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Ten Games That Will Shape the SEC: No. 9 -- Auburn at Tennessee

The Game: Auburn Tigers at Tennessee Volunteers, Oct. 3

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. Auburn will square off with Mississippi State three weeks earlier, and Tennessee takes a dreaded trip to Gainesville two weeks prior, but this will be the first chance for the league's two highest-profile new coaches to take on another SEC team that could go down as either a win or a loss. 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.

Where It Falls on Tennessee's Schedule: Right after a game with the might 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. It also proceeds a stretch that goes vs. Georgia, bye, at Alabama, vs. South Carolina. The schedule kind of lets up after that -- vs. Memphis, at Ole Miss, vs. Vanderbilt, at Kentucky.

Where It Falls on Auburn's Schedule: Also after a matchup with the MAC -- ahem -- power Ball State Cardinals, of last year's almost-undefeated season. 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.

What Happened This Past Season: A 14-12 game that would have been a candidate for "Worst Offensive SEC Game of the Year" were it not for the 3-2 abomination between Auburn and Mississippi State two weeks earlier. Auburn gained 226 yards while Tennessee churned out 191. Auburn scored the game-winning TD when Tennessee botched a handoff on its own goal line. This was the point at which both Auburn and Tennessee fans must have begun to realize that something was seriously wrong with their much-anticipated, new-fangled offenses.

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.

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.

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.

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.