march with the other stifled. Down-to-down, it looks about even to me.

Which makes special teams the decider, and that's where we finally get some good news for Auburn: they should flat own the punting contest. Tennessee is 109th in opposing punt returns and 116th--fifth from bottom--in gross punting. Auburn, meanwhile, ranks 60th in that stat despite the Shoemaker abortion from last game, is 17th in opponent's punt returns, and ranks seventh in punt returning their own selves. Assuming Durst is healthy and back to his old (as in "three weeks ago") Saturn V self, each exchange of punts should be a big boost in field position for Auburn. Remember, too, that Tennessee had a punt blocked for a score against UCLA.

Kickoffs are a different story--where have you gone, 2006 Tristan Davis? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you--but in a low-scoring game I can't imagine there will be enough of them to be a huge deal unless someone breaks one or there's an endgame situation a la LSU in 2007 KNOCK ON EVERY PIECE OF WOOD IN YOUR HOME. Kicking should be about even--both Byrum and Daniel Lincoln (he of the game-ending miss vs. UCLA) were money last year and have been curiously shaky thus far this year.

In any case, Auburn's punting advantage should be great enough to declare a Tiger win in special teams. If it's not, well, we only have to look back a week to see what can happens as a result.

Intangible reason for worry: We're all familiar with Tubby's ability to rally the troops when the chips are down and [insert cliche here]; it's not really that much of a surprise he hasn't lost back-to-back SEC games since 2003. Auburn should--should--be ready to play Saturday, despite the potential LSU hangover.

But no one has more lives than Phil Fulmer, not even Phil Fulmer: the Cat Version. In a weird way, I think the pressure's pretty much been lifted from him and his team this week; not a whole lot of people are expecting the Vols to win this game and maybe even fewer are expecting Fulmer to survive the season. Yeah, as I mentioned above, another loss is almost certainly the final nail in Fulmer's coffin--but when the hammer's already in mid-swing, do you really have anything to lose?

Not to mention that, while Auburn lost last week and aren't the prohibitive favorite they'd be if they'd pulled out the LSU game, the Tigers are still a decided home favorite facing a talented, wounded team. Again, coached by Phil Fulmer. The historical trends aren't exactly entirely encouraging.

Intangible reason for confidence: From the Tennessee Cheese Puff piece:
The Vols have also been wretched on the road of late--they've lost their last three away games against ranked teams by a combined 70 points, and that's not even taking the (41-17) beatdown in Tuscaloosa into consideration.
Remember that that was written before Tennessee dropped a roadie against a UCLA team that has since lost to BYU and Arizona by a combined score of 90-10.

Between this sort of road malaise and a team morale level that can't lie too far above "taking our ball and going home" at the moment, I do wonder if Auburn might not coax the Vols into imploding with a couple of quick early scores. It's not likely--"couple of scores" is about Auburn's current ceiling, period, forget the "quick" and "early"--but this is the best-case scenario.

Three Wishes: 1. Kodi Burns. 2. More than the three receptions our running backs picked up against LSU; I know Ben Tate could have grabbed one or two more and that they had plenty of touches in the backfield, but a greater effort needs to be made to get them out in space. 3. Two sacks from the defensive ends; hard as it to believe, that would equal their output from the last three games combined, with both of those belonging to Coleman. Neither Goggans nor Carter have one since ULM. Tennessee is obviously going to be a tough nut to crack in pass-protection, but with as mucg inexperience roaming the secondary as Auburn has, the Tigers must have more of a pass rush from their ends.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss, though another victory sans an offensive touchdown--very much still within the realm of reality--would obviously not be a whole lot of fun.

Your bottom line: This game, to put it delicately, scares the ever-lovin' complete holy crap out of me.

Because my guess is that it comes down to whichever quarterback makes The Mistake first. They're both going to make one and probably several. But there's going to be one Mistake that's going to decisively tilt what should otherwise be a balanced game in one particular direction. Oh, it's coming.

And against this defense, and with his arm so noticeably unable to keep up with his substantial ability to read and react, God bless him, I don't have a ton of confidence in Chris Todd to let Jonathan Crompton be the one who takes the plunge. I feel almost sure in saying Todd is going to throw an interception or two against this secondary; the question is whether Auburn's going to be in position to survive said interception(s) or not.

They very well could be. The Tigers own a distinct advantage in a punting game that should play an even bigger role in an offensively-challenged contest like this one than it would normally. Last week Tennessee could not break into the end zone against a team that, at worst, is likely Auburn's defensive equal. I really, really would like to think that between Tubby's unhappiness with the ground game and Franklin's alleged shrewedness in not pressing against a bad matchup, Auburn's going to do a better job running the football. And as much as I respect Fulmer's ability to pull victorious rabbits out of losing hats, I respect Tubby's gameplanning ability--particular after galling losses, in what's now a must-win game--a heck of a lot more than I do Fulmer's.

So, basically, Auburn's got enough going for them that if they can get out in front early on, they can press those advantages long enough to come away with the win. But, if Todd throws the early interception ... if the Vols' heads perk up instead of sag ... if the nerves on the Auburn sideline tighten up instead of loosen ... if Crompton and the Vol offense finally feel like they can put it all together instead of watching it all fall apart ... Auburn will be in serious trouble. I wouldn't have doubted either team's ability to make some kind of charge after halftime of Auburn's last game, but this week, with these two teams' current psychologies? Whichever team goes in at halftime ahead wins the game.

That's the guess here, anyway, and if the game was in Knoxville, I'd probably think that team was Tennessee. But with the game on the Plains and with Tubby's murderous rage to deal with if it's not, I think the odds say--still--that that team is Auburn.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong ...

Auburn 20, Tennessee 16


hooper said...

Hey, congratulations to your Tigers for winning in a brutal, defense-first game! Have a great week!

Jerry Hinnen said...

Thanks, Hooper.

Hostpph said...

I remember when it was popular those people that they can see the future. I didn't know how some of them reach to the tv.