Fearless Prediction: Tennessee at Auburn
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So, what did we learn about Tennessee this past week?
Well, we learned that having a week off did nothing to make Tennessee fans feel better about the direction of the program. The Knoxville call-in shows were not for the timid, and social media was a mess as well.
Oh, and the story broke that most of Tennessee’s assistant coaches refused to take a pay cut during the pandemic, even though athletics director Phillip Fulmer and head coach Jeremy Pruitt did. The only assistants to agree to the reduction were former Vols Jay Graham and Tee Martin. Those reductions could help save the jobs of lower-level staff members in the athletic department.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who was one of those keeping every penny, brings home $1.6 million. That’s $1.6 million in American funds … and his offense is ranked 114th in the nation.
Earlier this week, Pruitt addressed this touchy situation. “When you talk about contracts, the situation is fluid,” he said. “I know the men that are in this building, and I know where their hearts are at. I also know the circumstances around decision making, what they’re looking for, and where they’re going in the future. The final chapter has not been written on that. They will continue to look and meet with our administration to see what they can do to help supplement the university.”
So now if the assistant coaches decide to chip in, it’ll be because they were shamed into it. It’s no secret that public relations has been a weak spot in the athletic department over the past decade. The optics in this case are pretty bad.
But for now, the Vols’ main concern is wins and losses, and the Vols haven’t won a game since Oct. 3.
This week they head down to The Plains to face Auburn. Pruitt knows the Tigers well from his time at Alabama. Jordan-Hare Stadium is also the site of one of Pruitt’s biggest wins since taking the Tennessee job, a 30-24 victory in 2018.
Because of a COVID postponement, Tennessee will have had 14 days off in between games. Thanks to a bye week and a COVID postponement, the Tigers will have been absent from game action for 21 days. Auburn hasn’t played since its 48-11 victory at LSU on Halloween. There likely will be some rust for both teams. The Tigers will be without a few players due to contract tracing rules.
Tennessee fans are hoping that Pruitt, Chaney and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke have put the break to good use, because the offense needs some sort of spark.
The depth chart has Jarrett Guarantano listed as QB1 yet again, much to the chagrin of Big Orange Country. The offensive woes aren’t only the quarterback’s fault, however. In particular, the offensive line has not been nearly as good as advertised.
Before its break, Auburn finally started leaning on Tank Bigsby and the rushing attack, which helped Bo Nix and the passing game get untracked. Nix threw for a combined 538 yards and 4 touchdowns in their most recent wins over Ole Miss and LSU. But even with that uptick, Nix is still completing only 61% of his passes. That actually puts him in Guarantano territory as he is completing 62% of his throws.
The difference is mobility. Nix is 2nd on his team in rushing with 274 yards. (Bigsby, a true freshman, leads the Tigers with 503 yards and 5 rushing TDs.) Guarantano has only rushed for 23 yards. That is by design as Guarantano has gotten knocked out of multiple games in his career, including most of the 2nd half of the Arkansas loss when he was hit in the head. But not having a quarterback who can make things happen with his cleats is a problem for Tennessee.
Neither team is exceptional on defense, with Auburn ranked 51st nationally and Tennessee 62nd. Zakoby McClain is having a terrific season for Auburn, leading the Tigers with 62 tackles and a couple of sacks. Trevon Flowers and Henry To’o To’o lead Tennessee with 40 tackles.
This isn’t the marquee game on the SEC slate. Neither team will win its division. And I don’t think Auburn is significantly more talented than Tennessee, at least compared to the gulf that exists between the Vols and Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
But the Vols simply are not in a good place right now. We are getting close to the point in the season when you wonder how much players want to be there, with team goals out the window, and coming up on 7 weeks removed from the last time they could sing in the locker room after the game.
There won’t be any singing this weekend either for the Vols.
Fearless Prediction time …
Auburn 31, Tennessee 13