Auburn and Vanderbilt will clash in an SEC cross-division battle at Jordan-Hare Stadium down on the plains Saturday. There is plenty on the line for both teams. The Tigers are not out of the conversation for a potential SEC title or even a College Football Playoff berth. The Commodores still have a good chance to get to a bowl game. This also should be an interesting matchup between two of the SEC's better defenses.
Head coach Gus Malzahn's Tigers have won their last five games after starting the season 1-2. While it looked like Malzahn was on the hot seat at the time, those two losses came against Clemson and Texas A&M — two teams that made the cut in the College Football Playoff committee's first top four released on Tuesday night. Now sitting pretty at 6-2, Auburn looks like one of the best teams in the country.
All three of Vanderbilt's SEC losses have been by seven points or fewer. The Commodores finally got a long-awaited signature win for head coach Derek Mason two weeks ago when they beat Georgia on the road. They followed that up with a 35-17 win over Tennessee State last week. Vanderbilt isn't among the SEC's best yet, but now sitting at 4-4, the Commodores are dangerous — and there are some winnable games down the stretch.
Auburn and Vanderbilt will meet for the 43rd time on Saturday. The Commodores lead the series 21-20-1. But that number is a little inflated with Vanderbilt's early dominance in the series before 1960. From 1978-2007, the Tigers won 13 games and lost none against the Commodores. But Vanderbilt has won the last two — in 2008 and ‘12. Both games were in Nashville. The Commodores have never won in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Vanderbilt at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn -25.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Running Backs
This game will feature the SEC's top two running backs, statistically speaking. Auburn sophomore Kamryn Pettway leads the conference in rushing with 933 yards on 148 carries. Pettway also has scored seven touchdowns. Just behind him in the conference is Vanderbilt junior Ralph Webb, who averages 107 rushing yards per game and has scored six touchdowns. The Tigers also have another top-10 rusher in sophomore Kerryon Johnson. He's scored eight touchdowns on the ground. This is an interesting matchup in terms of the running game. As a team, Auburn is No. 1 in the SEC in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards per game. Can Vanderbilt's run defense hold up? The Commodores have given up 50 runs of more than 10 yards this season. Auburn is the SEC's best when it comes to breaking off long gains on the ground with a whopping 72 rushes that have gone for 10 or more yards.
2. Field Position
Auburn and Vanderbilt are both very good at keeping opponents from returning punts. The Tigers have allowed negative yardage on returns this year, while the Commodores aren’t too far behind at a little more than a yard per return. That comes down to good tackling and there aren't two better teams in the SEC in that regard. It shows up with these teams' defenses as well. Vanderbilt's defense has done a great job of putting the Commodores' offense in good field position by winning the turnover battle. The Commodores are first in the SEC in turnover margin and have 13 total takeaways. That has helped them score points even without a great offense. Auburn is No. 5 in the SEC in total defense and has no trouble scoring points when it moves the ball. The field position battle will be critical in this game.
3. Red Zone Battle
To build off that field position point, when these teams get in the red zone, they are hard to stop. However, both also are two of the SEC's best at shutting opponents down in the red zone. Vanderbilt leads the conference in red zone conversions, having scored on 25 of 26 trips inside the 20-yard line (96 percent). Auburn is fifth at 85 percent (34 out of 40). Both teams are top five in the SEC in opponent red zone conversions. The Commodores allow opponents to convert red zone visits into points only three out of four attempts, while the Tigers have been a little bit stingier (70.4 percent) in this respect. Whichever defense best exemplifies that "bend but don't break" mentality likely will have the upper hand in this game.
Auburn is a heavy favorite, and for good reason. The Tigers beat LSU back on Sept. 24 and have been a roll since, including consecutive routs of Mississippi State and Arkansas. They also scored an impressive road win over Ole Miss last week. But when Vanderbilt loses, it tends to lose close. The Commodores are no slouch and would love nothing more than to upend one of the SEC's best teams. They had Florida on the ropes at home back on Oct. 1 before falling 13-6. Maybe if this game also was played in Nashville, under the right circumstances, Vanderbilt could beat Auburn. But I think the Commodores caught the Tigers at a bad time. Auburn looks dangerously good. This game will be a cake walk.