I’m not going to repeat the endless ways in which Auburn and Tennessee suddenly find themselves joined at the hip, in this case “hip” of course being defined as “controversial national laughingstock hired as head coach whose Kool-aid the partisans are desperately, rabidly swilling and selling.” Suffice it to say those ways are numerous and legitimate, and it’s why I think the Auburn-Tennessee game is a secretly one of the most interesting ones on the entire SEC schedule, even for the neutrals. By the end of it, one fan base is going to exhale and say “See, we could have hired that guy,” and the other* will weep into their beers the bitter tears that even Lane Kiffin/Gene Chizik might be a better head coach than their new coach. (Those tears would be particularly bitter on the part of Vol fans, whose coach comes with a much steeper price tag when you consider his father’s salary and obviously enjoys many, many times the national hype of the Chiznick.)
On the surface, it’s just two fallen, mediocre, middle-of-the-pack programs hoping to scramble one more rung up the ladder back to respectability at the expense of the other, the SEC equivalent of, say, UCLA taking on Cal. Beneath the surface? The stakes are huge, the storylines gripping, and the match-ups downright salivating. Yeah, I’m excited about this one.
Last year: Behind arguably the nation’s best player in free safety Eric Berry, the Vols finished third in the nation in total defense … and proved that ye olde “defense wins championships” adage only goes so far when your offense finishes 115th overall and proved remarkably committed to own-foot marksmanship. Phillip Fulmer was fired midseason as the Vols lost Wyoming and finished with just five wins over the murderer’s row of … wait for it … UAB, Northern Illinois, Mississippi St., Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Auburn at least defeated, you know, Tennessee.
Notable previous meeting: I usually reserve this section of the Cheese Puff Preview for tall tales, jokey made-up anecdotes, and other assorted useless B.S. But I’d like to draw attention here to the actual Auburn-Tennessee meeting in 1985, the first time, at six years old, I can ever remember being disappointed in Auburn.
The God’s honest truth is that I don’t remember even the tiniest snippet of the game itself. Auburn had come into Knoxville for their Xth game of the season ranked No. 1, the second time in two seasons we’d hit the top spot in the polls … even if the first visit came on the preseason ballot and hadn’t even lasted past the Kickoff Classic, which (as I’m sure you know) Auburn lost to Miami 20-18.
And yet this trip to No. 1 might have been even less successful than that one. Auburn responded to their presence in the national title race the way they’ve more-or-less always responded, falling behind by multiple touchdowns before they’d even gotten off the bus and losing to the Vols in a 38-20 laugher.
At the time, I was still a little too attention-deficient to watch most live sporting events on television, so the way I kept up with what was going on was Sports Illustrated (well, specifically, the photographs in Sports Illustrated). Thursday afternoon was always the best day of the week to come home from school, because there was always going to be an SI waiting for me on the kitchen table or in the stack of mail on Dad’s desk. So if I don’t remember the game, I do distinctly remember getting off the bus, racing into the house, and snatching up the magazine only to be greeted with this:
Yep: Auburn had lost so badly they had put the other team on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was confusing. Auburn was my team. They were supposed to win. But this time they had lost. And it had been a big loss, a rout, in an important game. They weren’t supposed to do things like that, were they?
But oh, they do do that, don’t they? All our teams do at one point or another. And so in some ways, I credit Tony Robinson and the SI cover above for making me a sports fan, for providing the moment when a kid who liked sports happened to become a kid who knew what was at stake and was forced to hope particular things happened … because this “Tennessee Waltz” business, man, that wasn’t much fun at all.
Series history: All-time it’s 25-21-3 in one of the two great rivalries Auburn lost in the divisional split. But the series has been awfully kind to Auburn of late: they’ve won the last four.
Causes for Alarm:
1. I mentioned Eric Berry already, didn’t I? I should probably mention him again, because on the list of reasons to think the Vols are going to be better this year, Berry’s Nos. 1-4, “the offense can’t possibly be worse” is No. 5, and Berry is Nos. 6-8 again.
The JCCW’s opinion is that, to paraphrase a T.S. Eliot quote about Dante and Shakespeare, Tebow and Berry divide the league between them; there is no third.
2. Although I think that in the end the overall karmic value of having one’s team coached by Lane Kiffin is in the negative (see below), I also think the backlash against him has been so over-the-top as to produce a potential positive karmic effect … since, as I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog before, for all of the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing over Kiffykins’ blabbermouth and the flood of secondary violations, far and away the only truly important thing Kiffin had to do between getting hired and winning ball games this fall was salvage the 2009 recruiting class. And there’s not much debating he did that--the No. 1 recruit in the country, a five-star linebacker snatched away from Les Miles, a top-20 quark back stolen from Herr Meyer himself? That’s impressive, damned impressive.
So while I think Kiffykins is pretty much as in over his head as everyone says he is, it wouldn’t surprise me if the end result of all the “Lane Kiffin, LOLZ” chatter around the SEC photosphere the last few months is a lot of eaten words.
Causes for Confidence
1. That said, if you’re contrasting Chizik and Kiffin, one of the two seeks out reporters and asks them to interview him; the other’s media responses are so milquetoast as to make the local coachbox look like Yogi Berra by comparison. The hiring of one of the two was greeted as a nationwide punch line while the other was seen as a smart gamble, even though both of them arrived at their new jobs with near-identical resumes. While both of them hired assistants with high-visibility, region- (if not nation-) wide profiles, one of them decided the best way to announce the seriousness of his tenure was to take potshots at a rival both known to hold grudges and currently loaded-for-bear; the other has by all accounts kept his head down, worked hard, and earned the respect of his new team. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one of them had a consensus four-star, top-100 overall quarterback already committed to his team when he signed on, who the coach then told to take a hike; the other had no such quarterback and had his staff go out and find one, who along with an overlooked sleeper the previous regime had passed on should have his team set at quarterback for several seasons starting in 2010 at the latest. Meanwhile, the other coach has seen quarterback after quarterback reject his overtures and is in full crisis mode for 2010 and beyond.
Yeah, if you ask me from that description which of these two coaches was going to succeed in the SEC, I’m taking the Chiznick. We’ve seen these salesmen-type, all-talk-and-little-action coaches before in this league: Orgeron, Zook, Jim Donnan. They don’t work. Maybe doesn’t mean a whole lot for one game in Knoxville, I guess, but maybe it’ll mean something?
2. Trooper Taylor was, of course, a loyal Vol for a very long time and seemed to be in line for the offensive coordinator’s chair when Phil Fulmer gave it to Dave Clawson instead. Maybe the apocalyptic failure of the “Clawfense” was karmic revenge enough for that, but Taylor standing on the opposite sideline as his new team beats his old team might be one hell of a cherry on top of that particular schadenfreude sundae, huh?
Actual alleged analysis: Unless the Spread Eagle 2.0 comes out like a house afire and Kiffykins’ Vols look just as lost as last year in the early going, Auburn’s going to be an underdog in this game. And not without reason: the Vols’ terrific defense shouldn’t lose much if anything going from Chavis to Kiffin the Elder, winning in Knoxville will be a tall task for a team like Auburn likely still finding its footing with the new staff, and if the law of averages dictate Auburn’s offense can’t be any worse than in it was in the Season of DEATH, the same holds for the Vol attack the year after the Season of Constant Sorrow.
Whatever margin there is between the two teams should be slim, however, and so much rides on the play of the two teams’ oh-so-shaky quarterbacks that I was tempted to just fill this space with “Crompton vs. Auburn’s QB. Whoever wins wins the game. The end.” So until we have a bit more information, it’s tough to make a call one way or the other. We should probably assume a narrow Auburn defeat until such time as we have proof, rather than a guess, that Chizik and the Tiger staff will do more with what they’ve got than Kiffykins and the Vols’ staff.
But, of course, I do think there is some education behind that guess.
*Provided the Vols don’t finish 5-7 again, a close, competitive Auburn loss probably won’t really look all that bad for Chizik, given that it’s in Neyland. Then again, if Kiffin does look lost for most of the year and Auburn doesn’t even give the Vols a game, then there’s probably going to be some gnashed teeth.