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    (Photo via Colorado Athletics)

    On Friday, Tennessee finally officially announced the hires of two new assistants to Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. Now, the contract details for both coaches have been revealed.

    Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt officially welcomed in co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton on Friday. Both coaches have received a significant pay raise from their previous jobs at Colorado and Akron, respectively.

    Per the memorandum of understandings for both coaches, Brumbaugh and Felton have signed two-year deals that run through the end of January 2022. Two-year contracts have been the standard deal for non-coordinator assistants at Tennessee under head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

    For Brumbaugh, his two-year deal is worth $1.3 million, giving him an annual salary of $650,000. Felton’s deal is worth $475,000 in total, and he will make $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021.

    At Colorado last season, Brumbaugh made $175,000. His salary was set to sky-rocket to $450,000 in 2020, however. But after head coach Mel Tucker left for Michigan State, Brumbaugh elected to move on to a different program. At Akron, Felton made $110,000 in his one and only season with the Zips.

    Brumbaugh is making more than his predecessor at Tennessee while Felton will be making less than the coach he is replacing.

    Former defensive line coach Tracy Rocker — who is now at South Carolina — earned $500,000 per year in his two years at Tennessee. Former outside linebackers coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph — who is now with the Houston Texans in the NFL — made $800,000 the last two years.

    In total, the two coaches will be making slightly less combined money than their predecessors at Tennessee. Rocker and Rumph combined to earn $1.3 million annually as UT’s assistants while Brumbaugh and Felton will earn $875,000 combined in 2020 and a combined $900,000 in 2021.

    Both the buyout information and the incentive structures for Brumbaugh’s and Felton’s contracts are standard for UT’s assistant coaches. If either coach leaves Tennessee before February 1, 2021, they will owe UT 33 percent of their remaining base salary. The buyout drops to $50,000 after the same date in 2022, however.

    On the other hand, if Tennessee lets go of either coach before their contract is up, UT would owe them the entirety of their remaining salary, though that buyout would be mitigated by the salary they would earn at a new job.

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    All in all, it was another costly offseason for Tennessee, but not nearly as much as last offseason when the Vols signed Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley to deals worth $1 million-plus annually each.

    Brumbaugh and Felton weren’t the only new coaches brought in to Tennessee this offseason. The Vols also brought back former Vol running back Jay Graham to coach running backs at UT. He’s set to make $575,000 in his first year of his two-year deal. Joe Osovet was promoted to an on-field role as Tennessee’s tight ends coach, and his deal is structured exactly like Felton’s, totaling $475,000 over two years with Osovet making $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021.

    Brian Niedermeyer shifted roles on UT’s staff, moving from tight ends coach to inside linebackers coach. It has not been announced if Niedermeyer has received a raise for his move, but he made $355,000 in his role last year with the Vols.

    Brumbaugh has coached the defensive line at Colorado, Maryland, Kentucky, East Mississippi Community College, Syracuse, Louisiana Tech, and Chattanooga. He’s also served as a co-defensive coordinator previously and was the strength and conditioning coordinator at East Mississippi as well. He was also a strength and conditioning assistant for LSU from 2006-07.

    Felton has been an on-field coach at the collegiate level for just two years prior to coming to Tennessee. He was the outside linebackers coach at Chattanooga in 2017 and served as Akron’s outside linebackers coach in 2019. Between those two jobs, Felton served as an off-field quality control analyst for Tennessee in Pruitt’s first year in 2018. Felton was also the head coach at Crisp County High School in Georgia and coached as an assistant at both Colquitt County and Dooly County High Schools.

      It’s time for Tennessee’s gauntlet run to end the regular season. Starting things off is a trip down to The Plains to take on a former head coach and his suddenly reeling squad.

      The Vols (15-11, 7-6 SEC) will tip-off with the No. 13 Auburn Tigers (22-4, 9-4) at noon Eastern in Auburn Arena on Saturday on CBS. Auburn has lost their last two games — both on the road — and come into Saturday’s match-up trying to keep themselves in play for a top four seed in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee, meanwhile, is coming off a sloppy home win over Vanderbilt and a road loss against South Carolina. The Vols have alternated wins and losses in their last five contests.

      Auburn may be on a two-game losing streak and has struggled on offense in both games, but they return home for Saturday’s contest. The Tigers have been unstoppable in their home arena this season, going a perfect 14-0 in Auburn Arena.

      The Tigers have had a few scares at home this season, beating Furman by three points in overtime, escaping an upset bid by Vanderbilt with a four-point win, holding off NC State for a six-point win, beating Iowa State by four at home, and needing overtime to beat both LSU and Alabama at home.

      But those close contests have all ended in wins for the Tigers, and Auburn will look to keep their perfect home record going on Saturday.

      Tennessee, meanwhile, is 3-5 on the road this season, with road victories against Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Alabama. The Vols have also lost to Cincinnati, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina on the road.

      Here’s a look at the most important things to know and keep an eye on for Saturday’s pivotal contest between Tennessee and Auburn.

      Will Okoro Sit or Will He Go?

      Over Auburn’s last two games, they’ve been without star freshman forward Isaac Okoro. And barring some quick recovery between now and Saturday afternoon, the Tigers will likely be without Okoro when they host Tennessee.

      The 6-foot-6 freshman suffered a hamstring injury a little over a week ago, and he’s missed two-straight games and will likely miss a third this Saturday. Okoro is averaging 13.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks a game in 32 minutes a contest. He’s shot 51.4 percent overall, including 60.2 percent from inside the three-point arc. He’s also made 27.1 percent of his threes.

      Without Okoro, Auburn’s offense has suffered dramaticaly.

      The Tigers have lost both games they’ve played without Okoro, and their offense has struggled mightily. Auburn is averaging 79.0 points per game on the season, but they’ve averaged just 64 points in their two games without Okoro, and they’ve shot an abysmal 11.6 percent from three in those two games combined. Overall, AU has made just 37.5 percent of their field goals and have averaged 12 turnovers.

      Without Okoro, Auburn is led by a group of five seniors. Samir Doughty (16.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG), J’Von McCormick (12.2 PPG, 4.5 APG), Austin Wiley (10.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG), Daniel Purifoy (8.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG), and Anfernee McLemore (7.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG) play the vast majority of Auburn’s minutes.

      A Very Different Auburn Offense

      Last season, Auburn was one of the most potent three-point shooting teams in the country, and their offense thrived off those shots from distance. No other team in Division I basketball attempted more threes than the Tigers last season, and as a team, that Final Four squad made 37.7 percent of their three-pointers.

      This season, it’s been a completely different offense for Auburn.

      The Tigers still like to move up and down the court at a quicker pace, but they aren’t shooting a lot of transition threes. Instead, Auburn is aggressively attacking the basket, and they’ve had a great deal of success doing so.

      Auburn is only shooting 30 percent from three this season, which is 324th in Division I. Their 26.9 percent clip from three in SEC play is the worst in the conference. But the Tigers are still shooting a ton of threes, jacking up 694 so far on the year, which is the 39th-most in the country.

      So how is Auburn still getting a lot of points per game? By working inside-out and driving to the bucket.

      Auburn is making 53.5 percent of their two-point field goals, which ranks 53rd in the country. They’ve also drawn the 11th-most fouls in all of Division I, and Auburn’s 709 free throw attempts on the season are the second-most in the country. Center Austin Wiley has been especially effective, shooting 57.3 percent from the field and getting to the free throw line nearly six times a game.

      Pearl Domination 

      Though Tennessee has won 11 of the last 15 games they’ve played against Auburn in men’s basketball, former Vol head coach Bruce Pearl has owned his old school as of late.

      Pearl has won three-straight games against Tennessee as head coach of the Tigers, winning on the road, at home, and in the SEC Tournament. Auburn handed UT a 94-84 defeat in Knoxville in January of 2018, beat the Vols 84-80 in Auburn to end the regular season and take away Tennessee’s chances of an SEC regular season title last year, and then demolished the Vols 84-64 in the SEC Tournament Finals just over a week later.

      The former Tennessee head coach got off to a rough start against his former employer, losing his first contest against the Vols 71-63 in Knoxville as Auburn’s head coach. Pearl lost four of his first five games against Tennessee as the Tigers’ head coach.

      But over the last couple seasons, Pearl has gotten his revenge. And with the Tigers a perfect 14-0 at home so far this season, he’ll look to push that win streak to four.

      Offensive Rebounding and Free Throws

      As mentioned earlier, Auburn really likes to get to the free throw line. Another area they excel in? Offensive rebounding.

      Both of those have been issues for the Vols this season.

      The Tigers have attempted the most free throws in SEC play of any conference team, getting to the line 383 times in 13 league games. Their 264 made free throws are also the most in league play.

      The only problem? Auburn isn’t exactly efficient from the charity stripe, but they get a lot of points from there just by sheer volume.

      Auburn has made just 68.9 percent of their free throws in SEC play, which ranks 13th out of 14 teams. Their overall 67.3 team free throw percentage ranks 283rd in all of Division I.

      But when it comes to grabbing offensive rebounds and getting second-chance opportunities, nobody in the SEC is better than Auburn. In fact, only 10 teams in all of college basketball are better than the Tigers at doing so.

      On the season, Auburn has grabbed 363 offensive boards, the 11th-most in Division I. They’re averaging 13.96 offensive rebounds a game, and their 14.5 offensive boards a game in SEC play is the best in the conference.

      Tennessee, on the other hand, has struggled to stop teams from getting offensive rebounds. The Vols have given up the third-most offensive boards in SEC play this season, allowing 156 in 13 conference games.

      Auburn has gotten 10 or more offensive rebounds in all but four games they’ve played this season. Tennessee has allowed at least seven offensive boards in all but eight games this year. The Vols are 2-4 when allowing 10 or more offensive rebounds to their opponent.

      Why the Decline?

      The Tigers appeared to be one of the top teams in college basketball for the first half of the season, roaring out to a 15-0 start to the year. Auburn’s offense was effective, but it was their defense that was taking them to another level.

      Auburn was holding opponents to 66.3 points a game, and their opponents were shooting only 40.2 percent from the field in their first 15 games of the year.

      But since mid-January, Auburn’s offense has slipped a little, and their defense has taken a huge step back, leading to inconsistent play.

      The Tigers have gone 7-4 in their last 11 games after starting 15-0, and their defensive play has been a huge reason why. Auburn has given up 77.3 points a game over their last 11 contests, and teams are shooting 43.1 percent against them and 34.9 percent from three.

      Over their last four games, Auburn is giving up an average of 82.8 points a game. In the Tigers’ first 15 games of the year, they didn’t allow a single opponent to score 80 points. The closest any team got was Vanderbilt, who put up 79 in an 83-79 loss to the Tigers on January 8th. But over Auburn’s last 11 games, they’ve given up 80 or more points in five games — though three of those have notably come in overtime contests.

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      Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.

      “What do we make of ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25 with UT at #19? Too much hype??” – Hal

      Nathanael: I’m going to say “pump the brakes” a little here. I do think Tennessee has the potential to be a top 25 team in 2020, but unless they get good-to-great quarterback play, they likely aren’t going better than 8-4 in the regular season. It would take a bowl victory and a 9-4 record at the end of the year for them to sneak into the top 20 at that point, so maybe it is justified, but I’m holding off on crowning this team with a lot of offseason hype just yet. I do like the coaching moves Jeremy Pruitt made this offseason, and the roster has gotten even more talented. But replacing roughly two-thirds of your production in the receiving department, your leading sacker (Darrell Taylor), your leading tackler (Daniel Bituli), and your leading interceptor (Nigel Warrior) won’t be easy. The Vols return a wealth of experience in the trenches on both sides of the ball and have a fairly experienced and talented secondary, but I want to see who steps up in the linebacking room and at wide receiver. Plus, UT needs to figure out the QB position.

      Ben: On one hand, I believe that’s a fair ranking for the Vols. On the other hand, I’m not paying much attention to it because this isn’t the first time a ranking on ESPN has favored he Vols. And we all know how the last couple of seasons have gone. ESPN’s ranking is the first of many where Tennessee will be ranked. The Vols return several players who played key roles last season, they return their starting quarterback, they finished their season on a high note, and they finished with a strong recruiting class. All of those factors tend to be what media members look at when ranking teams over the offseason.

      “Is Trey Smith our new emperor? Should we bow at his big orange throne and ask for favor? Has he finally dethroned our beloved Peyton?” – @BuckToTheNasty1

      Nathanael: No, the only way anyone could dethrone Peyton would be if a QB leads Tennessee to a national title and then comes back for his senior season. Or, if that QB wins the SEC as a junior then comes back as a senior and wins a national title. Otherwise, Peyton will always be atop that mountain. But Trey Smith is an outstanding human being as well as an outstanding football player, and he fits into that Grant Williams mold where Vol fans can be proud of what he does both as a player and as a student/representative of the university. He’s an All-American lineman and an All-American human.

      Ben: Trey Smith has has not surpassed Peyton Manning. Nobody will unless it’s a quarterback who leads Tennessee to a National Championship or two. Tee Martin won a championship and doesn’t get anywhere near the love Manning does. But we should still bow at the feet of Smith, who when it’s all said and done, represented the University of Tennessee and the great state of Tennessee better than any player the Vols have ever seen. Especially when you take into consideration is impact off the football field as well.

      “Do you think Gray starts out as feature back? Or you think Pruitt will go back by committee with Jordan/Gray/Chandler again?” – Danny

      Nathanael: I think you’ll still see more of a committee approach, especially if Tennessee ends up landing five-star Zach Evans (which is definitely not a guarantee). Even if UT doesn’t get Evans, I still think you’ll see Gray and Chandler more or less split time at the beginning of the year. Maybe one of them will turn into more of a feature back, but I do think you’ll see them getting a fairly even split to start out. I’m not so sure Tim Jordan is still a Vol by the time the season starts, though.

      Ben: Yes, because Eric Gray is the best all-around running back the Vols have. Landing Zach Evans might change that, but assuming Evans doesn’t choose Tennessee, Gray will ride his momentum of last season’s strong finish. But even if Gray begins the season as the feature back, Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan will have plenty of opportunities to play. Tennessee will feed the hot hand like it did last year, but I have a feeling Gray will have a big season.

      “Who’s a player flying under the radar that more fans should pay attention to?” – @volunteer_27

      Nathanael: I feel like he never gets enough attention, especially with the way he closed out his 2019 season, but I’m expecting some big things from Shawn Shamburger. He was valuable as the Vols’ nickel/STAR defensive back last year, but he rarely gets talked about when you hear people talk about the secondary. Usually, it’s Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, Jaylen McCollough, Trevon Flowers, and Theo Jackson who get most of the talk. Shamburger was an effective blitzer for UT last season, and I think his role is only going to grow. I really like his potential with Pruitt and Ansley coaching him.

      Ben: I’m assuming we’re talking about football, so I’ll say Deangelo Gibbs. The Georgia transfer had a terrific redshirt season transitioning to the wide receiver position. Gibbs consistently made plays in practice on the scout team and is on the verge of a really good season. Austin Pope is another name to watch. Pope should be the team’s starting tight end this season. He was a very productive blocking tight end for the Vols last season and has the ability to be a threat in the passing game.

      “How much distance is there between our tenth ranked class and the top 1-2 classes?” – Jeremy

      Nathanael: Just from a pure talent and athleticism standpoint, quite a bit. There isn’t a ton of difference between the classes in that 8-15 range; really, only one or two prospects make a difference there. But when you look at the top two or three classes, they’re in a league of their own.

      On 247Sports, Tennessee’s average ranking of their 23 signees (which includes long snapper Will Albright, which really brings down the average) is 89.92. Clemson and Alabama both have average ratings over 93, and Georgia, the No. 1 class on 247Sports, has an average ranking of 92.96. LSU, the fourth-ranked class, has an average rating of 92.84. For comparison, the Vols only trail seventh-place Auburn by less than a full point, as the Tigers’ seventh-ranked class has an average of 90.89 per recruit.

      Ben: In terms of athleticism, there is quite a bit of difference. Just about every top-ranked recruit is rated highly because of what their athleticism allows them to do while at camps and combines. These recruits have elite athleticism. and as a result, are ranked highly because they are viewed as having a ton of potential. Tennessee lacks the elite athleticism that a top-ranked class has, but the Vols have great football players coming in. Only time will tell just how big of a difference there is in the recruiting classes.

      “In the 2021 class are there any specific positions that will be a big focus for the staff?” – Stevie

      Nathanael: I think the biggest positions of focus in this cycle will be the defensive line, pass rusher, kicker, and finding an elite running back, especially if UT doesn’t land Zach Evans. The Vols will be losing several defensive linemen after the 2020 season, so signing some more depth pieces will be key. Getting an elite pass rusher is an absolute must this cycle, in my opinion. At running back, UT will be losing three RBs to graduation after this season, and Eric Gray will be a junior for 2021. Tennessee needs to find someone who is a difference-maker there. At kicker, Brent Cimaglia graduates after this season, so you need his replacement, too.

      Ben: I don’t believe so, but if there is a position I would highlight it would be pass-rushers — whether that be at the outside linebacker or defensive end position. Tennessee needs a quarterback every single season, and the Vols will need a kicker in this year’s class with Brent Cimaglia departing following the season. Jeremy Pruitt has reached the point to where he is recruiting in order to continue to recruit championship depth.

      “What are the odds the Vols basketball team loses every game left this season?” – @tjvol49

      Nathanael: Man, rough question. But honestly, I’d say those odds are higher than some would want to admit, probably. All five of Tennessee’s remaining regular season games are against teams ranked inside the top 50 of the Ken Pomeroy rankings, and UT is just 1-7 against teams currently in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings. I’d still be pretty surprised if UT went 0-5 to close out the regular season, but it’s certainly possible. To me, wins against Florida and Arkansas seem the most likely, and it’s not impossible to think UT can split their two-game series with Auburn.

      Ben: Slim. I would be stunned if Tennessee lost its last five games to the season. The Vols will win at least one of their games to finish the season which consists of a trip to Auburn, a trip to Arkansas, back home against Florida, a trip to Kentucky, and back home for the season-finale against Auburn.

      “Thoughts on the baseball team and expectations for this season? Love what Coach V is doing so far!” – @The_Klassens

      Ben: My expectation is to make the NCAA Tournament. This baseball team is good enough to make some noise in conference play, though I’ve tempered my expectations a tad following the news that key junior college pitcher Jason Rackers will redshirt this season due to injury. Rackers was expected to play a key role this season, but the Vols still have the ability and depth to make up for his loss.

      This weekend’s participation in the Round Rock Classic will be a good early season gauge of where the Vols are as a team before SEC play begins. Tennessee plays No. 6 Texas Tech on Friday, Houston on Saturday, and No. 25 Stanford on Sunday.

        (Image via Tennessee Athletics)

        A week and a half ago, it was reported that Tennessee was experiencing some more coaching changes on Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. On Friday, February 21st, Tennessee and Pruitt finally confirmed those changes.

        Tennessee announced on Friday that Colorado defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and Akron outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton are the two newest additions to UT’s coaching staff. Brumbaugh and Felton were hired to replace Tracy Rocker and Chris Rumph, respectively.

        “I’m excited to announce that we have added Jimmy Brumbaugh and Shelton Felton to our coaching staff,” Pruitt said via a release. “They are both tireless workers and will bring a lot of positives to our staff in terms of coaching and recruiting. They are family men who will be outstanding role models and mentors for our student-athletes.”

        Brumbaugh will serve as Tennessee’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach while Felton will be the Vols’ outside linebackers coach.

        “Jimmy has a proven track record of developing outstanding football players everywhere he has been,” Pruitt said. “He also has experience coaching in the SEC and is familiar with the demands that come with coaching in this conference. We are excited to have Jimmy here at Tennessee and expect him to be a great addition to our coaching staff.”

        Brumbaugh served as Colorado’s defensive line coach for two years, joining Mel Tucker’s staff when he was hired as the Buffaloes’ head coach. Prior to that, he was a co-defensive coordinator at Maryland as well as their defensive line coach for two seasons. He’s also coached defensive lines at Kentucky (2013-16), Syracuse (2010-11), and Louisiana Tech (2008-09). He’s also coached at Jacksonville State, East Mississippi Community College, and Chattanooga.

        The 43-year-old coach is credited with having developed several future NFL draft picks along the defensive line. At Kentucky, he coached Bud Dupree and helped turn him into a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also coached Za’Darius Smith at UK, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

        All in all, four of Brumbaugh’s defensive linemen earned All-SEC honors while at Kentucky.

        While at Syracuse, Brumbaugh coached Chandler Jones to All-Big East honors, and Jones was taken No. 21 overall in the first round by the New England Patriots in the 2012 NFL Draft.

        At Colorado, Brumbaugh helped develop Mustafa Johnson into an All-Pac 12 honorable mention, earning 57 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks.

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        In his one season at East Mississippi Community College, Brumbaugh coached the defensive line and was the strength and conditioning coordinator. Six of the defensive linemen he coached in just that one season signed Division I scholarships, including Za’Darius Smith, who he would end up coaching at Kentucky.

        Brumbaugh coached under Les Miles at LSU as a strength and conditioning coach from 2006-07. There, he helped the Tigers win a national title.

        In total, Brumbaugh has helped coach 12 NFL Draft selections, including five players taken in the first round of the draft.

        As a player, Brumbaugh was a starting defensive lineman at Auburn. The Gainesville, Florida native played for the Tigers from 1995-99 and started 44 games, recording 291 tackles and 15 sacks. He was a Freshman All-SEC selection in 1995 and was voted a Second Team All-SEC lineman in 1996 and a First Team All-SEC performer in 1997.

        As for Felton, this will be his second stint at Tennessee. But it will be his first as an on-field coach for the Vols.

        “Shelton is a guy who was with us in a quality control role during our first season, and did a fantastic job,” Pruitt stated. “I was impressed by his work ethic and knowledge of the game. He’s coached in college for several years, and he also was an outstanding high school coach in Georgia. His ability to connect with the players on and off the field will make him a valuable piece to our on-field coaching staff.”

        Felton was on staff at Tennessee during Jeremy Pruitt’s first season in 2018 in an off-field role as a quality control assistant. Prior to his first stint at Tennessee, Felton served as an assistant coach at the University of Chattanooga. In 2017, Chattanooga held the No. 1 defense in the entire Southern Conference, as Felton coached the outside linebackers for the Mocs.

        In his one year at Akron, Felton helped develop redshirt senior linebacker John Lako to an all-conference player. Lako led the entire Mid-American Conference and ranked fifth in the FBS in tackles with 138.

        Prior to joining Chattanooga, Felton was the head coach of Crisp County High School in Cordele, Georgia. The Cougars went 3-7 in Felton’s first year in 2015 before he helped guide them to a 13-1 record and the school’s first ever state semifinal appearance in 2016. He coached four-star defensive end and current Auburn Tiger Markaviest Bryant and five-star outside linebacker and current Georgia Bulldog Quay Walker to All-American status as well.

        Felton was also the defensive line coach and run game coordinator for two seasons at Colquitt County. He spent three years as the defensive coordinator for Dooly County High School prior to that. There, he coached future Auburn All-American Montravious Adams.

        Felton played football for Troy as a defensive lineman from 1999-2002.

        At Colorado, Brumbaugh made $175,000 this past season according to the USA Today assistant coaching salary database. This past year, Tracy Rocker, who Brumbaugh will be replacing, made $505,000 at Tennessee. At Akron, Felton made $110,000 last year. Rumph, the coach at UT who Felton will be replacing, made just over $800,000 last season with the Vols.

        It has not been announced at this time what Brumbaugh and Felton’s contracts will be at Tennessee.

          Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

          In this episode of the RTI Podcast, managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee discuss the possibility of Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt getting both a raise and an extension after his second year on the job. Does Pruitt deserve a raise and extension? If he gets one, what should he receive? On the basketball front, who is to blame for Tennessee’s disappointing season thus far? Does Rick Barnes deserve more of the blame, or is it more because of the roster and the bad luck the team has suffered?

          Make sure you don’t miss an episode of the RTI Podcast! Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts here! And make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for another way to experience the podcast!

            “They’re just good,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers during Thursday’s media availability.

            Tennessee has beaten Auburn 11 of the last 15 meetings between the two schools, but the Tigers left a sour taste in the mouth of the Vols last season. Pearl’s 2019 Final Four squad beat his old school twice when the stakes were at an all-time high.

            In the regular season, with the SEC regular season championship on the line, Tennessee fell to Auburn 84-80 on the road in the regular season finale. Three games later in the SEC Tournament Championship Game, the Tigers blew out the Vols 84-64 to claim the SEC Tournament title.

            “They were a Final Four team last year,” Barnes said when asked why the Tigers have been able to get the better of his team recently. “They still have good players. There is no doubt they still do.”

            Though Auburn (22-4, 9-4 SEC) still has good players, it may be without a key one against the Vols on Saturday. Freshman forward Isaac Okoro hasn’t played in the Tigers’ previous two games due to a hamstring injury. As a result of being without their star freshman, Auburn has lost two straight games to teams under .500 after having won 12 straight.

            Okoro is averaging 13.1 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, which ranked second on the team prior to his injury. As a result of his performance this season, Okoro has sky-rocketed up NBA Draft Boards. Some mock drafts have Okoro being drafted in the top five of the 2020 NBA Draft.

            “We know Auburn is down a player, too, but welcome to that club,” Barnes said. “We’ve been there all year, too.

            “This time of year, it’s college basketball. It’s the SEC. It’s everything this time of year, games are close. Everything comes down to a possession game in most situations.”

            With Okoro’s injury, an even larger emphasis has been placed on the senior backcourt duo of Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick. Doughty leads Auburn in scoring (16.0 points) and steals (1.1 spg) and ranks second in assists (2.6 apg). McCormick, on the other hand, leads the team in assists (4.5 apg) and is second in scoring (12.2 ppg) and steals (1.0 spg).

            Senior Austin Wiley leads Auburn in the post. The center is averaging 10.5 points per game and a team-high 9.4 rebounds per game. Wiley ranks second in the conference in rebounds.

            Despite still having good players, Auburn is different this season following its Final Four run. Especially with Okoro sidelined due to injury.

            “They are not making normally as many threes as they made,” Barnes said. “They are relying more on an inside game and mid-range game. They are capable like any team of having big shooting nights. They are more of an inside-out team than they were a year ago. They are a tough team to defend.”

            The biggest difference between this year’s Tigers squad and last year’s is the ability to shoot from the perimeter, as Barnes pointed out. A year after leading the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage at 37.7 percent, Auburn ranks 12th in the conference at 30 percent. The departures of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown have played a large role in the drop-off in the ability to shoot from three.

            Even without Harper and Brown, the Tigers are still scoring plenty of points, though. At 79.0 points per game, Auburn is averaging the third-most points per game in the SEC. Instead of the majority of points coming from the three-point line, this year’s point production is coming when the Tigers attack the basket more often.

            “They do a very good job of getting into the gaps and trying to get you into rotations,” Barnes said. “They are really putting the ball in Austin’s (Wiley) hands a lot. They are looking for ways to get him involved. I am sure they will do that a lot Saturday.”

            Tennessee’s (15-11, 7-6 SEC) trip to No. 13 Auburn on Saturday is the first of a brutal five-game stretch to end the season. The Vols will play the Tigers twice, as Pearl will come to Knoxville for the season finale on March 7th. In between, Tennessee will make trips to Arkansas and No. 11 Kentucky while also hosting Florida. Three of those four teams are currently projected as the top 4 seeds in the SEC Tournament.

            “I can’t imagine anybody has a tougher finish than we do coming down the stretch,” Barnes said. “This time of the year, wins are hard to get. I don’t care who you’re playing because everybody has gotten better.”

            The Vols and Tigers are scheduled to tip-off from Auburn Arena at 12 p.m. ET on CBS.