The Tigers are the only other SEC team besides Alabama to own a winning record against the Vols (though that will change if Florida wins two weeks earlier), currently holding a 26-21-3 advantage. The Vols and Tigers played annually from 1956-1991, when Auburn was Tennessee's second biggest rival. Divisional alignment erased the rivalry in 1992, and the two teams have only met 7 times in the last 17 years. Tennessee completed a three game sweep in the Georgia Dome, Jordan-Hare and Neyland in 1997-1999, then Auburn returned the exact same favor in 2003-2004. This led to...
With the Vols still stinging from the loss to Florida and Auburn doing the same after losing to LSU, the two played one of the most frustrating games I've ever seen at Jordan-Hare Stadium. An Arian Foster fumble recovered for an Auburn touchdown put the Tigers up 14-6 at halftime, and the Vols scored early in the 4th but missed the two point conversion to make it 14-12. From there, the teams traded seven consecutive three-and-outs, with the ball never moving beyond the Tennessee 45 yard line for the Tigers and UT starting two drives in Auburn territory, but unable to pick up a first down to put Daniel Lincoln in field goal range. When Auburn got one first down on their final drive, the game was over and the Tigers escaped with a 14-12 win. Both teams ultimately finished 5-7, and two coaches with undefeated seasons on their resumes were no longer employed.
As will be the case on multiple SEC campuses this fall, the quarterback situation is unsettled in fall practice. Kodi Burns, Chris Todd and Neil Caudle all give Auburn something a little bit different, but none of them has been able to separate themselves from the other, both in games last season and in spring practice (Todd was held out as he recovered from shoulder surgery). Gus Malzahn's system has put up all kinds of yards in lots of different places, but will need to be individually tweaked for each one of these guys...the sooner Auburn gets an answer to this question, the better.
The rest of Auburn's offense will certainly utilize Mario Fannin, who has seen action all over the field in the past. Ben Tate is back after running for more than 1,500 yards in the last two seasons. The rest of the offensive playmaking potential is a question mark, with Montez Billings still an academic uncertainty, and a slew of inexperienced pass catchers filling out the rest of the rotation. And stop me if you've heard this before: Auburn has a handful of quality offensive linemen, but there's almost no quality depth. Malzahn's track record suggests he'll succeed...but how quickly, and with what quarterback?
Antonio Coleman returns as an All-SEC performer who might be the best defensive end that doesn't play for Florida in the SEC. The line should be solid and will help up front, returning three starters while the LB corps returns junior Craig Stevens. Josh Bynes played well in spots there last year and could be in for a big year. The secondary lost Jerraud Powers early to the NFL, and there are injury issues there as well. The entire defense has the potential to be very good under Ted Roof's guidance, but they'll need greater productivity and consistency from some new and returning faces to get there.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
Auburn is the same team they were last year, and Tennessee is not. This is Gene Chizik's first road game, and the Vol defense makes it hostile for an unsettled Auburn quarterback situation. The early season formula for success plays out again: the Tennessee defense keeps a still-growing offense at bay, giving their own offense plenty of opportunities with short fields. The Vols get a lead on Auburn and force the passing game to beat them, and the secondary continues to gel against a thin Auburn WR group. Tennessee shows definitive improvement from last year with a win over the Tigers, further separating themselves from mediocrity in the SEC. Realisitic best case at this point, the Vols are 4-1 and hope is alive and well in Knoxville.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Tennessee is the same team they were last year, and Auburn is not. The Vol offense again struggles against Auburn's defense, and the Tigers find success running the ball with Tate and Fannin against Tennessee's defensive front, and Malzahn's offense finds its rhythm. It is low scoring and ugly again, but again Auburn makes the necessary plays and Tennessee does not, and the Tigers secure their fifth straight win over the Vols. Realistic worst case scenario at this point, the Vols are 2-3 and desperate to find bowl eligibility, as frustration and resignation are alive and well in Knoxville.
Game Importance Ranking: 8.9
I am convinced that Jay Jacobs and Mike Hamilton are long lost brothers, because the similarities between Tennessee and Auburn, both last year and this year, are frightening.
You saw it in their 2008 meeting, where they were equally inept and only a two point conversion away from an eternal 14-14 tie that might still be going on today in some infinite overtime where neither team can get a first down. First year offensive coordinators were the primary reason that formerly untouchable head coaches were shown the door. They have uninspiring quarterback controversies still going in fall camp. Their new head coaching hires both won a total of five games at their previous place of employment. They have depth issues on the offensive line, and in general fear being left behind by their biggest division rival.
As such, don't be surprised if Tennessee an Auburn play another to-the-wire football game in 2009, though we all hope this one is a little more entertaining. If the Vols beat UCLA, this becomes the new most important game of the season - there is a realistic chance the Vols could start 4-1, and to do that they'll need to beat Auburn. A start like that would do incredible things for Lane Kiffin.
On paper this is the biggest toss-up of the season in my opinion. Will the Vols have what it takes to come out on top this time?
Recommended Reading - TrackEmTigers
What if Chizik Never Worked in Ames?