What now appears right and wrong about our preseason look at a critical game.
What's at Stake: Validation for one of the newest figures on the SEC sidelines. Until this point, neither team will have faced a defeatable but challenging SEC team. ... Either Lane Kiffin or Gene Chizik will notch their first win over a reasonably good SEC team this week and could set the tone for a solid if average first season.
True and false. Gene Chizik has done about all he could up to this point to show that he was a good choice for Auburn, and it's hard to believe that one game will change that too dramatically. That said, it still looks like as close to an "are they real or not" game for Auburn as we've had so far. A loss might temper the optimism. Lane Kiffin, meanwhile, looks to be in for another .500 or so year in Knoxville, but winning this game would make that outlook a bit more positive. Unless one of the teams has a phenomenal game or implodes, it's hard to see our impressions changing too much.
Where It Falls on Tennessee's Schedule: Right after a game with the might[y] Ohio Bobcats, but just two weeks after most of us in the predictin' business expect the Vols to get their collective heads bashed in by Cheating Urban Meyer and the Golden Tebow.
Okay, I got that one wrong as far as the getting waxed by Florida angle. But I bet you didn't expect Tennessee to look decent against the Gators and then have a game against the Bobcats, did you?
Where It Falls on Auburn's Schedule: ... The first road game in what will be three over four weeks; after the trip to Knoxville, the Tigers go to Arkansas, play Kentucky at home and then travel to Baton Rouge to play LSU. After that, it gets harder -- vs. Ole Miss, vs. Furman, at Georgia, bye, vs. Alabama.
Just a helpful reminder that Auburn is far from ready to celebrate a huge season just yet.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: The smart money is on another defensive struggle. Not necessarily because the defenses are championship-calber -- though both could be that strong, and have some very good players, including Tennessee SS Eric Berry -- but because the offenses will be helmed by a pair of dubious triggermen with no significant upgrade in the talent surrounding them since last year's game.
As far as Tennessee goes, check. "Dubious" might be a kind way to describe Jonathan Crompton's season so far. Chris Todd, though, has been a revelation this year against overmatched opponents. This game will let us know how much to believe of his progress. Defense might still decide the game, but not just because the offenses are dreadful -- because Auburn's, at least, appears to be just fine.
Tennessee Will Probably Win If ... They can master the QB-RB exchange. Berry can take over the game with a key defensive play or Gerald Jones can make something happen on offense -- if he plays. Those are the two stars of this team, and without them getting involved, I'm having a hard time seeing a win.
My apologies to Montario Hardesty, but other than adding his name to the list of stars, that seems just about spot on. Jones has already played this year and there doesn't appear to be any reason to think he won't this week.
Auburn Will Probably Win If ... Recent history holds true. The Tigers have won the last four meetings between these two teams, including the 2004 SEC Championship Game. (Wow. That suddenly seems like such a long time ago.) Getting 75-100 yards out of RB Ben Tate, who picked up 70 in last year's contest, wouldn't hurt.
Or Onterio McCalebb. No need to be picky.
Conclusion: Your humble correspondent has already called this one for the Volunteers, narrowly, and I see no reason to back away from that now. Auburn's defense is stout, but I still feel like their offense could be in disarray. Tennessee has a player in Jones that could conceivably score; I'm having trouble seeing anybody quite that good at making yardage for Auburn. If Jones isn't able to play, though, the math could change in a hurry.
You can't win 'em all. Auburn's offense is a lot better than I thought it would be and its defense is good enough despite giving up 30 to Ball State, most of that in garbage time. The Tigers should win by at least a touchdown.