Posted: Friday October 1, 2004 11:40AM; Updated: Friday October 1, 2004 11:40AM
You've got to love the SEC. There are few easy games, intense battles week after week and plenty of surprises. How else do you explain the fact that Tennessee leads the conference in total offense (503.6 yards per game) and is second in scoring (38 points per game) while being led by a pair of true freshman quarterbacks? The Vols have been remarkably efficient, averaging 263.3 yards on the ground and 240.3 yards passing, but they haven't faced a team like Auburn. The Tigers have two of the nation's top running backs, a veteran quarterback and a dominating defense. Tennessee has won four of the last five meetings, but the Tigers defeated the Vols 28-21 at home last year as Carnell (Cadillac) Williams rushed for 185 yards and a touchdown.
Sizing up Auburn:
The Tigers have the ability to control the game and sustain long drives with a potent one-two punch in the backfield. Cadillac is one of the nation's best running backs and has rushed for 395 yards and three touchdowns this season. He's an every-down back who keeps coming at you, breaks tackles and is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Senior Ronnie Brown is a bruiser with decent speed and is averaging an astounding 8.7 yards per carry. Auburn's passing game has been better than expected with senior quarterback Jason Campbell (22-9 as a starter) completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 613 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. The Tigers have a trio of big play receivers in Courtney Taylor (11 catches, 157 yards, 1 TD), Ben Obomanu (9 catches, 116 yards, 2 TD's) and Anthony Mix (9 catches, 107 yards, 2 TD's).
Few would have predicted that the Tigers' defense would have been this good after losing five of their front seven players. But the unit is second in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 6.5 points per game, and ninth in total defense (246.8 points per game). The D is centered around junior linebackers Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams who are 1-2 on the team with 20 and 17 tackles, respectively. Antarrious Williams also leads the SEC with six tackles for loss. The secondary, led by senior safety Junior Rosengreen (16 tackles, one interception) and sophomore safety Will Herring (two interceptions), has been better than expected.
Sizing up Tennessee:
It's always a gamble playing a true freshman quarterback, but two? Brent Schaeffer and Eric Ainge have been remarkably poised and efficient, but they haven't faced a pass rush like Auburn's. Schaeffer, a dual run-pass threat, has started the first three games, but Ainge has been better late in games and on Thursday was named the starter against Auburn. Both quarterbacks will see considerable time and are still considered co-starters. Ainge is the better passer, and after throwing for 508 yards and eight touchdowns (Schaeffer has thrown for 213 yards and two TD's), is quickly establishing himself as the leader of the offense.
Running behind mammoth tackle Michael Munoz, senior Cedric Houston and junior Gerald Riggs each broke the century mark as the Vols racked up 347 yards on the ground in last Saturday's 42-17 rout of Louisiana Tech. Houston leads the team with 310 yards and 8.4 yards per carry, while Riggs is a workhorse and extremely reliable in short-yardage situations. Though Tennessee may not have a go-to receiver, the Vols have five players with five or more catches. Junior Chris Hannon, senior Tony Brown and sophomore Bret Smith all have more than 100 receiving yards. Smith has been the most efficient, averaging 21 yards per catch and leads the team with three touchdown receptions.
The Vols were dealt a huge blow when star linebacker Kevin Simon tore his ACL against Florida and was lost for the season. But senior linebacker Kevin Burnett and junior free safety Jason Allen have stepped up and both lead the SEC with 9.7 tackles per game. Allen, who moved from corner to safety, is a terrific player, but the secondary is thin with true freshmen Roshaun Fellows and Jonathan Hefney and sophomore Jonathan Wade on the corners. The trio has struggled and could get exposed. Said coach Phillip Fulmer, "We don't have cover corners." Tennessee's defensive line has had trouble getting a pass rush and the unit is giving up 363.3 yards per game. The Vols' run defense has been particularly bad, giving up 121.7 rushing yards per game. They will have to tighten up against Auburn or Williams and Brown will run wild.
Special teams breakdown:
Tennessee has been very good in this area. Senior All-American punter Justin Colquitt is averaging 44.0 yards per punt, which leads the SEC, and six of his 11 kicks this season have been inside the 20. Sophomore kicker James Wilhoit was almost the goat after missing an extra point against Florida, but he became the hero after nailing a game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired.
Auburn sophomore kicker John Vaughn nearly cost the Tigers the LSU win when he missed an extra point that would have sent the game into overtime. But got a second chance when LSU was called for a penalty and made it. Vaughn is 3 for 5 on field goals this season and 14 of 14 on PATs. Cadillac sometimes returns kicks and is a threat back there as are juniors Devin Aromashodu and Tre Smith.
Auburn TB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams
When the Cadillac gets warmed up and gets a hold of the road, look out. He runs more like a pickup truck than a luxury car, but when he finds open field it's a smooth ride to the end zone.
Tennessee LB Kevin Burnett
Burnett was all over the field against Florida and helped throttle the Gators with a career-high 16 tackles. He'll need a similar effort to stop the Cadillac. Burnett has the size and speed to chase down Williams and plug up holes.
Tennessee will have a clear advantage by playing at home, but that may not be enough. The Vols have gotten big plays from a lot of people this season -- 11 different players have scored touchdown -- but they don't have one guy who they can count on to score when they need it. Ainge has been incredibly poised under pressure, but he has yet to take a big hit and you can expect Auburn to be in his face all night. Defense wins big games and the Tiger's is far superior. Last year, Auburn pounded Tennessee, outrushing the Vols 264-4. It won't be that lopsided Saturday night, but the Tigers are more physical and will escape Knoxville with a hard-fought victory.
The pick: Auburn 28, Tennessee 21
B.J. Schecter is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated. Marquee Matchup appears every Friday on SI.com during the season.