AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Circumstances have changed significantly since the last time Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt matched his defense against Gus Malzahn and Auburn’s offense.
The Volunteers and 21st-ranked Tigers face off Saturday with each nursing more humble aspirations than national and Southeastern Conference championships.
Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC) is seeking a breakthrough league win under Pruitt, who was No. 1 Alabama’s defensive coordinator last season. Auburn (4-2, 1-2) wants to break out of an offensive funk that has turned the defending SEC West champions from league contenders to outliers in the race.
The Tigers dropped 13 spots in the rankings after a 23-9 loss to 24th-ranked Mississippi State.
“The way we are right now, our backs are against the wall with how we want to finish this thing,” Malzahn said. “I expect our group to be extremely, extremely hungry on Saturday.”
Auburn advanced to the SEC championship game, and remained in playoff contention, with a win over Pruitt and Alabama last season. The Crimson Tide still went on to win the national title. Pruitt was also a Florida State assistant in the Seminoles’ national championship game win over Malzahn’s first Auburn team to cap the 2013 season.
The stakes are much smaller this time, but the familiarity has only grown.
Now, Pruitt faces an offense with quarterback Jarrett Stidham struggling and a running game that lacks the punch it had last season with versatile tailback Kerryon Johnson.
“I know they have not run the ball in the last couple of weeks like they traditionally have in the past,” Pruitt said. “But let me tell you, Gus Malzahn and (Auburn offensive coordinator) Chip Lindsey know how to run the football as good as anybody in the country and they’ve proved it over the years in the SEC against the best folks. We’ll definitely have to be at our best in this game.”
Here are some things to know about the Tennessee-Auburn game:
PRUITT VS AUBURN
Pruitt is 6-2 as an assistant against Auburn, having faced the Tigers every year since becoming a position coach in 2010.
Stidham has thrown only one touchdown pass in Auburn’s three SEC games and has misfired on deep balls that could have been scores. Tennessee’s pass defense has improved since allowing five Will Grier touchdown passes in a season-opening lost to West Virginia. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 50.5 percent of their passes for 484 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in Tennessee’s last four games.
VOLS SEEK TO END SLIDE
Tennessee will try to end an 11-game skid in SEC competition, a slide that began with a loss to Vanderbilt in its 2016 regular-season finale. The Vols also have lost 15 straight games to the SEC West and haven’t beaten a Western Division team since knocking off Mississippi in 2010.
Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker is a College Football Hall of Fame inductee who won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Trophy while playing for Auburn in 1988. He also was Auburn’s defensive line coach in 2009-10 and helped the Tigers win a national title in 2010.
Auburn is hoping right tackle Jack Driscoll is able to return after missing the Mississippi State game with a knee injury. Calvin Ashley took his place for an offensive line that has already had troubles. Tennessee is without freshman safety Trevon Flowers , who broke a collarbone during practice. Pruitt said starting safety Micah Abernathy has a “banged-up ankle” but will be ready to play Saturday.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.
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