Prediction Panel: Tennessee at No. 21 Auburn

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Auburn Tigers this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    Auburn is ripe for a back-breaking loss on Saturday. They’re reeling right now, both on the field and reportedly in the locker room as well. The Tigers’ season is in disarray after suffering an ugly loss to Mississippi State, and their hopes of winning the SEC West or potentially even making it to the Sugar Bowl are almost completely dashed.

    The Tigers could be in store for a lot of trouble on Saturday. If they were playing a better team than Tennessee.

    To me, the Vols still aren’t quite good enough to pull off this upset on Saturday. The offense hasn’t proven to me that they can get it done regularly enough against a great defense, and Auburn will arguably be the best defense UT faces all season. The Tigers are fourth in the SEC in points allowed per game (14.3) and average the second-most tackles for loss per game (8.2) in the conference.

    All of that could spell disaster for a Tennessee offense that has had trouble blocking all season so far.

    Tennessee’s defense should be able to have a good day against a struggling Auburn offense, especially since the Tigers just played a rough and physical game against Mississippi State and the Vols are coming off a bye. But the two SEC teams who have beaten Auburn — LSU and Mississippi State — are far more physical than UT has been up to this point in the year, and both those teams possess better offensive lines and mobile quarterbacks.

    Simply put, the Vols’ offense makes me very hesitant to pick the upset in this game. If UT’s offensive line were even slightly better than they’ve been, I might pull the trigger on the upset pick. But Auburn’s defense is too good for me to pick the Vols, even with the noon kickoff and all the external and internal factors affecting Auburn right now.

    Pick: Auburn, 20-10

    MVP: Deshaun Davis, Auburn LB

    The Tigers have a ton of talented players on their front seven, but I’m going to pick probably the most obvious choice of that group for my MVP pick. Davis is the most consistent play-maker of the group, and he’s a veteran starter at linebacker. He’s been extremely disruptive all season, and I expect that to continue on Saturday.

    Ben’s Pick

    All of the external factors are setting up for Tennessee to upset Auburn. The early kick, the dysfunction in Auburn’s locker room, Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, the fans can’t stand Malzahn at the moment, and the students left for fall break early due to Hurricane Michael.

    Then there’s the on the field product, where Auburn’s offense has taken a tremendous step back. Jarrett Stidham has not lived up to the hype this year because of the environment around him. The offensive line has struggled, there’s no real playmaker at receiver, the Tigers don’t have the dominant running game they’ve had in years past, and the offensive game plan has lacked creativity.

    Tennessee has a chance to pull off a major upset on Saturday and send Auburn into complete dysfunction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vols pull off the upset, but I’m not bold enough to call for it. And that’s for one reason: Auburn’s defense.

    I don’t trust Tennessee’s offensive line in this football game. Auburn’s defense is one of the best in the country, ranking 20th in total defense. The Tigers are strong at every level of the defense and will make it hard on Tennessee’s offense to put some drives together.

    Pick: Auburn, 24-9

    MVP: Deshaun Davis, Auburn LB

    Davis is a third-year starter at middle linebacker and is second in the SEC in tackles with 53. The senior is also top-five in the conference in tackles for a loss at 7.5. He’s the leader of not only the defense, but the entire team. On Saturday, he’ll have the defense ready to go despite the offense being dysfunctional.

    Charley’s Pick

    A few weeks ago, this game looked like another blowout loss, but all of a sudden, it seems as if Tennessee has a real chance in this one. The fact that it’s an early kickoff and the Vols are coming off a bye certainly helps. Auburn has shown themselves to be a team vulnerable to an upset, and Tennessee is a team eager to finally crack the win column in SEC play. The Vols looked much more competitive a few weeks ago against Georgia, and if they can build on that performance, one would have to think they at least have a shot at pulling out their first victory over a Power Five opponent in over a year.

    The offensive gameplan and execution was definitely a lot better against Georgia. The offensive line still wasn’t good, but they finally showed signs of improvement. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton utilized the quick passing game, and he will need to continue to let Guarantano throw this week, as he has been a solid passer to this point in the season. Helton has been far too conservative as a play caller, and eventually he needs to make the decision to open things up. Guarantano is a more than capable passer, and Tennessee has guys that can make plays down the field. They just need to be given the chance.

    Auburn has one of the better front sevens in college football, but they were gashed last week by Mississippi State, surrendering nearly 400 yards on the ground. Don’t expect the Vols to have a great game on the ground, but there is the potential for them to have a decent game. The Tigers really struggled to defend the quarterback run against the Bulldogs, so it will be interesting to see if Helton decides to let Guarantano run at all.

    The Auburn defense is stingy, and the Vols will have to scrap to find any points they can. They need to utilize the quick passing game again because the offensive line is going to struggle against a pass rush that has some of the best numbers in the conference. If they are going to pull off the upset, the offensive line will need to have the best game of the season. 

    Defensively, Tennessee can make this game very interesting. Auburn’s offense has been bad all season and now playing there seventh straight game, there is no reason to think they will break through this weekend. Despite what the numbers may show at an initial glance, the Vol defense has performed moderately well this season. The biggest weakness to this point has been the pass rush, but they finally broke through and had a big game against Georgia. Jarrett Stidham has yet to find his groove this season, and he struggles mightily under pressure. In fact, he has been one of the least accurate quarterbacks in the SEC.

    Auburn was able to run the ball really well last year, which helped Stidham a great deal. This season, however, the ground game has been missing for the Tigers, which has put a lot more pressure on Stidham to perform. And he hasn’t.

    Expect Tennessee to come out and play physical, and try to put a lot of pressure on Stidham. They will need to force a few turnovers to help out the offense with field position. If Tennessee’s defense can play well, they can really turn this game into a low-scoring slugfest, which I’m sure Jeremy Pruitt would love to see.

    I really like the way things are shaping up in this one. Noon games often present a great opportunity for an upset, and Auburn probably won’t even fill up the stadium for the game. It is going to be a low-scoring affair and a one possession game deep into the fourth quarter. Auburn is going to be worn out, and the Vols will hopefully be fresh coming out of the bye. In a game that will likely be decided by special teams, Tennessee easily has the better kicker.

    Still, I just don’t think Tennessee will quite be able to finish off the upset. There’s just too big of a talent gap in the trenches. They may not pull off the victory, but this is a game that can give Tennessee momentum for the rest of the season and give fans some hope for the rest of the year.

    Pick: Auburn, 16-13

    MVP: Darrell Taylor, Tennessee LB

    Taylor had an exceptional game against Georgia, recording three sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles. He will have another opportunity to make plays as Tennessee will be sure to bring a lot of pressure. Saturday, he will show that the Georgia game wasn’t a fluke, and he’ll propel himself into having a great second half of the season.