It was back to physical play for the Vols on the practice team as Tennessee head coach Butch Jones put his team back in full gear all week to get ready for yet another top 10 opponent as red-hot Auburn comes to town.
Jones had taken much of the contact away from his team during the week on the practice field as he tried to manage the lack of depth in the program.
"We have a players' staff with 12 guys on it and we meet with coach Jones on Sunday after games and we talked about getting back to full pads and we were all for it," senior JaWuan James said. "We want to get back to where we were early in the season. Coach Jones was trying to take care of us to help us because we don't have a lot of depth. But we need to get back to our winning ways and our old habits so we can close this season out."
Jones has challenged his offensive line after the Vols rushed for just 94 yards at Missouri. Tennessee's most offensive success has come when they have been able to establish the run and that's a key to Saturday's match up as true freshman Josh Dobbs makes his second career start. Dobbs was 26 of 42 for 240 yards with 2 interceptions and a fumble a week ago. The Georgia native has plenty to learn and improve on from start one to start two, but it first starts with ball security.
"Every time I step on the field I just have to make sure I'm being smart, protecting the football. Coach always says that football holds our dreams, goals and aspirations. So we just have to be smart with the football and just finish drives as a team. Just cut down on the little mistakes and focus in on the details."
Dobbs will again face pressure against an attacking Auburn defense that has 21 sacks and 78 quarterback hurries on the season.
While there's plenty of challenges for the Vol offense on Saturday, it's the Vol defense that will be in the spotlight as their speed will be tested to the max against an explosive Auburn offense that's led by quarterback Nick Marshall. Marshall has 520 yards rushing on the year and running quarterbacks have given the Vols fits. Last week, Missouri's Maty Mauk had 114 yards rushing and for the year, Tennessee has surrendered 457 yards on the ground on 71 quarterback rushes. Signal callers are averaging 6.4 yards a carry.
Auburn and Missouri has some similarities in what they do, but Jones said this week that the difference is that Auburn can do more things well.
"I think it is the different personnel groupings that they get in with," Jones said. "The miss term used in college football is the spread offense, everyone has a different definition of what the spread offense is. It is kind of the evolution of the west coast offense back in the day, everyone spoke about it. What is a spread offense? Is it shot gun? It is no huddle? Is it uptempo? Is it 10 personnel with four and five wideouts on the field? What is it? Where they challenge is they are able to get multiple personnel groupings and they play with a high level of physicality.
"The dimension that Nick Marshall brings to their offense, he is a dynamic football player. He can run it, he can pass it. Jeremy Johnson does a great job for them as well. They cause you a lot of matchup problems."
Those match-ups have given a lot of teams fits and have had teams scrambling to make adjustments early in games as they try and get a feel for what Auburn is doing. The Tigers have jumped on teams out of the gate outscoring their opponents 105-50.
The Vols have been blitzed on the road to start games, but this Tennessee team is very different in how they have played at home compared to the road. The Vols have scored 182 points at come compared to 44 on the road. They have talled 117 in the first half at home compared to 17 on the road. And defensively, Tennessee has surrendered 48 points in Neyland Stadium in the first half all season, that's 66 fewer than what they have given up on the road.
Clearly, this program which has only won once outside of Neyland Stadium since 2010 is much more comfortable in the friendly setting of Knoxville than they are on the road.
There are several challenges and key match-ups in this contest Saturday but the biggest has to be in the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
When your head football coach declares that you got dominated on both sides of the line and labels the offensive line soft, obviously the challenge is for both the offensive front and the defensive front to respond.
All the players, particularly the offensive and defensive linemen embraced and welcomed the return of more physical practices. Auburn causes plenty of problems and there are plenty of interesting match-ups but as Jones says, this is a line of scrimmage line and Tennessee must win it to have a chance on Saturday.
For a closer look at the rest of the match-up's, check out How they match-up from Rob Lewis.
The relaxed play at home.
Tennessee has just been a very different team at home. All the numbers for the Vols are better at home than on the road. It's no secret Tennessee has been a brutal road schedule, but it's also no secret that the Vols are a more focused more disciplined more focused team in Neyland Stadium.
In Knoxville, Tennessee has forced 14 turnovers and have only turned it over 6 times. Tennessee's third down conversion total is nearly double at home than they are on the road. And their third down defense is some 20% better at home than on the road.
MAXIM THAT MATTERS
The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
A week ago, Tennessee turned it over 3 times. They had 9 penalties. The dropped a touchdown pass. They busted defensive coverages multiple times. Tennessee by no means played a clean game.
No one is suggesting that the Vols have to play perfect to upset the Tigers because they don't. But the Vols have to avoid the self-inflicted wounds. Everyone knows Tennessee's margin for error on both sides of the ball is small. It's why Tennessee must win in the kicking game. It's why they must take advantage of of opportunities when they present themselves and it's why they must limit their number of self inflicted errors.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Simply put, how is Auburn able to rush for so many yards?
First, a good offensive line. Greg Robinson, Reese Dismukes, Alex Kozan, Avery Young, Patrick Miller, all those guys were four-star, top-flight offensive linemen that are coming into their own. They appear to have good chemistry. Second, Nick Marshall and the zone-read. The ability to keep defenses off-balance with the zone-read has made a big impact, it's tough to defend and Marshall is reading it well. Third, talented running backs. Tre Mason might be the most underrated back in the nation. He leads the SEC in touchdowns and has been the third most productive back from the Class of 2011. Cameron Artis-Payne is a bowling ball and Corey Grant is a home run hitter. The Tigers have options and they are committed to running the ball.
Obviously, Gus Malzahn had a hand in recruiting a good number of the current players on the roster but how much of his familiarity with those players and the fact they were recruitied to his offense has sped up the "rebuilding" process at Auburn.
It's big. Gus Malzahn recruited every player on that offense before he left previously, he made Marshall a priority, he helped hold onto Artis-Payne, and newcomers like Rudy Ford, Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens, Malzahn and his staff targeted when they arrived. The only player on that offense that Malzahn didn't sign is Grant, and he was recruited by the Tigers before signing with Alabama, later transferring.
Defensively, the seem to be a solid group. The give up some passing yards, but that seems to happen as teams are trying to climb back into games. Why the big improvement from last year with a lot of the same guys?
Defensively, the hiring of a veteran coach like Ellis Johnson was the right hire at the right time. Auburn has some talent on defense, and also some deficiencies. Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme has built a quality defense that gives up yards, but makes plays at opportune times. If you would have told me that the Auburn defense, led by the defensive line, would be sixth nationally in tackles for loss a this point in the season, I would have called you crazy. That unit has been very poor the last two years, but Rodney Garner has lit a fire under them. They are more aggressive, show more fronts and have made some plays, and a healthy Dee Ford has made a difference as of late. The corners are more aggressive, and while they give up some passing yards, the secondary is among the league's best in pass efficiency defense. They've forced more interceptions than touchdowns allowed.
There are two important things regarding the Auburn defense. First, they are stingy in the redzone. They are second in the league (12th nationally), holding opponents off the scoreboard 30% of the time. Auburn's best national ranking in that category in the last five years was 72nd in 2010. Second, the defense stands tall after turnovers. Auburn is only +2 in season turnover margin (they were -1 entering the Arkansas game, the Razorbacks turned it over three times). But despite being only +2, the Tigers have outscored opponents 59-10. Auburn is committing better than one turnover per game, but the defense only allows 1.1 point per game off turnovers.
This may be a stretch here, but does the fact that Auburn is playing an 11 a.m. central time game and the fact they started off a little slow give anyone reason to concern inside the Tigers camp?
The 11 a.m. kickoff is definitely different for this team. Every game this season, with the exception of a afternoon CBS kick against Texas A&M and afternoon kick against Western Carolina, has been a night game. This team hasn't played an early morning kick, but they haven't showed signs of being a team that will lay an egg. Last week on the road, with Arkansas having two weeks to prepare and Auburn having a banged up quarterback, would have been an ideal time for a letdown. That didn't happen. Auburn led 28-3 and won by 18 points. This team appears focused, led by Malzahn, so I don't imagine the morning kick having an impact. If Auburn doesn't play well, I wouldn't attribute it to the early morning kick.