It’s been ten years since the Vols played at Auburn, one of the best arguments for policy change in SEC scheduling. We faced the Tigers every year from 1956-1991, the series becoming Tennessee’s second-biggest rivalry during that time. Now we have to wait a decade to travel to each other’s place.
The last trip in 2008 remains an infamous one: trailing 14-12, the Vols’ final four possessions began at the Auburn 38, Tennessee 42, Auburn 46, and Tennessee 46. A field goal would have won it. But the Clawfense went three-and-out four times, gaining 12 yards in those 12 plays, and Auburn survived.
Tony Franklin, Auburn’s first-year offensive coordinator, would not: he was fired two weeks later with Tommy Tuberville on the hot seat. Phillip Fulmer elected to stay with Dave Clawson. But both head coaches would be out by season’s end, Fulmer a decade removed from his national championship, Tuberville just four years from Auburn’s undefeated season.
Tennessee won the hiring battle: Lane Kiffin promised to sing Rocky Top after beating Florida to our delight, while Gene Chizik was heckled on the runway. But Auburn won the war: Chizik hired Gus Malzahn to run the offense and signed a junior college quarterback named Cam Newton. While Tennessee struggled in Derek Dooley’s first season, Auburn won the national championship. And two years later when both Chizik and Dooley were on their way out, Auburn got their guy in Malzahn, while the Vols swung and missed on Charlie Strong before settling for Butch Jones.
The total damage: since 2009, Auburn is 82-43 with a national championship, a second BCS title game appearance, two straight New Year’s Six bowls and three SEC West titles in the Age of Saban. Tennessee is a dead even 59-59 with no trips to Atlanta, and hasn’t played in anything more prestigious than the Outback Bowl.
Malzahn is a fascinating case study, setting an impossibly high bar in 2010 and 2013. After that Auburn went 8-5, 7-6, 8-5, 10-2 before losing to Georgia and Central Florida in postseason last year, and now 4-2 off a preseason #9 ranking. Auburn’s defense has been remarkable so far this year, but Malzahn’s offense has been the opposite.
The Tigers are 91st in yards per play (5.38), besting only Arkansas in the SEC. The Vols, for reference, are 71st at 5.68. Tennessee has faced a pair of Top 20 yards-per-play-allowed defenses, Auburn three in the Top 25. (Stats via Sports Source Analytics)
But Auburn has lacked explosiveness against its entire schedule: just eight plays of 30+ yards in six games, 104th nationally and better than only seven teams who have played six games. And Auburn has only one run of 30+ yards so far this year.
The Tigers beat Washington in large part thanks to a 9-of-18 performance on third down. But since then, Auburn is a woeful 18-of-65 (27.7%). And as good as Auburn’s defense is in the red zone, the offense once again does the opposite: six of their 28 trips have ended with no points, and only 15 have reached the end zone. A red zone touchdown percentage of 53.57% is 107th nationally.
And so a decade after their last meeting on The Plains, when two storied programs made similar choices for similar reasons, the Vols and Tigers will meet tomorrow with frustration in the air once more. Jeremy Pruitt is Tennessee’s fourth attempt at a post-Fulmer answer in what is now Fulmer’s world once more. Gus Malzahn has really been the only answer for the Tigers in this decade, but his signature unit is struggling like never before. It would be fitting, perhaps, if Tennessee could reverse their own fortunes at Auburn’s expense. To do so, it’ll probably take something just as ugly as what we saw ten years ago…but that result would look mighty good on Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols right about now.