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Phillip Marshall: Does danger lurk on Rocky Top for Auburn?

Nov. 8, 2013

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Auburn is trying to win a championship. Tennessee is trying to get bowl eligible. Auburn has won five straight and controls its own destiny in the race for the West Division championship. Tennessee has been outscored 76-13 in its last two games and must win two of its last three to get even a minor bowl bid.

Those are the very different places in which two first-year head coaches - Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Tennessee-s Butch Jones - find themselves as the No. 7 Tigers (8-1 overall and 4-1) in the SEC) and the Vols (4-5, 1-4) prepare for today's 11 a.m. kickoff at Neyland Stadium.

So why is Auburn favored by only a touchdown? Why are some pundits picking Tennessee to pull an upset? Probably because, in its last two home games, Tennessee lost to Georgia in overtime and stunned South Carolina.

Breaking it down:

Auburn is on a streak against Tennessee

Before the SEC split into divisions in 1992, Auburn and Tennessee played every season. That's no longer the case. But Auburn has won the last five times they've gotten together - 2003, twice in 2004, 2008 and 2009.

Would this be a mismatch?

Auburn has the SEC's top rushing offense, gaining a gaudy 306.2 yards per game. Tennessee has the SEC's worst rushing defense, giving up 201.7 yards per game. That's definitely a mismatch, and one most coaches would tell you, most times, is extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome.

Big opportunity for Tre Mason

This could be an important day for Auburn running back Tre Mason. Averaging 102.3 yards per game, Mason needs 79 yards to break the 1,000-yard barrier for the second consecutive season.

Tennessee has a salty runner of its own in Rajion Neal, who averages 85.7 yards per game.

Bend but don't break

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson doesn't like for his defense to be described as "bend but don't break." But while Johnson would prefer not to bend or break, that's what the Tigers have through nine games. That a weird statistic. They are 11th in the SEC in total defense, giving up 398.9 yards per game. But they are third in scoring defense, giving up 20.1 points per game.

Elusive freshman at QB for Tennessee

With Justin Worley out with a hand injury, freshman Joshua Dobbs will get his second consecutive start at quarterback for Tennessee. He's an elusive dual-threat quarterback, the kind that has given Auburn problems from time to time. Can he overcome his inexperience and string enough players for Tennessee to keep with Auburn's offense? That's probably the No. 1 key for Tennessee.

Will Auburn throw more this week?

Auburn threw just nine passes in last Saturday's 35-17 victory at Arkansas. That was, at least partly, because quarterback Nick Marshall was nursing a sore throwing shoulder and had not thrown in practice until two days before the game.

Marshall is apparently healthy now, his shoulder no worse for the wear. Will that mean more passing against the Vols? Probably.

Sammie Coates is Auburn's long-distance man

Sophomore wide receiver Sammie Coates is Auburn's go-to guy on long passes. He's as good as there is in college football at making explosive plays.

Coates averages 26.6 yards per reception. He leads the nation.

The bottom line

Auburn appears to have the advantage in most matchups, but that doesn't mean the Tigers will win. South Carolina had those same advantages and didn't win here. Georgia almost didn't win.

The roadmap for the Tigers to avoid an upset on Rocky Top is for them to avoid turnovers and control the line of scrimmage.


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for Follow Marshall on Twitter:




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