Auburn has probably had its fill of close games for a while. Having Tennessee come to town might be a good way to end the trend.
With both SEC teams coming off hard-to-take home losses, the 15th-ranked Tigers try to hand coach Phillip Fulmer and the Volunteers their worst start in 14 years on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
A win with a baseball-like score - and the first 3-2 game in SEC history - was far from satisfying for Auburn (3-1, 1-1) after it defeated what was widely considered an inferior Mississippi State team on Sept. 13.
That less-than-convincing victory and mediocre offensive performance did not provide a big confidence boost for the Tigers heading into their showdown last Saturday with then-No. 6 LSU, and they ended up in another close game - this one in Auburn. Unlike the previous week, however, Auburn wasted an 11-point halftime lead and ended up losing 26-21 on a touchdown pass with 1:03 to play.
“We took a major step forward. We played much better than we did last week,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “I was proud of the offense. At times, we started executing and we didn’t have the crazy penalties that we had last week or the turnovers. We are not satisfied obviously with losing the game. That’s hard fought.”
Tuberville’s team is not expected to get as great a challenge from Tennessee (1-2, 0-1).
The Volunteers were outmatched by another ranked SEC foe last week in Knoxville, losing 30-6 to No. 4 Florida. They also suffered a season-opening 27-24 loss to a UCLA team which has lost its other two games by a combined 90-10 score.
Giving Fulmer hope for the rest of the season, Tennessee stood at 1-2 last year after a blowout loss to the Gators, but won eight of its next nine to reach the SEC title game.
“We played for the championship in Atlanta when a lot of other people had given up on us early,” Fulmer said. “We won’t give up, and we’ve got a chance to be there yet. It’s just a little bit harder road.”
That road includes a visit to third-ranked Georgia on Oct. 11, not to mention this trip to Jordan-Hare as Tennessee tries to avoid its first 1-3 start since 1994 - Fulmer’s second full season as coach.
Auburn has won the last three meetings, though the teams have not faced each other since the Tigers’ 38-28 victory in the 2004 SEC championship game. The Volunteers have not dropped four straight in this series since 1961-64.
Both teams are seeking more consistent quarterback play.
Tigers junior Chris Todd is eighth in the SEC in passer rating, having thrown three interceptions and two touchdown passes. He’s completed just 53.4 percent of his passes over the last two games, though he did throw for a season-high 250 yards against LSU and gave Auburn the lead midway through the fourth quarter with a 15-yard TD pass to Robert Dunn.
“We were a lot better than we did last week. The quarterbacks put a lot more trust in the receivers to make plays,” Dunn said. “We made some plays, but unfortunately we didn’t make enough plays. … We have another big game coming up.”
The Tennessee passing game also remains a work in progress. First-year starter Jonathan Crompton has attempted 100 passes but has thrown for less than 200 yards per game, with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Crompton has been prone to some big mistakes, including two turnovers after driving the Vols to Florida’s 1-yard line last Saturday.
“I’ve got to put it in the back of my mind and move on,” Crompton said. “You’ve got to have a short-term memory, forget it and drive on.”
Tennessee might have to rely on Crompton to have a big day offensively, considering Auburn is one of only five teams in the nation yet to allow a rushing touchdown. The Vols have run for six TDs, though they were held to 3.1 yards per carry last week as top rusher Arian Foster gained 37 yards on 14 carries.
Auburn leading rusher Ben Tate also looks to bounce back after gaining 45 yards on 19 carries last week. It appears likely the TIgers’ second-leading rusher, senior Brad Lester, will also be available after leaving the LSU game with a knee problem.
Lester has 174 rushing yards on 42 carries this season, while Tate - a junior - has rushed 67 times for 323 yards.