No. 23 Auburn takes on visiting Vols
The No. 23 Auburn Tigers will host the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, a week after both were among eight SEC teams that had games postponed due to COVID-19 positive cases.
The Tigers (4-2, 4-2 in SEC), whose trip to Mississippi State has been tentatively rescheduled to Dec. 12, have not played since Oct. 31 when they crushed defending national champion LSU at home, 48-11.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters he did not know exactly how many of the 10 players who tested positive or were quarantined due to contact tracing would be available against Tennessee. He later acknowledged that at least some would miss the game, but he declined to go into specifics.
The Volunteers (2-4, 2-4) started the season with back-to-back victories, but have lost four consecutive games, and had last week’s game against Texas A&M postponed until Dec. 12 after the Aggies had positive cases.
“Everything changes daily,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “There’s lots of unknowns. You just try to adapt and there’s nothing that you can go back and draw from. There’s no history books on COVID, so it’s all for the first time.”
It’s continually frustrating, but consider, too, the frustrations Vols have experienced on offense this season.
Tennessee is averaging only 14.5 points a game during the four-game skid, and for the season ranks second-worst in the SEC in total offense (318.5 yards per game) and yards per play (4.74), and has the worst third-down conversion percentage (27.38).
There’s some question as to who might start at quarterback for the Vols against Auburn.
Freshman Harrison Bailey, who finished Tennessee’s most recent game against Arkansas, could find himself in the game plan this week as he and sophomores Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout all took plenty of reps in practice while senior starter Jarrett Guarantano (956 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions) was in concussion protocol last week.
“To me, it seems to be a little more confidence offensively, especially with our younger guys just having a better idea of how to execute at a higher level,” Pruitt said.
Auburn, which has won two in a row and is trying to work its way back up the Top 25, is led by sophomore quarterback Bo Nix and junior receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. The Tigers average 405.8 yards a game and 5.8 yards a play. Their plus-4 turnover margin ranks third-best in the SEC.
Much of the Tigers’ success can be attributed to an impactful group of freshmen led by running back Tank Bigsby, who is averaging 83.8 rushing yards a game and has five touchdowns. Bigsby’s 503 rushing yards lead all Power 5 conference freshman running backs and he leads all SEC kickoff returners with 306 return yards.
“It’s probably the most we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Malzahn said of his freshmen of influence. “First of all, what stands out to me about the class is they have a lot of character. High-character guys. It’s a very talented group. It’s a great combination.”
Tennessee has had some bright spots on defense.
Senior linebacker Deandre Johnson’s 4.5 sacks is the second-most in the SEC. Sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is also tied with Auburn freshman linebacker Colby Wooden for the most tackles for loss (7) in the SEC.
The Tigers’ defense is led by freshman end ZyKeivous Walker, junior linebacker Zakoby McClain (2.5 sacks) and a secondary ranked third-best in the SEC in passing defense (236.2 yards per game) and second-fewest in TD passes allowed (9).
“One thing that I will say about all of us, we have a mindset that we’re going to leave no doubt,” Walker said.
–Field Level Media