Tennessee’s Week 9 Opponent Preview: No. 23 Auburn

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    Photo by Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

    2020 Record: 4-2 overall (4-2, SEC)

    Head Coach: Gus Malzahn, 8th year, 66-33 overall (37-25, SEC)
    Location: Auburn, Alabama

    Leading Passer: Bo Nix (So.) — 119-of-196 (60.7%), 1,407 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT
    Leading Rusher: Tank Bigsby (Fr.) — 89 carries, 503 yards, 5.7 YPC, 5 TD
    Leading Receiver: Seth Williams (Jr.) — 28 receptions, 511 yards, 3 TD
    Leading Tackler: Zakoby McClain (Sr.) — 62 tackles (32 solo), 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sack, 2 QBH

    Total 2020 Offense Rank: 59th (405.8)
    Passing Offense Rank: 
    65th (234.5)
    Rushing Offense Rank: 59th (171.33)
    Scoring Offense Rank: 65th (28.3)

    Total 2020 Defense Rank: 51st (391.8)
    Passing Defense Rank: 65th (236.2)
    Rushing Defense Rank: 58th (155.67)
    Scoring Defense Rank: 32nd (22.8)

    Here’s a complete preview of Tennessee’s opponent this Saturday, the Auburn Tigers.

    Offense

    Bo Nix is the head of the snake for the Auburn offense.

    In 2019, Nix set the Auburn freshman records for passing yardage (2,542), pass completions (217), pass attempts (377) and touchdown passes (16). Nix has thrown for 1,407 yards, nine touchdowns, and four interceptions in six games this season. He’s completing 60.7% of his passes.

    Against Ole Miss and LSU — the SEC’s two worst defenses — in Auburn’s previous two games, Nix completed 75.9% of his passes for 269.0 yards, four touchdowns and didn’t throw an interception. In the four games prior, Nix completed 54.9% his passes for five touchdowns and four interceptions, while averaging 217.25 yards per game.

    A big reason Nix has been able to take advantage of the bad defenses he has faced in the last two games is because Auburn has been able to get the running game going. True freshman Tank Bigsby has burst on the scene and is now third in the SEC in all-purpose average (148.83 yards) and has accounted for almost a third (11) of Auburn’s plays of 20+ yards this season.

    Bigsby, whose 503 rushing yards is fourth among all FBS freshmen, was the first Auburn freshman to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games. Only Bo Jackson and Michael Dyer had previously rushed for three 100-yard games against SEC opposition as Auburn freshmen.

    Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove provide a terrific receiver trio for Nix to get the ball to while Bigsby is getting busy on the ground.

    Williams ranks ninth among Auburn career leaders in receiving, with 1,875 yards. His 113 career receptions rank 10th among Auburn career leaders, and his 16 receiving touchdowns are tied for fifth best at Auburn. He has caught a pass in his last 19 games and has caught 28 passes for 511 yards and three touchdowns this season.

    Schwartz is the fastest receiver in the country. Last season, 30 of his 52 touches resulted in a touchdown or a first down as he made 41 catches for 357 yards in 13 games. Through six games this season he has 38 catches for 422 yards and two touchdowns.

    Stove is a receiver who is capable of making plays in the run game. He has five carries for 40 yards this season, but for his career he has 543 yards on 53 carries with four touchdowns. He is tied for 10th in Auburn career receptions and ranks 28th in career receiving yardage. Stove has caught 21 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns this season.

    With offensive coordinator Chad Morris in his first year on The Plains, the tight end position has been far more productive than it has over the previous several seasons. The combination of John Samuel Shenker, Luke Deal and Jeremiah Pegues have combined to catch seven passes for 54 yards through six games. Auburn’s trio has also done a great job blocking in the running game.

    Auburn’s offensive line has also been the root of the problem when the offense has struggled at times this season. But the big uglies up front have improved as the season has progressed despite losing versatile Akron graduate transfer Brandon Council to a torn ACL.

    Redshirt-freshman Keiondre Jones has replaced Council at right guard since the injury. Jones has been aided with his insertion into the lineup by being sandwiched between center Nick Brahms and right tackle Brodarious Hamm — Auburn’s two best lineman.

    Left tackle Alec Jackson has played extremely well this season in his first year protecting Nix’s blindside. The redshirt-junior is coming off of his best game of the season against Auburn.

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    Defense

    Auburn has allowed only 19.0 points per game in Kevin Steele’s tenure as defensive coordinator. The Auburn defense has continued that trend as it’s the only defensive unit in the SEC that has not given up more than 30 points in a game this season.

    Senior linebacker K.J. Britt is the heart-and-soul of the Auburn defense, but may not play against the Vols on Saturday after he underwent surgery following the Georgia game and has not yet returned to action.

    Britt earned first team all-SEC honors last season as he totaled 69 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He was a 2020 preseason First-Team All-SEC selection and was on the watch lists for the Lott IMPACT, Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski awards.

    While it hasn’t been easy to replace to replace Britt, sophomore Owen Pappoe and junior Zakoby McClain have done so well. McClain is fifth in the SEC with 62 total tackles, while Pappoe ranks ninth with 53 stops.

    Colby Wooden has been the biggest emergence on Auburn’s defense this season. Wooden leads the SEC with 7.0 tackles for loss and has recorded at least 0.5 TFL in every game. As a team, Auburn is fifth in the SEC with 36.0 TFL.

    Wooden has helped a defensive line that was charged with replacing several key pieces from last year’s defense. With the loss of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe, it’s taken the defensive line some tome to adjust to life without them. The d-line is coming off of its best game of the season, however, as it registered a season-high four sacks against LSU. It helped the defense hold LSU to 32 rushing yards and affected LSU on two of its three turnovers.

    Derick Hall was the SEC defensive lineman of the week for his play against LSU, with four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Freshman Jay Hardy, the Chattanooga native who the Vols desperately wanted last recruiting cycle, could give the defensive line a boost as soon as this weekend.

    The secondary has also had to replace quite a bit of production this season. They’ve done so in much better fashion than the defensive line. Auburn’s pass defense currently ranks third-best in the SEC.

    With four of its five starters off to the NFL, Auburn’s new-look secondary has been one of the best in the country led by starting cornerbacks Roger McCreary and Nehemiah Pritchett. Safeties Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood have been the heart of the secondary. Monday and Sherwood form one of the better safety tandems in the conference, while Christian Tutt is one of the best nicklebacks.

    Special Teams

    Auburn kicker Anders Carlson is one of the best in the conference. Carlson is tied for second in field goal percentage having made 88.9% of his attempts this season. He’s 8-for-9 on the season and his longest is from 47-yards out.

    The Tigers don’t have just one punter it relies on. Aidan Marshall has punted 12 times for an average of 43.33 yards per punt, while Oscar Chapman is averaging 40.27 yards on 11 punts.

    Tank Bigsby has served as a strong kick returner for Auburn this season. The freshman has returned 13 kicks for an average of 23.54 yards per return. Bigsby’s longest return on the season went for 35-yards.

    Auburn hasn’t gotten much out of its punt return unit this season. Four different Tigers have returned punts as they’ve returned seven punts for an average of 10.0 yards.