Vanderbilt faces its biggest challenge of 2016 when it travels to Alabama for a cross-division showdown with No. 9 Auburn. The Commodores can win just their second SEC road game of the Derek Mason era, but it will take a tremendous effort to get there. Oddsmakers have pegged the ‘Dores as a 26-point underdog against the Tigers on Saturday.
Vandy only ever sees Auburn in Summer Olympic years these days, so we turned to an expert to help decipher this week’s foe. Walt Austin is the managing editor over at College and Magnolia, SB Nation’s authority on all things War Eagle. He was kind enough to answer my questions about the Tigers and what Vanderbilt will have to do to ruin their afternoon.
Here’s what he had to say:
1. Auburn's headliner on offense has been the Johnson/Pettway combination at tailback, but Sean White has been a very solid, if little-utilized passer behind center. What did Clemson and Texas A&M do to sap away at his effectiveness in Tiger losses?
Walt Austin, C&M: Well, I'm not sure you can really say Clemson slowed down White as much as Gus Malzahn slowed down White. Malzahn rotated QBs so often in that game that it defies belief. The offense got rolling in the 2nd half, and I don't think it's a coincidence that this is when he stuck more with Sean White. Clemson did generate a good pass rush, though. A&M did the same with rushing the passer. Auburn's offensive line struggled to block in those first 2-3 games. The Tigers were one of the worst teams in the nation in negative plays (I think they were 120th) to start the season. They're vastly improved, now and finished October in the Top 5 in the nation in negative plays. Some of the reason for that has been Rhett Lashlee taking over play calling and designing game plans that fit what the team was doing well until they were able to get better at the things they were struggling with. The play book has continued to open up more and more each week. After failing with pulling guards in the first 3 games, Rhett went more straight-ahead blocking. As things have improved, we're seeing the pulling guards more, again, and they've gotten very good at it. The offense is fast approaching 2013-level in the run game even without a "mobile" QB.
2. Vanderbilt is strong when it comes to stopping runs in the middle of the field but struggles once tailbacks get outside the tackle box (in part because runs to the outside get away from All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham). How much damage have guys like Johnson, Pettway, and White done near the sidelines this fall?
C&M: Auburn has done its most damage running in between the right guard and right tackle according to Pro Football Focus. Auburn runners are averaging 3+ yards before the defense ever makes contact with the ball carrier, right now, and that number is even better when they run between Braden Smith and Robert Leff. They're very good at bouncing outside on buck sweeps, though. And if the defense doesn't respect the sweep, then the Tigers will gladly hand it to true freshman Eli Stove and let him do what he did to Arkansas on the first play of the game. Perhaps the biggest addition to the outside run game has been the evolution of fullback Chandler Cox.
3. Has Auburn's three game winning streak been the function of a fundamental change early in the season, or more attributable to a brutal schedule (excluding Arkansas State) through the first three games of the season?
C&M: I think it's a bit of both, honestly. Gus Malzahn has tended to take 3-4 games to really understand his team and what to do with them every year when he's dealing with a lot of new personnel. It's rare that he's ever had the same QB two years in a row for various reasons (changing jobs, QB was a senior when he got there, QB was one-and-done, etc). Against Clemson, he couldn't figure out what to do. By A&M he realized he was in his own head and in his own way and turned over play calling. By that point, the coaches mostly knew what they had - even if they were struggling with how to use them - and Lashlee started finding the perfect fits. See above for a little more on the resurgence.
4. Texas A&M, and to a lesser extent, Clemson, had success running the ball to beat the Tigers. How will Gus Malzahn prepare to stop a Vandy running game that features a talented all-conference back in Ralph Webb -- but also stands as the team's only real offensive threat?
C&M: A lot of Texas A&M's success running the ball is due to Trevor Knight breaking free and one long run by Trayveon Williams. Without that 89 yard run (right after a turnover on downs, and the defense was just worn down from having to try to bail the offense out, repeatedly), one of the best rushers in the SEC finishes the game with only 38 yards. Rawleigh Williams III of Arkansas came into the Auburn game as one of the best running backs in the SEC. Auburn held him to 22 yards. Wayne Gallman is the only running back who ever really had anything approaching consistent success against Auburn on the ground, and that was back in Week 1. Ralph Webb is a very talented back, but since Vanderbilt struggles in the passing game, I think Auburn will focus on linebackers filling gaps in the line and sell out to shut down any running lanes for him. Webb may still gain a lot of yards - good backs often do - but I think Auburn will focus on him enough to stifle the overall Vandy offensive effort.
5. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's showdown?
C&M: I don't think it's going to be as bad as Vegas is saying in the spread. Auburn's offense is clicking on all cylinders right now, but Vanderbilt will be the toughest defense they've faced since the LSU game. Vanderbilt will be able to slow Auburn's running game down a bit, and maybe Auburn will let Sean White throw it some more, which is bound to lead to a few more incompletions and lost plays. I don't know that Vanderbilt's offense is going to be able to do much against Auburn's defense, though, without some help from turnovers or special teams. I see the final being somewhere around 27-10.