AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn is currently on its longest winning streak since 2013, when the Tigers shocked the college football world by winning the SEC Championship Game and crashing the national title picture.
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers have an outside chance to repeat that in 2016. But first, they have to take care of business between now and a potential winner-take-all matchup with Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Part of that includes an SEC home finale this Saturday against an upset-minded Vanderbilt team.
The Commodores are two wins away from their first bowl appearance under Derek Mason. They’ve already knocked off Georgia with clutch defense and ball-control offense. Auburn is a multi-touchdown favorite in this one, but the program is all-too-familiar with disappointments in recent seasons against the school from Nashville.
Let’s take a look at the position-by-position matchup of this early kickoff (noon ET on ESPN) at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn: Sean White was locked in at Ole Miss, completing 68 percent of his passes for a season-high 247 yards. He made a few clutch plays with his legs, too, including a third-down scramble on a third-quarter scoring drive. He’s an SEC leader in three major categories — completion percentage, yards per attempt and quarterback rating — and has only thrown two interceptions. If Auburn gets rolling early, expect to see John Franklin III get more run in the offense.
Vanderbilt: Kyle Shurmur’s passing numbers are some of the smallest in the country. He’s only thrown for four touchdowns in eight games, and he’s only cracked the 150-yard mark once this season. Vanderbilt averages fewer passing yards per game than Air Force, Georgia Southern and Navy — three triple-option offenses. While Shurmur doesn’t turn over the ball much, he’s the starting quarterback of a passing attack that averages the fourth-fewest yards per attempt.
Auburn: Few players are running the ball as well as Kamryn Pettway. He’s sixth nationally in rushing yards per game with 133.29, and that stat is somewhat misleading. His average in games in which he got a carry is 155.50, which would rank third nationally behind San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey and Texas’ D’Onta Foreman. Pettway has put up three straight career-best performances, and Auburn also has touchdown machine Kerryon Johnson in the backfield. Together, they’re the SEC’s best one-two punch.
Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb is second in the SEC in rushing yards behind Pettway, and he’s Mr. Everything for the Vanderbilt offense. He’s had three 100-yard games in his last four appearances, and he cracked the 95-yard mark in two more games earlier this season. The Commodores will give him the ball often Saturday. Khari Blasingame is a short-yardage specialist with seven touchdowns this season. It’s a dynamic duo, but it’s not quite at the level of Auburn’s backfield.
Wide receivers and tight ends
Auburn: Through injuries and some depth-chart shuffles, Auburn’s wide receiver corps continues to show great depth and progress. The leading receiver each week could realistically be anyone who goes out for a pass. Senior Tony Stevens might play after missing the Ole Miss game with an injury. But Auburn picked up his slack with redshirt freshman Darius Slayton, true freshman Eli Stove and the return of seniors Marcus Davis and Jason Smith. Auburn even threw the ball to a tight end last week. While there aren’t any true go-to targets here, the Tigers have strength in numbers.
Vanderbilt: With Vanderbilt’s underwhelming passing numbers, the receivers don’t get many chances to shine. Freshman Kalija Lipscomb is the leader with 20 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and Alabama native C.J. Duncan is good for a few catches each game. The Commodores use their tight ends a good bit, with four different ones recording receptions this season. Whenever Vanderbilt goes to the air, it spreads things to a variety of receivers, so the Tigers won’t have any one player to key on Saturday.
Auburn: The Tigers’ offensive line has gone from its weakest link in the first few games of the season to one of its strengths. The rate of negative plays is one of the smallest over the last month, and the Tigers are getting whatever they want on the ground. This unit will be key against a Vanderbilt defense that loves to play physical in the trenches. After teeing off against several weak run defenses in a row, the Tigers receive a tougher test this weekend.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores are in the middle nationally in sacks and tackles for loss allowed. This unit doesn’t make a ton of mistakes in terms of penalties, but it hasn’t exactly paved the way for a lot of success. The Commodores start three underclassmen up front, so there’s hope that things will get better for this unit in the future. But they’ll have their hands full Saturday against an Auburn defensive line considered one of the best in the country.
Auburn: The Tigers flexed their depth along the defensive line against Ole Miss. Star defensive end Carl Lawson had a sack, but the biggest plays came from reserves — a second-half sack by Jeff Holland and a fourth-down stop from Devaroe Lawrence stood out. True freshman Marlon Davidson is hitting his stride as a defensive stopper, and defensive tackle Montravius Adams finds a way to make at least one “wow” moment each Saturday. This unit wants to feast on a lackluster Vanderbilt offense this weekend.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores are last in the SEC with nine sacks in eight games this season — and players across the back eight are responsible for half of them. Senior nose tackle Adam Butler is the most productive player, but the Commodores have a hard time getting good push up front for a defense that is one of the best in the league. Keep an eye on Dare Odeyingbo, a defensive end who has shown success in spurts this season.
Auburn: The Tigers’ linebackers played well against the run in the Ole Miss game and made some key adjustments in the second half to slow down Chad Kelly’s quick-passing attack. After veteran Tre’ Williams went down with an ankle injury, sophomores Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams came up big in the second half. The Tigers are more comfortable with rotating pieces at the position, too, with more snaps coming for Montavious Atkinson and T.J. Neal in recent weeks.
Vanderbilt: Zach Cunningham is a star. He leads the SEC in tackles and ranks second in tackles for loss. Wherever the ball is, he’s sure to be there. The former Malzahn — and Auburn — recruit leads a unit that also features Oren Burks, who leads the team in sacks and ranks third in tackles for loss. Senior Ja’karri Thomas makes plenty of plays on the inside next to Cunningham. This is a disciplined and talented unit that serves as the heartbeat for a strong defense.
Auburn: The Tigers’ passing defense numbers took a hit against Ole Miss, but Auburn still ranks in the top 30 nationally in yards allowed per attempt (6.4). A lot of that comes down to stronger safety play. The Tigers received quite a workout against the Rebels, and they won’t be tested nearly as much against Vanderbilt. Look for a bounce-back type of performance from top cornerback Carlton Davis, who had a rough night in Oxford. Senior cornerback Josh Holsey could have a huge day, especially after his MVP-caliber performance against Ole Miss.
Vanderbilt: The best path for success against this Vanderbilt defense is through the air. Opponents have a hard time running the ball against the likes of Cunningham and the swarming linebackers, so they take to the skies. Middle Tennessee State and Georgia each put up 300-yard games. Option-running Georgia Tech even had 222 passing yards on the Commodores. This secondary rarely gives up the big play, but it doesn’t make the big play, either. It has just five interceptions despite facing 274 attempts so far in 2016.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson returned to regularly scheduled programming against Ole Miss by making four clutch field goals and winning SEC special teams player of the week. The Groza Award semifinalist is automatic. Kevin Phillips continues to flip the field and give opponents zero chances to return punts. Rudy Ford’s spot in the kick return team will be a storyline in this game after his blunder in the end zone last week against Ole Miss. The Tigers could use some more juice in both return departments.
Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw is 8 for 11 on this season, with two of his misses coming in close losses to South Carolina and Kentucky. He rarely boots touchbacks, so the Tigers might get a chance or two on kickoffs Saturday. Freshman Sam Loy averages 43.16 yards per punt, and he’s paired with a fantastic coverage team. Kick returner Darrius Sims averages 32.07 yards per kick return and is a threat to break a big one if Carlson can’t put it through the end zone.
The bottom line for Auburn
Vanderbilt has strengths at running back and linebacker, but Auburn can match that talent with a strong amount of depth. The Commodores are built to play physical defense and work the clock with a solid ground game. That could play right into Auburn’s hand if the Tigers’ execution is at a high level — which is always a concern with an early kickoff.
Teams that pass and run efficiently have given Vanderbilt a hard time this season. Their defensive numbers are admirable, but they’ve done it against weaker offenses of the SEC East. Nonconference foes such as Western Kentucky, MTSU and Georgia Tech racked up plenty of yards on them. Auburn comes into this game boasting one of the nation’s best ground games and a passing attack that moves the ball efficiently.
Vanderbilt plays disciplined football that isn’t flashy. That gets results against opponents that are not on top of their game. Auburn hasn’t shown that kind of drop-off in this current winning streak. If the Tigers stay strong, talent and depth should prevail for a comfortable home victory.