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July 14, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Tennessee

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On Day 5, we continue with the Tennessee Volunteers. The Tigers will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face the Volunteers in Game No. 10 this fall.

Who:  Tennessee

When: Saturday, Nov. 9

Where: Neyland Stadium (102,455) | Knoxville, Tenn.

All-time series: Auburn leads 27-21-3

When last they met:The-University-of-Tennessee-Knoxville-01742867 When Auburn traveled to Neyland Stadium in 2009, Gene Chizik was still in his honeymoon period as the Tigers coach. Auburn was 4-0 heading into the game, and Tennessee provided an opportunity for the Tigers to pick up the first signature win of Chizik’s tenure. And the Tigers went out and did exactly that, grabbing a lead in the first quarter and never trailing in the 26-22 victory, marking Auburn’s fifth straight win over Tennessee, its longest streak in a series that dates back to 1900. The Tigers jumped out to a 13-0 lead following running back Ben Tate’s 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The teams then went on a series of scoring runs until Auburn kicker Wes Byrum nailed a 22-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining to extend the Tigers’ advantage to 26-16 and put the game out of reach. Tennessee added one more six-pointer, as quarterback Jonathan Crompton connected on a 32-yard touchdown pass to wideout Denarius Moore as time expired to cut the final margin to 26-22. The Volunteers declined to kick an extra point. Auburn used this win to improve to 5-0 on the season — its best start since 2006 — but the zero in the loss column was erased the following week,  losing at Arkansas in the first of what would be three straight defeats. Auburn went on to finish with an 8-5 record in Chizik’s debut season. Meanwhile, this 26-22 defeat dropped Tennessee to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in conference play. The Volunteers would circle the wagons the following week, decimating Georgia in a dominant 45-19 home victory. Tennessee continued to be a streaky squad for the remainder of 2009, but it still managed to put together a winning season (7-5) in Kiffin’s first year.

The coach: Butch Jones (First year as Tennessee’s head coach; 50-27 record overall, going 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati from 2010-12 and 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan from 2007-09)

2012 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC; finished in sixth place in SEC East

Total offense: 475.92 ypg (18th in Division, 2nd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 36.17 ppg (22nd, 4th)

Total defense: 471.33 ypg (107th, 14th)

Scoring defense: 35.67 ppg (104th, 14th)

2012 Year-in-Review: The numbers above should be able to tell it all. The Volunteers had an explosive passing attack, averaging over 315 yards per game behind quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. They also had the fourth-best scoring offense in the league, just a tick above 36 points per contest. But Tennessee’s rushing attack proved inconsistent when it was called upon to help run time off the clock and hold leads. Even the most time-consuming offense imaginable might not have been enough when you trot out a defense like the Volunteers had last season, though. Tennessee wasn’t just bad; it was historically, embarrassingly bad. The unit ranked in the bottom quarter of the conference in every major statistical category. In some areas, the Volunteers were the league-worst, such as total defense and scoring defense. (Again, see numbers above.) The defense gave up nearly 190 yards per game on the ground, which ranked ahead of only Auburn in the SEC. The low point of the 2012 season — in a year filled with innumerable moments Tennessee fans would rather forget — came in a too-close-for-comfort win against Troy on Nov. 3. The Volunteers escaped with a victory (and escaped is putting it lightly), but not without the Trojans taking a blow-torch to Tennessee’s record book in the 55-48 scoring fest. The Sun Belt Conference school, which came into the game with a .500 record, racked up a mind-numbing 721 yards (496 passing, 225 rushing) of total offense in defeat, setting a new standard for a Tennessee opponent. That victory moved the Volunteers to 4-5 overall, but the momentum was short-lived, as they lost back-to-back games to Missouri (51-48 at home in overtime) and Vanderbilt (a 41-18 shellacking on the road). After the 23-point loss to the Commodores — which marked the most points they’ve scored against the Vols since a 51-7 obliteration in 1923 and their largest margin of over Tennessee since a 26-0 win in 1954 — Derek Dooley was finally relieved of his duties as coach. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was promoted to interim coach for Tennessee’s regular season finale against Kentucky. The Volunteers beat the Wildcats 37-17 to make sure they wouldn’t go winless in the SEC for the first time in school history. (And here, let us pause as all Tennessee fans give thanks that Kentucky fields a football team.)

Biggest area of concern: No surprise here: The Volunteers have to find a way to replace the production of the departed Bray, Patterson and Hunter. At quarterback, Justin Worley will likely step in after appearing in nine games in his Volunteers career. Though he didn’t start a game last season, he was in the starting lineup three times during the 2011 season, experience the two other contenders for the job — redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Riley Ferguson — can’t say. The receiving corps, on the other hand, was decimated last season. The Volunteers lost their top four players in terms of receiving yardage in Hunter, Patterson, tight end Mychal Rivera and wide receiver Zach Rogers. Alton Howard, listed as “Pig Howard” on Tennessee’s official roster, is the leading returner at wide receiver in receptions (13), and expect that total to vastly improve this year. The Volunteers also have a backfield that can buttress their passing game, as both senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane are blessed with good hands. The duo combined for 377 yards (on 48 catches) and four touchdowns in 2012.

Key returning player/unit: Aside from quarterback and wide receiver, Tennessee brings back a wealth of experience elsewhere on offense. Four starters on the line return, led by left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, a 6-foot-6, 332-pound behemoth. He is joined by center James Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ju’Wuan James. No matter who starts at quarterback or eventually develops at receiver, the line should be able to provide ample time for Neal and Lane to find running lanes for big chunks of yardage.

Extra point: Dooley left with the lowest winning percentage (.417, 15-21 overall) of any Volunteers coach with at least three seasons on the job. You have to go back over 100 years to find the next-lowest in George Levene, who held the position from 1907-09. But even he won nearly 60 percent of his games, going 15-10-3 (.589) in his three years leading the Tennessee football program.

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