For Jeremy Pruitt, this week has to feel pretty familiar. His rebuilding Tennessee Volunteers have a trip to Auburn planned for Saturday, giving Pruitt an opponent that he knows all about.
Pruitt has faced the Tigers in each of the last five seasons as a defensive coordinator, coaching for three different programs. Guz Malzahn got the better of Alabama last season, which was Pruitt’s last year at Alabama as defensive coordinator. Pruitt will get his first shot against Malzahn as a head coach on Saturday, looking to carry some of that familiarity into the game.
“I think you need to keep your edges,” Pruitt said of Auburn’s offense. “These guys do a really good job running the football. They’ve hit a lot of explosive plays out on the perimeter, so you’ve got to have good edges to make them block you to begin with. Gus has always given multiple personnels, but they do a good job of making you play from sideline to sideline. They play really fast on offense, very multiple. You’ve got to recognize formations, you’ve got to recognize where guys are lined up at.”
Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow is averaging six yards per carry and is one of the few bright spots in the offensive attack to this point. Outside of that, Auburn has struggled. They rank just 12th in the SEC in yards per game, checking in just ahead of Tennessee.
“To me, his teams have always gotten better as the season goes on,” Pruitt said of Malzahn. “They’re really dangerous when they get going. To me, they’re right there at that. They’re just a play or two away where they’ve just barely missed on to kind of get them going.”
Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham has struggled coming off of a great 2017 season. He’s thrown just five touchdowns on the year and ranks near the bottom of the SEC in yards per attempt. Still, the potential for big plays is certainly there. Auburn has four different receivers on the roster that have caught passes of 40 yards or more so far in 2018.
“I think you’ve got to eliminate explosive plays in the pass game,” Pruitt said. “You need to get them in third and long. If you don’t, you give them run-pass-options that are really tough to defend. Last year, third downs were probably the difference in the game when I coached against them.”
In case you were wondering, Auburn was just 3-14 on 3rd downs against Mississippi State.
The Tigers have really struggled in the last two weeks, scoring just 24 points in a narrow win over Southern Miss and putting up just nine points their loss to Mississippi State. Vegas put this line at Auburn -18.5, but that has quickly crashed to Auburn -16. The betting public has some confidence in the Vols in this spot and it’s easy to see why with such a big number on the table.
It’s a position where Tennessee can show some clear progress in a “year zero” type of situation. A win probably isn’t realistic, but Tennessee might just hang around into the fourth quarter on Saturday.