I've never been a big SI fan, but in that particular the mag was exactly right. Neither Auburn nor Tennessee folks think much of one another; having spent the better part of fifty years ruining each others' seasons back in the days when the Tigers and Vols were annual early-season opponents will do that to you, and the intervening years since the 1992 conference split haven't changed opinions much. The offseason additions of two new head coaches who've been held in general contempt by rival fans since they days they were hired also helped contribute to the general disdain.
Speaking of intervening years, it's been almost exactly five of them since Auburn last traveled to Knoxville, undefeated but unheralded, and proceeded to run the Vol masses right out of their own stadium.
The more things change...
There were quite a few times on Saturday night when it looked like the 2009 Tigers were about to crank up a similar blowout, but the ball never quite bounced that way. Instead, the Tennessee home crowd and ESPN audience were treated to a remarkably Tubervillian Auburn win: a few big drives accompanied by a lot of offensive miscues, wrapped around a generally solid but occasionally sloppy defensive performance, and a final score that looks closer than the actual game ever was.
The media meme going into the '09 Tigers' first road trip was, "We'll learn a lot about Auburn in this game." What I learned on Saturday night was that this Auburn team is a hell of a lot more physical than it appeared during the first four games. Tennessee has a lot of the same problems today that Auburn had a year ago in terms of the offensive skill players not matching the scheme, but there's nothing wrong with the Vols' offensive or defensive fronts. Even while misfiring too many times in the red zone, Auburn was still able to gash Tennessee for 459 yards of balanced offense without giving up a sack, and while rumbling for 128 of those yards, Ben Tate brought back some very fond memories:
...the more they stay the same.
Photo: Todd Van Ernst
Photo: Todd Van Ernst
While it's easy (and rather enjoyable) to make fun of little Laney Kiffen and his apparent need for regular diaper changes, the same can't be said for his father Monte, an accomplished veteran who's stepped in to manage Tennessee's defense. As a coach friend of mine noted, the elder Kiffen's respect for Gus Malzahn's offense was clear from the early going. Kiffen played things very safe, sticking with a standard 4-3 alignment for almost the entire game, and committing to keeping big plays to an absolute minimum. While he largely succeeded in the latter, Kiffen still wasn't able to keep Malzahn's speed attack from wearing his guys down. By the time Auburn was driving for the put-away touchdown and coffin-nail field goal in the fourth quarter, the Vol defense looked like it had just finished a triathalon after four or five sleepless nights. Auburn was also able to dial up an answer on virtually every Tennessee blitz (even if the execution wasn't always there) and that all by itself says a lot about Malzahn's abilities as a play caller--just in case outgaining Florida's offense vs. the Vols by 136 yards didn't say enough.
Auburn's defensive performance was exceptionally solid--except when it wasn't. In general the tackling was phenomenally better than we'd seen in the early games, and the Tigers thoroughly stifled Tennessee's admittedly non-explosive offense for a good 55 minutes of the game. Unfortunately though, AU just doesn't have the defensive depth to dominate from start to finish, and it showed at the ends of both halves. Fatigue gave the Vols a hope-saving score just before halftime, and contributed mightily to allowing 16 fourth-quarter points--although even fatigue can't excuse giving up the garbage touchdown as time expired (oh, and Laney: I really doubt you'll ever coach against AU again, but on that off-chance, we'll remember your ridiculous signal to go for two. Punk). The defense deserves great credit for Tennessee never being in position to win the game, but Auburn still needs to bring along some more guys to help out the starters. There are plenty of better offenses than Tennessee's still on the schedule--although not, I suspect, many better defenses.
Lo and behold, the special teams actually showed occasional signs of being good, most notably springing Onterrio McCalebb loose on Tennessee's last kickoff to help slam the door. If the Tiger kickoff team can just pick up their play in coverage, they'll be doing their teammates (and my blood pressure) a world of good.
It was obviously not a perfect night, but a win on the road in the SEC is not required to be perfect. Although confidence is not a trait that Auburn has been conspicuously lacking in this young season, there aren't many confidence-builders better than going into a hundred-thousand-plus hostile stadium and eventually running all those hollering hillbillies off. Auburn had a lot to be proud of, and almost as much to learn from Saturday night. From here, it looks like Gene Chizik's troops are well-positioned to put both of those outcomes to good use.