AUBURN, Ala. -- Both Gus Malzahn and Butch Jones are first-year coaches in the SEC, but they are at very different spots with their respective programs. Malzahn has Auburn 8-1, second in the SEC West, while Jones and his Tennessee team are currently 4-5 coming off a 31-3 loss to Missouri.
“Auburn is a team that’s done a great job,” Jones said. “It starts with their defensive front. I’ve been very impressed with their defensive front. They have great team speed. They have stability. They have depth at the running back position, and they’ve done a great job of getting the ball into the hands of their playmakers.
“I think the thing right now, the realities of building our program, is that we have absolutely zero depth, and that’s been extremely evident.”
Despite Tennessee’s struggles in the first year under Jones, there’s reason to be optimistic. The Volunteers knocked off No. 11 South Carolina and nearly upset a then-top-10 Georgia team in their first SEC home game.
Malzahn knows his team better be on upset alert heading to Knoxville.
“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Just the fact that they were able to beat a South Carolina team and had a chance to beat Georgia both at home. They’re a different team at home, and we know that we are going to get their best.”
What Auburn needs to do to win: It’s been no secret what Auburn wants to do when it gets the football. The Tigers want to run, run some more and run until they break the will of the defense. It shouldn’t be too difficult this weekend as they face a Tennessee defense that’s last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed. Tre Mason has emerged as the team’s go-to running back, and he could be in for another big day. However, the Volunteers want to do the same thing with their star running back Rajion Neal, who is fifth in the conference with 771 rushing yards. Auburn’s defense gave up 222 yards on the ground last week to Arkansas and will have to play better Saturday, or the game could be closer than expected.
Players to watch
WR Sammie Coates: Auburn might not throw more than 10 passes on Saturday, but when the Vols load up to stop the run, don’t be surprised if Coates burns them deep for a long one. He’s currently leading the nation in yards per catch (26.6), and he’s caught four touchdowns in the last three games.
DE Carl Lawson: The former five-star recruit has been quiet since his breakout performance against Ole Miss over a month ago, but this could be the game that he gets back on track as Tennessee was one of the teams he looked at after reopening his recruitment. He took an official visit to Knoxville just weeks before signing day.
“I told those guys I got to bake them a cake, do something nice for them, because those guys don’t get as much love as they’re supposed to. Without those guys, my success wouldn’t be possible. I heard Reese [Dismukes] doesn’t like chocolate cake so you got to consider that part. I might do half-and-half for the guys.” -- Mason on rewarding his offensive line