So the ingredients are there, right? Sleepy 11:00 am local kickoff, preseason Top 10 team sitting at a disappointing 4-2, offense looking sluggish…plus the underdog Vols coming off a bye, new head coach with plenty of experience against this particular opponent looking for his first big win.
We can talk ourselves into just about anything, of course. The quickest way to talk yourself back towards reality this weekend is the Auburn defense.
The Tigers have the best defense in the country in S&P+. Not great news for your upset dreams. Five past and future Tennessee opponents are currently in the Top 20 in S&P+ defense, including Kentucky (3rd!), Florida (11th), Alabama (18th), and Georgia (19th).
The Vols had limited success against Florida (when not turning it over) and Georgia, both of which have significantly better offenses than the Tigers at the moment. Auburn is 93rd in offensive S&P+, which might conjure hope of the Vols squeaking out a 13-10 upset. We’ll see if Tennessee’s defense can hold up if Auburn simply decides to run right at them all day. But on the other side of the ball, the Vols will need to be smart, clean, and hope for a big play or two to find enough points to be in the conversation.
The Tigers allow 4.68 yards per play, 18th nationally. It’s even more impressive considering they’ve faced three Top 25 teams in the first six weeks. And they’re 15th in turnovers forced, though four of their 12 came against Alabama State. But where Auburn’s defense really shines is the red zone.
Opposing teams have made 18 trips to the red zone against the Auburn defense. They’ve scored five touchdowns. Their touchdowns allowed percentage (27.78%) is not only the best in the nation, only four teams are allowing under 40%. Washington got inside the 20 six times and found the end zone once. LSU went three times and scored a single touchdown. Mississippi State: four times, one touchdown. That’s incredible.
This isn’t something Tennessee’s offense is particularly great at either, with 11 touchdowns in 18 red zone attempts (61.11%, 80th nationally). The Vols went 2-for-5 scoring red zone touchdowns against UTEP, 2-for-4 against the Gators, and didn’t take a single red zone snap against Georgia.
There’s some good news there, potentially, for the Vol offense: they’ve had success with explosive plays so far this year, with five passes of 50+ yards still good for seventh nationally after the bye week. It’s how the Vols found the end zone twice against Georgia, and should have before fumbling through the end zone against Florida. Auburn’s defense isn’t noteworthy in stopping explosive plays: the Tigers are 86th nationally in 20+ yard plays allowed, 85th in 20+ yard passing plays allowed. With Tennessee’s offense struggling in short yardage situations and Auburn’s defense so good in the red zone, big plays may be the best answer for the Vols on the plains.