Tennessee’s 2020 season is hanging on a limb.
Can the Vols rekindle the 2018 magic that saw them snap an 11-game SEC losing streak in the Plains? We won’t know until Saturday, but until then, let’s check out this week’s preview.
- All-time series record: The Tigers lead the series with a 28-22-3 record.
- Longest win streak: Auburn won six straight games from 2003-2013.
- Interesting series fact: Tennessee’s 2018 win at Auburn was its first since 1998.
- 2020 offensive and defensive rankings: Tennessee currently owns the SEC’s 13th-ranked offense (13th passing, 6th rushing) and the eighth-best defense (6th passing, 10th rushing). Auburn is ranked sixth in total offense (9th passing, 9th rushing) and in sixth total defense (3rd passing, 9th rushing).
What To Watch For
- A long break for the Tigers: This will be their first game in three weeks due to their by week and all the COVID-19 stuff. How will they perform? Will they be rusty? Will they be ready to go? How this all unfolds will certainly be something to watch for this weekend.
- An ever-questionable quarterback situation: If you’ve paid one iota of attention to Tennessee football over the last few years, then you know all about the quarterback situation. It appears as if Jarrett Guarantano will get the start again this week, but all bets are off when it comes to how well he plays and how long he plays in this game. The backups have reportedly looked good over the past week, but seeing is believing when it comes to playing time with them.
- Auburn’s defense vs. Tennessee’s offense: I know. This sounds bland, but Auburn is a top-13 defense, per Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings, while the Vols are the 66th-best offense in terms of the metric. I’m not sure as to how the extra week really helped the Vols when you’re considering prep time because they spent most of last week prepping for Texas A&M. Regardless, Tennessee has to find a way to have consistency on offense this weekend.
- Bo Nix is heating up: The true sophomore played well over the last two games before his team’s three-week hiatus. He completed 76% of his passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns against the Ole Miss Rebels and LSU Tigers. He had completed just 56% of his passes for 217 yards and five touchdowns to four interceptions in his first four games of 2020. Tennessee will need to find a way to slow him down on Saturday.
- Responding to adversity: This may be the last item mentioned on this list, but it’s probably the most important topic of discussion. This season isn’t completely lost. There is still time to pick up the pieces, but that must start this week. The best way to show the doubters who follow the team and the ones in the outside world that this team truly believes in this program is by winning this game.
- QB Jarrett Guarantano: Or whomever else plays quarterback this week. It’s bound to happen. The Vols need some kind of spark, here.
- RB Eric Gray: Tennessee needs to try and establish a ground game against a stout Auburn run defense and Gray is the key to doing just that.
- WR Josh Palmer: The Vols can’t afford to be one-dimensional against this defense. A lot of the receiver production has to do with quarterback play, but Palmer and co. need to find a way to overcome that aspect.
- LB Henry To’o To’o: Leaders get their teams back on the right paths during times of turmoil. To’o To’o’s play usually speaks for itself, but he’ll need to provide a spark this weekend.
- OLB Deandre Johnson: He’s one of Tennessee’s few playmakers on defense and will need to have a big game this weekend.
- CB Bryce Thompson: Tennessee’s best defensive back hasn’t really been himself, but this week is more about stepping up instead of what you’ve done (or haven’t done) to this point. The Vols will need Thompson to have his best game of the year this weekend.
- QB Bo Nix: Just like the Vols, most of Auburn’s success depends on quarterback play. Will we see the Bo from the last two weeks before the break or the one from the first month of the season?
- RB Tank Bigsby: He’s turning heads as a true freshman and has caught the eye of Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols have to slow Bigsby down this weekend.
- WR Seth Williams: This one is easy. Williams is the best WR in the SEC and one of the best in the country.
- DL Derrick Hall: A frustrated Hall turned in a 1.5 sack performance and is out to prove it was no fluke. Be ready, Tennessee.
- LB Zakoby McClain: The talented linebacker leads the team in total tackles, sacks and is tied for the third-most tackles for loss. He’s really stepped up in the absences of K.J. Britt.
- S Smoke Monday: Not only does he have an awesome name, but he’s really good at playing safety. Don’t be surprised if his name is called often on Saturday.
I’m not going to inundate people with over-the-top analysis.
The Vols have to show they are worthy of competition in the SEC. A close game or a win will get people to start believing in them again. However, if they lose by double digits (which Vegas thinks they will) then all bets are off. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Vols win this weekend.
Regardless, the message is clear: Get it done, Tennessee. We need this win.