KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Vols return home for the first time in three weeks on Saturday, welcoming No. 7 Auburn to Neyland Stadium for homecoming.
Tennessee is 4-1 this season in Knoxville and 1-1 in SEC play. The Vols are 10-4 in their last 14 games at home and are coming off a 23-21 win over then-No. 11/9 South Carolina last time out at Neyland.
The Big Orange and Tigers kickoff at noon on ESPN.
The Auburn-Tennessee rivalry dates to 1900 – the two teams met every year from 1956-91 before the Southeastern Conference expanded and split into two divisions.
The Tigers have won the last five meetings, the last coming in 2009. The Vols won the previous four games prior to Auburn’s current streak.
This marks the first time Auburn, which leads the series 27-21-3, has been Tennessee’s homecoming opponent and the Vols will be hard-pressed to win improve on its 27-2 homecoming record since 1984.
Those two losses came against No. 1 Miami in 2002 and a low point for the program a 13-7 loss to Wyoming in 2008.
Auburn is the school-record tying fifth Top 10 opponent the Vols have faced this season, and seventh ranked squad – and last – to take them on.
The glaring matchup statistically the Vols face: Auburn is the league’s No. 1 rushing team with 306.2 yards per game. Tennessee has the SEC’s worst rush defense, giving up 201.7 per game.
Tre Mason leads the Tigers with 102.3 yards per game.
“Tre is a really good player,” said Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, a former assistant at Auburn. “I think the first time Tre touched the ball was on a kickoff return and he went 101 yards.”
The young Tennessee wide receiver corps took a step forward on Saturday against Missouri.
The group combined for a season best 26 catches for 240 yards, led by sophomore Pig Howard who had 11.
“I thought we did some things well last week,” said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. “We made some plays; we had more catches and yards than we have had the whole season, which is positive. But we also left some plays out there. Some young guys left some plays out there that I wish we had back.”
Like every passing week, the Vols have reviewed the film, learned from it, and snap and cleared.
With Marquez North developing on the outside, Howard has moved to the perfect spot for him, in the slot.
“The slot makes this offense go, it always has, it always will,” said Azzanni. “When you have a big time guy playing X out there like Marquez, and then you have a slot like Pig, those two play off of each other. Everywhere we have been that has been the case. He makes it go, he controls the middle of the field.”
The duo of North and Howard combined for 18 of the Vols’ 26 catches on the night for 157 of the 240 yards through the air.
“It was great, I see so much improvement in both of those two kids,” said Azzanni. “Marquez and Pig have come the farthest of that whole group in a short time and it is really neat to see the growth every week of those two guys. Do they make some mistakes, yeah. But I am also seeing a steady improvement which is positive.”
“You keep the confidence high and that is the only way we are going to develop and get better.”
Despite committing a season-high nine penalties last week, Tennessee remains tied atop the SEC in the category with just 36.6 penalty yards per game this season.
Four of the nine infractions against Mizzou came from the Vols’ offensive line, and positional coach Don Mahoney won’t let that repeat itself this Saturday against the No. 7/10 Auburn Tigers.
“It was disappointing; it is stuff that shouldn’t happen,” said Mahoney. “In what we talk about – in terms of the snap-and-clear mentality with what goes on in the previous play and carrying on to the next play – it is just being more focused, being more dialed-in. That stuff is something we can’t allow to happen. It can’t be in our game plan.
“Thus far this in practice it wasn’t an issue. The focus has to be much higher and better, and the emotions of the game cannot affect us. That was a setback for us. We have to be more mentally dialed-in than we were.”
The Vols’ front five won’t have to worry about any of the outside elements this week, as they return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since upsetting South Carolina three weeks ago.
“I think they are excited to get back out there,” said Mahoney. “Anytime you are home, it takes away the elements of being on the road – all the different things with noises and issues that you work through.
“It isn’t something they come out and say but you can tell by their body language. Also, with their disappointment of what took place last week and the week before that, we need to get this corrected and corrected in the right way.”
With the insertion of freshman Joshua Dobbs, the offensive line has another element to account for – their quarterback’s ability to takeoff with the ball.
“They know that the play can stay alive for a while,” said Mahoney. “Even in our run game, he has the ability to possibly keep it. So yeah, it’s definitely in their minds.”
The list of dynamic quarterbacks faced this season grows longer on Saturday afternoon, as the Vols welcome Auburn’s Nick Marshall to Neyland Stadium.
Averaging 65 yards per game on the ground, Marshall currently ranks ahead of last season’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota – arguably the two most dynamic quarterbacks in all of college football.
Week in and week out, Auburn’s game plan revolves entirely around the junior college transfer.
“They have a dynamic quarterback and a ton of confidence,” said Thigpen. “He’s probably the most electric player I’ve seen. We’ve seen quite a few really good mobile quarterbacks, but I tell you, he’s as good as any we’ve seen.
“The kids really believe in him – everybody on their team, everybody has a ton of confidence. Everybody is surrounding themselves and rallying behind him. Just like any team in football, if you have a dynamic quarterback, you’re going to win a lot of football games.”
On Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn spoke about his first-year gunslinger.
“I think he’s gotten more comfortable each week with our backs,” said Malzahn. “With a quarterback you try and build around that quarterback’s strengths and it took us a little bit to figure that out. [The zone read] is definitely a strength of his.”
Malzahn went into further detail about Marshall’s character.
“The thing that’s really stood out to me is he is very hungry to learn,” said Malzahn. “He’s got a great attitude, very rarely makes the same mistake twice and he’s a mentally and physically tough young man.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On adjusting to a new quarterback)
"Not much. We are so young and so worried about getting our stuff right out there, we have our own grass to mow out there right now before we start worrying about what Josh [Dobbs] needs to do. We just try to make plays for him if we could and get him out of trouble if he needs to scramble and things like that. We are so worried about being where we are supposed to be that to paint a picture for him, that we really don't pay too much attention and I think he did a great job."
»(On drops from Josh Smith)
"Sometimes I get on him, I remind him about it. I try and take the heat off of him. It is like a batter being in a slump. He has great hands, he really does. He has made those plays in practice over and over, he just has to settle down and the nerves pressing. I keep coaching him up and also remind him why he made those drops. You go back and you look, maybe hand placement, maybe eyes, maybe depth of route, maybe breaking points. We try and correct that first because I know he has good hands."
»(On Josh Smith's hands)
"Josh has incredible hands. He really does. He has great ball skills. He has the best ball skills in my group. They haven't shown up sometimes on Saturday. I feel for him, I think he is pressing. You come out here and practice and he catches everything. A lot of that has to do with route technique, taking his eyes off the ball, just trying to do too much. The game is going really fast for him now, he has to slow down."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Rajion Neal's recent struggles)
"[He's had] nice attempts; he had 12 carries one week and eight in the other. I think the scores of the last games have dictated the amount of time we get to run the ball. When we are in situations like that we obviously have to do the things that give us the best opportunity to score fast, and at times running the ball is not. I don't think it is a lack in productivity. It has just been the situations we have been in during the games."
»(On determining the number of reps)
"It is just next man up. I don't count reps during the game. One guy gets a rep and we call a play or if one guy needs a spell the next guy goes in. It is really not counted. It is just who is in the game at the time and things they do during the week. There are certain plays that Rajion (Neal) does a little better than Marlin (Lane) and so forth."
»(On what can be taken away from the Missouri game)
"We played against a good football team, a team that has been together a long time. They have done a really good job recruiting the type of players that fit the system. They got in the groove. They are a really good football team. We take nothing away from them. We obviously learned a lot from that game, but we are not giving up. We kind of dusted ourselves off and we are getting ready to play Auburn."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On the physicality of practice)
"(Wednesday) we had probably one of our more physical practices, which was good to see. Today was just okay. I don't know if it was because the temperament yesterday - it was probably one of our better days of practice this year - today wasn't up to what we expect it to be. There is definitely a high sense of urgency of what we need to do and do better."
»(On what needs to improve with the offensive line)
"I need to see more physicality in terms of overall just finishing plays. I need them to play faster. There were times where it wasn't as fast, maybe the cause of what we were doing combination wise. The mind was tying up the feet which it shouldn't be.
"It was things that were upsetting and frustrating for them to see. It was one of those deals where they would say, `I can't believe I actually did that.' Well, it happened. So we have to play a lot faster mentally, we have to play a lot more physical."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On coaching against Gus Malzahn)
"It wears you down and that's the whole deal. They try to wear your defense down, especially your defensive front. The tempo is as fast as any you're going to see. The ball will snap probably every 10-15 seconds. The whole deal is to try and neutralize your defensive line and make sure they stay on the field, so you can wear them down. They want to run the ball and that's what they've had a lot of success with."
»(On Auburn's offensive ability)
"They have so many different packages. You look at it and again, they can throw it out there. They can just hand the ball off. They can do it on the run. They can do it from the formation. They can do it anywhere they want to. He's very creative. If they see something one week and you didn't fix it, you're going to see it again."
PALARDY RAY GUY SEMIFINALIST
The Vols’ senior punter/kicker Michael Palardy has been selected as one of 10 semifinalists – four are from the SEC – for the 2013 Ray Guy Award. The Augusta (Ga.) Sports Council made the announcement Friday morning.
The semifinalists were chosen from a field of 85 candidates for the award, which recognizes the most outstanding punter in college football.
“It is a great honor to be a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “Everything in our football program is based on every player in our program having great pride and consistency in their performance. Michael Palardy is one of those individuals who has exceeded those expectations. It is an honor and a privilege for him and our entire football program that he be represented on the semifinal list of the Ray Guy Award.”
The candidates were evaluated on their overall statistics and contribution to the team. Particular emphasis was placed on the punter’s net average, percentage of total punts inside the 20-yard line and percentage of punts not returned.
This season, through nine games, Palardy is averaging 44.4 yards per punt, 11th in the country and second in the SEC. The senior has also dropped 23 of his 47 punts inside the 20-yard line, or 48.9 percent, most in the FBS. Palardy has landed 12 of his punts inside the 10-yard line, second most in the country. He has also launched 12 of his punts 50+ yards.
In addition to his punting duties, Palardy handles kickoffs and field goal/PAT kicks, one of just seven FBS athletes to handle all three special teams duties, and the lone semifinalist on the Ray Guy Award to do so.
“It is an honor and a blessing to be recognized as one of the nation’s top punters,” Palardy said. “I wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for the help of my coverage team on punts and the support from Coach Jones, the staff and my teammates. The other nine semifinalists are some of the top punters in the country and to be a part of a list of that caliber is something special and something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.”
A national voting body of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) coaches, sports information directors, national media and former Ray Guy Award winners will decide the three award finalists, who will be announced on November 25. Voters will then cast a second round of ballots to decide the winner.
2013 Ray Guy Award Semifinalists
Steven Clark (Sr.) – Auburn
Tom Hornsey (Sr.) – Memphis
Cameron Johnson (Fr.) – Ohio State
Drew Kaser (So.) – Texas A&M
Cody Mandell (Sr.) – Alabama
Michael Palardy (Sr.) – Tennessee
Mike Sadler (Jr.) – Michigan State
Will Scott (Sr.) – Troy
Cody Webster (Sr.) – Purdue
The presentation of the Ray Guy Award will be featured on The Home Depot College Football Awards live on Thursday, December 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The show, hosted by ESPN’s Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard will feature live presentation of nine player awards, along with the recipients of Disney’s Spirit Award, The Home Depot Coach of the Year Award, the NCFAA (National College Football Awards Association) Contributions to the College Football Award, and student-athletes selected to the Walter Camp All-America Team.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)