They are two traditional powerhouses in the SEC, old rivals turned mere acquaintances in the last two decades. But in the last two years, there have been no two teams who mirrored each other as well as the Vols and Tigers, through good times and bad. As they prepare to meet in what has become the biggest game of the year for both teams to this point, we take a look back at the shared path they have taken:
Dave Clawson & Tony Franklin
When they met last year, Tennessee and Auburn were both coming off losses to division rivals, and both had questions about their new offenses. Whatever Dave Clawson was trying to do, it hadn't worked particularly well in the passing game against UCLA or in the red zone against Florida. Tony Franklin had great success in his debut in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl following the 2007 season, but his first four regular season contests included the epic 3-2 win over Mississippi State, and offensive numbers boosted by defensive and special teams touchdowns.
The thought at the time was that the winner of the Tennessee/Auburn game would get a huge boost in confidence and show a degree of growth. But the matchup instead showed two offenses at the height of futility: Auburn won 14-12, thanks to another defensive touchdown, and outgained the Vols only 226-191 in a horrific display by both teams. Auburn couldn't run, averaging 2.6 yards per carry. And Tennessee couldn't pass, with Jonathan Crompton going 8 for 23.
The fourth quarter was particularly painful, as Joel and the Animated Drive Chart from last year's game will show in the final fifteen minutes:
- AUB (own 20) 4 plays, punt
- TEN (opp 38) 3 and out
- AUB (own 11) 3 and out
- TEN (own 43) 3 and out
- AUB (own 20) 3 and out
- TEN (opp 46) 3 and out
- AUB (own 20) 3 and out
- TEN (own 46) 3 and out
- AUB (own 5) one first down, time expires
It was a win for Auburn, but the questions it raised would return the following week in a 14-13 loss at Vanderbilt that started the Tigers' downward spiral. The week after the Vandy loss and just eleven days after this game, Tony Franklin was fired. For the Vols, it sent Jonathan Crompton to the bench, but Fulmer refused to return the favor and dismiss Dave Clawson, and with Tennesee already 1-3 the writing became clearer on the wall...
Phillip Fulmer & Tommy Tuberville
The biggest difference between Auburn and Tennessee in September 2008 was the Tigers' ability to escape the bad situations their offense put them in, beating Mississippi State and the Vols in spite of themselves. Tennessee never enjoyed that luxury, as the 1-3 start turned into a 3-6 nightmare, and Phillip Fulmer was done as the calendar turned to November. The Vols would lose to Wyoming the following week and finish 5-7.
Tommy Tuberville's 4-1 start in September was a mirage, and the harsh reality of the SEC put the Tigers in the desert in October: four straight losses, a brief respite against Tennessee-Martin, and then #10 Georgia and #1 Alabama would finish Auburn off. 4-1 became 5-7, and Tuberville would find himself unemployed as well.
Together, Fulmer and Tuberville were the tenure leaders in the SEC: Fulmer got the job in Knoxville in 1993, and Tuberville moved from Ole Miss to Auburn in 1999. And they'd both reached heights that many thought made them untouchable: Fulmer's Vols won the National Championship in 1998, and Tuberville's Tigers were on the wrong side of the BCS equation with an undefeated season in 2004.
Both suffered from an inability to duplicate their own success, and their decisions to bring on Clawson and Franklin played a significant role in sealing their fates.
Lane Kiffin & Gene Chizik
When the hiring process began, neither name was at the top of either team's list...at least according to their fans. While Vol fans dreamed of Will Muschamp, Bill Cowher, and any other fantasy scenario during UT's head start on the coaching search, Auburn fans greeted the idea of Gene Chizik with...well...
While Lane Kiffin made immediate noise by promising to beat Florida, Charles Barkley made noise for Chizik by claiming that Auburn's choice of Chizik over Turner Gill was racially motivated. Kiffin was 5-15 at Oakland, Chizik was 5-19 at Iowa State. Controversy, internally at Auburn and externally in Knoxville, surrounded both moves.
Kiffin made things more "two sides" and less "same coin" early and often, keeping the Vols in the news throughout the offseason, for better or worse. Meanwhile, Chizik put his head down and went to work in his own way. But both hires suddenly looked much better when coordinators entered the picture.
Monte Kiffin & Gus Malzahn
And it is this aspect of the matchup that will be the most interesting and the most important to victory for either team on Saturday night.
Kiffin is a legend, arguably the greatest defensive coordinator of all-time. He's proved this season that the man is still an even match for the legend, as through September the Vols are 8th nationally in total defense, including an eye-opening performance at Florida. Tennessee's defense gives hope that the Vols can compete with anyone they face.
Malzahn, 43, might be a legend by the time he's Kiffin's age if he keeps up this pace. After torching the high school ranks, he stepped into the SEC and immediately helped Arkansas win the SEC West in 2006. When tensions emerged between Malzahn and Houston Nutt, he left for Tulsa. All he did there was guide a Golden Hurricane offense that finished first in the nation in total yards in 2007 and 2008.
Now at Auburn, he's become the flash that perhaps Chizik lacked: through four games, Auburn is third nationally in total offense (526.3 yards per game), and third in scoring offense (45.3 points per game). Where Tony Franklin's system struggled, Malzahn's has flourished with much of the same talent.
The Vols have been doing it with defense, the Tigers with offense. And so once more, two programs on similar paths will collide on Saturday night. The winner gains more instant credibility, while the loser will face more questions about their ability to succeed. Chizik couldn't have asked for a better start on the field, while Kiffin has put the Vols on the same level between their performance between the lines and his actions behind the microphone and on the recruiting trail.
Both teams are chasing the usual suspects in their division, with the Vols desperate to catch up to Florida, and the Tigers eager to regain the upper hand on the Tide. Both feature outstanding running games. And both will be in the spotlight on Saturday night.
Lane Kiffin and Gene Chizik may both end up being successful, and they may both be heading for the door. But on Saturday, instant gratification is available for only one, as Auburn looks for proof and Chizik looks for his first ever road victory. Meanwhile, the Vols look for a tangible reason to believe that it can still be about the present and not the future. Two new administrations face the most important test of their young tenures.
There can be only one.