Chizik says win against Vols today may increase ranking
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Gene Chizik remembers fondly the last time he took an Auburn football team to Knoxville, Tenn., a night during which everything fell into place.
It was five years and one day ago when the Tigers marched into Neyland Stadium and left with a decisive 34-10 victory, establishing themselves as bona fide national title contenders in what would be a perfect season.
“I think that was a huge momentum carrier for us at that time,” Chizik said. “That was a big boost.”
The stakes aren’t as big and the teams are not as polished this go-around, but the Tigers (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hope to get a substantial boost when they go on the road for the first time this year to take on the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1).
It’s the first game in a difficult October stretch for Auburn that includes games at Arkansas, versus Kentucky, at LSU and versus Ole Miss.
“Going to Tennessee is going to be a huge indicator of who we are for the rest of the year,” Chizik said. “If you can go to a place like Tennessee and get a win, then it reveals more about your team and helps us into the month of October in a very good way.”
The Tigers have started 5-0 three times since 2000. In all three of those years, they won nine or more games and went to a January bowl game, results that would far exceed any reasonable expectations Auburn fans had heading into this season.
A win against a national name like Tennessee would also go a long way in helping Auburn increase its national visibility and would more than likely push the Tigers up into the Top 25 polls for the first time since Oct. 6 of last year.
“They’re not talking about us now,” Auburn left guard Mike Berry said, “but they’re going to have a reason to talk about us.”
The most intriguing matchup will come when Auburn has the ball, with Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense matching up against longtime NFL coordinator Monte Kiffin’s stingy defense.
The Tigers have put up eye-popping statistics against below average defenses in the first few weeks, gaining over 550 yards against three of their first four opponents. They’re averaging 526.3 yards and 45.3 points per game, third nationally in each category.
They’ve scored touchdowns in 15 of 16 quarters this season.
“The unique thing is (Malzahn) does things that nobody else has the guts to do,” Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. “You look at it, it’s wild and crazy thoughts. It’s kind of like when you’re little and you’re playing in the park and you drew them up in the dirt. It’s unconventional that way and very scary to deal with because there is no fear factor of being conservative.”
Tennessee would prefer to stay out of a shootout, much like it did in a closer-than-expected 23-13 loss to Florida two weeks ago, instead wanting to lean on a defense led by All-American safety Eric Berry that ranks eighth nationally, giving up only 233 yards a game.
Embattled senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton has thrown eight interceptions in four games, including three in a 19-15 loss to visiting UCLA in which the Vols gained only 208 yards of offense. Auburn has intercepted more passes (8) than any team in the SEC.
Tennessee will likely pound the ball with running backs Montario Hardesty, the SEC’s leading rusher at 121.2 yards per game, and precocious freshman Bryce Brown, the nation’s top-ranked recruit last year.
It’s a new challenge for an Auburn defense that has faced a variety of spread offenses in the season’s first month, with limited success.
“It gives us a chance to see where we are with a team that is coming straight downhill on us, see who will stand up and be a man,” safety Zac Etheridge said. “That’s basically what this game is about, to see who will stand up and keep battling for all four quarters. It’s going to be a pretty bloody matchup out there this week.”