Breaking down a top 25 SEC showdown in Nashville.
1. This is arguably the biggest game in Vanderbilt history. The No. 19 Commodores are playing in their first top-25 showdown at home in more than 60 years and have a chance to go 5-0 for the first time since 1943. Plus, ESPN's GameDay will be on campus. It's safe to say this game's creating a football frenzy in Nashville usually reserved for the Titans. "Around the community, everyone is like 'Go Vandy, go Vandy,'" wide receiver Sean Walker told the Nashville City Paper. "I feel like 'OK, where were these people before we were 4-0?'"
To get to 5-0 -- and hold on to those fans who are probably still just coming for curiosity's sake -- the 'Dores will have to defeat a team they haven't beaten since Eisenhower was president (as Vandy's last victory over Auburn came in the 1955 Gator Bowl). The 13th-ranked Tigers have won 11 straight in the series, including last season's 35-7 decision at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Will the 'Dores be able to handle the hype and the distractions that come with being firmly in the spotlight? Expect coach Bobby Johnson to remind his team that the last time Vandy was ranked this high was 1984, and that lasted just one game before the 'Dores lost to Tulane at home.
2. Expect even more changes with Auburn's offense. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was brought on to bring the Tigers into the new age, but so far his up-tempo spread has resulted in an attack that is struggling mightily, ranking 97th in scoring offense, 90th in total offense, 97th in passing and 105th in red-zone efficiency.
After five weeks and a 4-1 start, Tommy Tuberville is admitting things just aren't working out between this offensive scheme and this offensive roster.
"One day, we'll have the talent that we can say, 'Well, we'll run 100 percent of what Tony likes to run,'" Tuberville told the Mobile Press-Register. "Right now, we don't have that talent in some areas."
The Tigers showed changes against Tennessee, running an I-formation and lining wide receiver Mario Fannin up at quarterback in the new "War Eagle formation." Franklin has also said he's going to pull back on the pace that was supposed to be the team's new trademark.
One spot where we shouldn't expect changes, at least for now, is at QB. Chris Todd, who has three TD passes and four picks, is still the starter, while the elusive Kodi Burns will continue to come in and supply a spark. But considering the inconsistencies at QB, you have to wonder if we're going to see the Tigers go back to their old way of doing things and give opponents a healthy dose of running backs Brad Lester and Ben Tate.
3. Surprise, surprise: It's another top 25 SEC clash featuring strong defenses. Auburn's D is among the nation's best, ranking fifth in points allowed (10.6 per game) and 11th in total defense (246 yards per game). The Tigers are giving up a paltry 2.9 rushing yards per carry and are also first in the SEC with 12 sacks, thanks largely to Antonio Coleman, who has four.
While the Tigers' defense is more stifling, the 'Dores have won by being opportunistic and aggressive. Vandy is tied for the national lead with 11 interceptions (safety Ryan Hamilton had three picks versus Ole Miss) and a defensive front that has three first-time starters has racked up 11 sacks.
The group has bent -- it ranks 73rd in total defense and has given up an SEC-high 364 yards a game -- but doesn't break when it matters. It's the SEC's best red-zone D and has given up just six TDs. Vandy has also gotten better as the game wears on: In its last two games (against Ole Miss and Rice), it hasn't allowed any second-half points and, on the season, has only given up one TD and a field goal after halftime.
What problems does Auburn's defense pose for opposing offenses? I asked a coach from one of the Tigers' opponents for his impressions of the defense. Here's what he had to say:
"I was just blown away by their front seven and their ability to get off blocks, their quickness and the unbelievable amount of toughness and swagger. Those kids really buy in and believe in what they're doing.
"We thought [tackle Sen'Derrick Marks] was extremely explosive. We felt like we had to go in there and cut him. We felt like we would be better of running at him than away from him, just from the standpoint of ... if we could get a double-team on him, it gave us a better chance of having somebody else singled up on the backside of a play.
"[End Antonio Coleman] was a guy that we just kept searching for ways to get double-teams with our backs and protection and those type of things on the kid. We just thought he was a special, special player.
"When you're searching to find a 4-yard run play, that's a very difficult thing. You have to get creative. When we had success we were throwing the ball quick, throwing the ball into the flats. They're a Cover 3 team, so you have to throw the hitch ... those simple things just to use your quick game as your running game instead of running the ball against them and muscle up inside with them. You don't want to drop back and drop-back pass protect against them, even though they're a Cover 3 team, we felt like we couldn't hold our blocks and get [the pass] off."
Auburn 20, Vanderbilt 14. This is rare air for the Commodores and you have to believe they're going to be feeling the pressure of playing with national attention. But the biggest issue with this team isn't the hype, it's the offense. Vandy has won with defense and its run game, riding RB Jared Hawkins (314 yards, three TDs) and QB Chris Nickson (270 yards, five TDs) to offset a passing attack that's ranked 116th nationally (80.8 yards per game). But the Tigers' ability to plug up the run will put the game on Nickson and that unimpressive air game.