Last year, Tennessee’s run defense was the worst in the SEC and one of the worst in all of college football. The Vols allowed 251.3 rushing yards per game to opponents last year, an average that was a full six yards per game worse than the next-worst defense in the conference and the fifth-highest average in the entire FBS.
Improving the Vols’ run defense was one of the top points of emphasis for Jeremy Pruitt and his staff this offseason, and so far UT has done a better job of stopping the run in Pruitt’s first year. The Vols are allowing nearly 100 less yards per game on the ground (158) than they did last season, and they’ve held three of their five opponents to 125 rushing yards or less in a game.
But Tennessee’s run defense has suffered since the Vols have entered SEC play, and Pruitt says the Vols’ efforts against the run are still far from where they need to be.
“I think if you look at our games, there’s too many times that the pile moves the wrong way. There is a lot of hidden yardage out there,” Pruitt said on the SEC coaches teleconference on Wednesday. “You know, we’ve given up a couple explosive runs. We’re improving. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but I think we are headed in the right direction.”
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Tennessee gave up 201 yards rushing on 5.9 yards per carry to Florida in a 47-21 loss and allowed Georgia to run for 251 yards and five touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry in a 38-12 loss in their last game. So far this year, the Vols’ run defense has faltered against SEC competition, and they’ll be facing another SEC offense this weekend when they travel to Alabama to face-off against No. 21 Auburn.
“I think this week will present a tremendous challenge against Auburn,” Pruitt added. “I know they have not ran the ball the last couple weeks like they have in the past, but let me tell you, Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey, they know how to run the football as good as anybody in the country. And they’ve proved it over the years in the SEC against the best folks.
“We’ll definitely have to be at our best in this game.”
Auburn has struggled to run the ball against FBS competition this season. The Tigers amassed 429 rushing yards and six touchdowns against Alabama State — an FCS school — but their other five games have been far less productive. Auburn ran for 147 yards against Washington to open the season but only averaged 3.3 yards per carry, and they’ve been held under 100 yards rushing as a team in their last three contests against Arkansas, Southern Miss, and Mississippi State.
On the season, the Tigers are averaging just 103.7 rushing yards a game against SEC foes (including the 130 yards they totaled against LSU), and they’re only averaging 163.8 yards on the ground against all competition this season. That’s the third-lowest average in the SEC.
But Pruitt’s right: The Vols will need to be on top of their game come Saturday, because Auburn still has talented running backs and can find ways to exploit a Tennessee defense that has had troubles stopping conference foes from picking up yards on the ground.
The Vols’ run defense has gotten off to a better start than they did last year, but it’s still a work in progress. And they’ll be tested once again this Saturday when they go and take on the Tigers.