AUBURN, Ala. — At one point, Auburn looked like it was going to have to scratch and claw for every win it got this season. Now, a month and some change later, plenty of Tiger fans are looking past the final SEC home game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That’s not the mindset of Gus Malzahn and his team, of course. Auburn (6-2, 4-1 SEC) is riding high after its fourth straight win with a potential winner-take-all matchup looming in the Iron Bowl if it can knock off Georgia next Saturday. But the Tigers are solely focused on Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3 SEC), which won back-to-back games before an off date in Week 9.
Vanderbilt brings a tough defense led by one of the nation’s most productive linebackers and a running back that ranks right behind Auburn’s own Kamryn Pettway in the race for the SEC rushing title. It has been tested in tough environments plenty of times under head coach Derek Mason, and it also has a recent history of knocking the Tigers off their course.
With that in mind, here are 5 Key Things to know about the latest edition of Auburn vs. Vanderbilt:
1. Get up, it’s game day
In years past, the 11 a.m. CT kickoff spelled danger for Auburn football. The Tigers have played mostly night games this season, but they were able to jump out to a huge lead in their only early kick of the season at Mississippi State. Now Auburn has to handle being the home team playing in the sleepier slot.
“It’s an early kick,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “We’re going to have to be awake and ready to go. But (Vanderbilt is) a very good football team, and they have our full attention.”
Although this will be the last conference home game — and the last one against an FBS opponent — of the season for Auburn, it’s safe to say the crowd energy at kickoff won’t be as high as its last few SEC wins. The Tigers will need to emphasize the importance of getting out to a strong start before noon.
2. Rattle-free Vandy
Jordan-Hare Stadium might not be at its most intimidating this Saturday. But even if it was, Vanderbilt isn’t one to get rattled. In the last couple of seasons under head coach Derek Mason, the Commodores have played some extremely close games against quality opponents — including a pair of eye-opening results against two SEC East powerhouses.
“They beat Georgia at Georgia,” Malzahn said. “They played Florida down to the very end. (Vanderbilt is) a very good football team.”
Vanderbilt comes into this game on a two-game winning streak against Auburn. The Commodores beat Auburn 17-13 in their last meeting in Nashville. While only a few players — including Auburn cornerback Josh Holsey and left guard Alex Kozan — were on the rosters for that most recent matchup, the attitude around this game hasn’t changed. Vanderbilt is not a traditional doormat.
3. Run the dang ball
Vanderbilt’s defense is statistically one of the toughest in the SEC when it comes to league play. Some of that comes down to the talent Derek Mason has on that side of the ball, especially SEC tackle leader Zach Cunningham. However, Vanderbilt has the advantage of playing some lackluster offenses in the SEC East.
If there’s a noticeable issue to exploit in this Vanderbilt defense, it’s on the ground. Vanderbilt’s run defense has allowed 4.55 yards per carry this season, which ranks 84th nationally. Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky, the only two teams that have scored more than 30 points on the Commodores this season, each ran for 200-plus yards. FCS foe Tennessee State even averaged 5.43 yards per carry two weeks ago.
That plays right into the strengths of Auburn, which rushed for 1,488 yards and 18 touchdowns in the last four games alone. Red-hot running back Kamryn Pettway loves these physical matchups, and the Tigers are peaking on the ground at the perfect time. Sean White will get his chances downfield, but expect a lot of runs. When teams move the ball well on the ground against Vanderbilt, they usually do well.
4. Time to rebound
Auburn’s defense went under the knife of Chad Kelly last Saturday night. While it recovered to make the big second-half plays it needed to win, Kevin Steele’s unit still allowed 465 yards to the Rebels through the air. The Tigers need to tighten things on the back end before they hit “Amen Corner.”
Vanderbilt is the perfect team for the rebound game that Auburn’s pass defense needs. Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur has only thrown for more than 150 yards in one game this season — a 31-30 win over Group of 5 foe Western Kentucky. While he doesn’t throw many interceptions, he only has 4 passing touchdowns in eight games.
This is the perfect opportunity for Auburn’s pass defense to boost its confidence heading into a Week 11 matchup at Georgia. Vanderbilt will have to throw the ball to have any chance at winning, and that’s where Auburn can take advantage.
5. Depth, depth and even more depth
While Vanderbilt presents some challenges to Auburn, these Tigers are built to put points on the board against the Commodores. Auburn is physical at the point of attack on both sides of the ball and has the offensive tempo to cause problems.
The Tigers have plenty of talented depth across their offense and along the defensive front. Vanderbilt shouldn’t be able to hang with those numbers in the long run, even though it’s played close against several teams with struggling offenses. Auburn can lean on the wide range of playmakers at running back, wide receiver and along the defensive line to be the difference.
If Auburn can get off to another quick start against Vanderbilt, it will be able to get more reps for younger players and backup quarterback John Franklin III. That’s the best-case scenario against a team that can cause some panic if it hangs around too long.