Knoxville, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The seventh-ranked Auburn Tigers will attempt to win their sixth straight game on Saturday afternoon, as they visit the Tennessee Volunteers in an SEC showdown.
Although Auburn began the season off the national radar, it has been able to exceed even the most ambitious expectations in Gus Malzahn's first season as head coach, as it sits at 8-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, while rising all the way to No. 7 in the latest AP poll. The Tigers recently defeated Arkansas on the road, 35-17, and with a strong finish they could be in position for an at- large bid to a BCS bowl game.
"We just feel very blessed to be 8-1," Malzahn said. "Just proud of this team. They've come a long way and just need to keep improving."
Tennessee is also in year one of a new regime, but Butch Jones' inaugural campaign has been an up-and-down one. With a 31-3 loss to Missouri last week, the Vols dipped to 4-5 overall and 1-4 in conference, with all five of their losses coming against Top-25 teams. Fortunately for UT, it has played well at Neyland Stadium this season, winning four of five bouts.
"What separates teams, what separates people is the willingness to do the things that nobody else wants to do," Jones said. "We're going through the realities of building a good program, teaching the expectations. That's not going to be a crutch. We expect to have competitive people that want to win week in and week out."
Auburn leads the all-time series with Tennessee, 27-21-3, although the teams haven't faced each other since 2009 when the Tigers won in Knoxville, 26-22.
Auburn's offense has been one of the SEC's most efficient (36.8 ppg, 494.9 ypg), thanks largely to its outstanding rushing attack, which ranks sixth in nation in amassing 306.2 ypg.
There's plenty of touches to go around in the backfield, but Tre Mason handles most of the load with 161 carries for 921 yards and an league-leading 13 touchdowns. Mason was named the SEC Player of the Week following his 168-yard, four-touchdown performance versus Arkansas.
"What can I say? The guy gets stronger as the game goes on," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He gets stronger as the season goes on."
Cameron Artis-Payne (515 yards, five TDs) and Corey Grant (456 yards, four TDs) also see their share of action, with the latter averaging nearly 10 yards per carry.
Nick Marshall has battled through some injuries this season, but has run the offense to near perfection when healthy. He is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,266 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions, while doing damage with his legs as well (520 yards, five TDs). Jeremy Johnson (28- of-40, 408 yards, six TDs, two INTs) has performed in limited snaps, showing he can be called upon in a pinch.
Sammie Coates (24 catches, 638 yards, five TDs) is a big play waiting to happen out wide, as his average of 26.6 yards per catch is tops in the nation.
Defensively, Auburn ranks just 10th in the SEC in yards allowed per game (398.9), but its bend-don't-break style has kept opposing teams out of the end zone, as it ranks third in scoring defense (20.1 ppg). Foes score touchdowns on just 43 percent of their trips to the red zone (13-of-30).
Chris Davis leads the team with 43 tackles, while Robenson Therezie (40 tackles, three INTs) anchors the secondary. The unit could be without pass- rush specialist Dee Ford (9.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks), who is listed as questionable for this clash as he nurses a knee injury.
As for Tennessee, its offense has struggled to get off the ground in Jones' first season, ranking 10th in the league in both scoring (25.1 ppg) and yardage (359.1 ypg), and with a freshman quarterback starting last week, things were even worse as the team scored just three points and committed three turnovers.
Filling in for Justin Worley, who could miss the rest of the season with a thumb injury, Joshua Dobbs made his first career start against Missouri, going 26-of-42 for 240 yards with zero touchdowns and two picks. Despite the lackluster performance, Jones still took some positives away from the showing.
"He had some good experiences and some experiences we need to correct that he doesn't need to have twice," Jones said. "The experiences that he gained should continue to move him forward."
Raijon Neal tallied just eight yards on eight carries last week, but he is still in the midst of a strong season with 771 yards and nine touchdowns. Marlin Lane (397 yards, four TDs) has also been an effective runner for the Vols.
Alton "Pig" Howard (36 receptions, 344 yards, three TDs) and Marquez North (32 receptions, 436 yards, TD) headline a modest receiving corps.
The Tennessee defense has shown some big-play tendencies, forcing 18 turnovers, but the unit is still below average in the SEC in yielding 29.4 ppg and 429.3 ypg.
A.J. Johnson's 76 tackles are the most on the team, while Brian Randolph has racked up 53 tackles and three interceptions. Cameron Sutton and Brent Brewer have two picks apiece, and Marlon Walls has 4.5 of the team's 12 sacks.