Friday, November 8, 2013
Vols present a challenge for AU at Neyland
By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- On paper, Auburn looks like it should have no trouble with Tennessee this Saturday. The Tigers are ranked in the top 25 nationally in total offense, rushing yards per game and scoring defense. Meanwhile, the Volunteers are in the bottom half of the SEC in all three categories and last in rushing yards allowed.
But stats don't always tell the whole story.
"I've been watching some tape, and Tennessee is a good football team," Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. "They're playing extremely well at home right now. It's an SEC game, and it's on the road. It doesn't matter where you're playing in the SEC on the road -- it's going to be a tough game.
The atmosphere at Neyland Stadium is different this year under first-year head coach Butch Jones.
"At the end of the day, paper is just paper. Teams can go out there and beat you any time. You have to be on your toes."
This Tennessee team is the perfect example. The Vols have been blown out the last two weeks on the road, but they shouldn't be taken lightly. They're very dangerous when they're at home, playing in front of more than 100,000 screaming fans. Just ask Georgia and South Carolina.
Last month, the Volunteers took then-No. 6 Georgia to overtime, and if not for a fumble at the goal line, they might have upset the Bulldogs. Aaron Murray and company needed a touchdown in the final seconds just to have a chance in the extra session.
Two weeks later, Tennessee took down No. 11 South Carolina with a game-winning field as time expired. It snapped a 19-game losing streak against AP-ranked teams.
In those two games, the Vols averaged 27 points per game, 364.5 yards of offense and committed just one turnover. That's a stark contrast to their three SEC road games, in which they averaged 10 points per game, 292 yards and committed 11 turnovers.
There's just something about the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium this season, and it starts with first-year head coach Butch Jones.
"Coach Jones has brought so much energy to this program, and everybody wants to be around it," senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Every home game we've had has been either sold out or close to sold out. These fans give us that edge. They give us that 12th-man mentality."
It's been a mixture of old and new traditions for Tennessee under its new coach. The Vol Walk still takes place before every home game, but Jones also has introduced the idea of having a disc jockey at home games to add to the atmosphere.
The stadium still has the classic orange and white checkerboard end zones, but the Volunteers debuted their "Smokey" alternate uniforms last month against Georgia.
The new subtleties have resonated with the fans.
"This is the most excited I've seen a lot of people," James said. "Just seeing people out around the town, the strip and all over the city, they're like, 'Hey we're going to see you Saturday. We're going to have it rocking again Saturday, just like Georgia and South Carolina.' They treat it like it's a party, and we appreciate them. They help us."
Tennessee's goal this year is to reach a bowl game. It has to win two of the next three games in order to do that, but the players are set on playing in the postseason, and a win over Auburn on Saturday would put them one step closer.
Auburn has its own goals, though. The Tigers still control their own destiny in the SEC West, and if they win out, they'd punch their ticket to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
But it starts this weekend with the Volunteers.
"We are playing a very solid team," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "This group has been very good at home. They beat a very good South Carolina team, took Georgia to overtime and had a chance to win that game. They have a lot of good talent and a very good coaching staff, so it will be a big challenge for us."