Volunteers, Tigers meet on Saturday headed in opposite directions
There are tons of questions going into Saturday's game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers. And I mean some of those numbing 2020-style questions, like which players will be able to suit up and play? Auburn (4-2) head coach Gus Malzahn admitted that the 10 players who either tested positive for COVID-19 or were identified through contact tracing could return to practice this week, but he wasn't sure if they were going to be cleared to play on Saturday or not. Last week's game with Mississippi State was postponed and rescheduled for Dec 12.
As for Tennessee, whoa man. It's not been good. After starting out 2-0, the Volunteers have lost four straight, and none of them have been particularly close. In their last game, a 13-0 halftime lead quickly evaporated as Arkansas scored 24 points in the third quarter to hang another L on Jeremy Pruitt and Co. If UT has any designs on a winning season or a bowl game, getting the W in this game is a must. And doing so won't be easy.
Tennessee at No. 23 Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -11
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The quarterback problem. Is this the week that head coach Jeremy Pruitt goes whole-hog on freshman stud Harrison Bailey? Current starter Jarrett Guarantano has been underwhelming of late, having not had a game with more than 165 passing yards since early October. Bailey has thrown just 13 passes in the last two games. Coming off an unplanned bye week, this might be the perfect time for the Vols to make a change at the field general position. Either way, look for a quick hook for whoever is in the game and struggling.
KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Whoever is at the controls behind center has got to have a shot at some amount of confidence early on. The UT coaches must give them a chance at success. Look for some short, quick passes, some draw plays, screen passes, and playing with some tempo to help give this offense a shot in the arm it dearly needs.
Gotta get the line in line. Tennessee was supposed to have a strong offensive line this season, but it hasn't turned out that way. The big uglies up front currently rank 93rd in the FBS in sack rate and 82nd in power success rate. Four of the five starters are former five-star recruits, including Georgia transfer Cade Mays, but during this four-game losing streak their quality of play has spiraled. Their only chance at an upset is to return to their early play, like when they plowed Missouri for 232 rushing yards.
When Auburn Has the Ball
Give 'em the Tank. Tennessee's pass defense is pretty good, but the run defense, frankly, is not. In their last four games, the Vols have given up 193, 187, 170, and 198 yards on the ground, respectively. With that in mind, look for Tank Bigsby to go bigly in this one. Oh what the hell, let's also give a shout-out to 6-foot-2, 300-pound freshman J.J. Pegues, a tight end who Malzahn and Co. have used on gadget plays and let him run roughshod on people. Major ouch.
Keep Nix upright. In his last two games, Bo Nix has connected on better than 75 percent of his passes and averaged 10.0 yards per attempt (compared to 6.5 through the first four games). It's kind of been a long season already, for many different reasons. But Nix needs to be careful of the wear and tear his body is taking, considering he has run the ball 62 times through six games. Though he has looked more confident and composed in the pocket, he still likes to pull it down and start running. And that leads to more hits by opposing players who arrive angry.
Next man up. As mentioned above, the Tigers could have as many as 10 players possibly missing this game. But the good news is that the last time they played they beat LSU like a drum, 48-11. That blowout allowed a lot of second- and third-teamers to get in on the action and pick up some valuable playing time. So if there are a lot of new faces in the starting lineup, at least they have had some in-game action and should be able to play with competence.
To be brutally honest, the Big Orange is not a very good team at making halftime adjustments. They have been outscored 114-38 in the third and fourth quarter combined. That's awful. Look for the Plainsmen to be caught in a tussle in half No. 1 and then start to pull away in half No. 2.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Tennessee 17
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.