Vanderbilt-Auburn preview

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Vanderbilt Commodores (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) at Auburn Tigers (3-2, 1-1)
When: Saturday, Oct. 6., 11:30 a.m. CST
Location: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala. (87,451)
Radio: The game will be broadcast in Nashville on 104.5 F.M., with Joe Fisher providing play-by-play, John Gromos serving as color analyst and Kevin Ingram as the sideline reporter.
In Auburn, the game will be broadcast on WKKR-FM (97.7).
The Auburn broadcast of the game may also be found on Sirius Satellite Radio, channel 121, with the Vanderbilt version found on 119.
TV: The game will be televised regionally by Lincoln Financial Sports, with the pregame show starting at 11. Dave Neal does the play-by-play, Dave Archer the color commentary and Dave Baker is the sideline reporter.
Series history: Each game has won 19 times and there has been one tie. Auburn has won the last 12, with an average margin of victory of 24.4 points. The last Commodore win came in the 1955 Gator Bowl.
Auburn has won all seven meetings in Auburn.
Coaches: Vanderbilt is coached by Bobby Johnson (6th year at Vandy, 19-44 at VU, 78-80 overall). Auburn's Tommy Tuberville is 99-51 in his 13th year as a coach, and 74-31 at Auburn.
Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the Bowl Subdivision poll, though Auburn received votes in the latest AP and USA Today rankings.
Starting lineups:
QB 12-Brandon Cox (Sr., 6-1, 207)
RB 44-Ben Tate (So., 5-11, 211)
FB 32-Carl Stewart (Sr., 6-2, 229)
WR 80-Rod Smith (Jr., 6-0, 188)
WR 84-Montez Billings (So., 6-2, 190)
LT 50-Ryan Pugh (Fr., 6-4, 282)
LG 71-Tyronne Green (Jr., 6-2, 308)
C 68-Jason Bosley (Jr., 6-2, 292)
RG 76-Chaz Ramsey (Fr., 6-4, 284)
RT 73-Lee Ziemba (Fr., 6-8, 297)
TE 87-Cole Bennett (Sr., 6-4, 258)
DE 52-Antonio Coleman (So., 6-2, 243)
DT 97-Josh Thompson (Sr., 6-0, 301)
DT 95-Pat Sims (Jr., 6-4, 316)
DE 94-Sen'Derrick Marks (So., 6-1, 291)
LB 46-Craig Stevens (Fr., 6-2, 219)
LB 10-Tray Blackmon (So., 6-0, 223)
LB 59-Chris Evans (Jr., 6-0, 221)
LCB 8-Jerraud Powers (So., 5-9, 183)
SS 4-Zac Etheridge (Fr., 5-11, 200)
FS 2-Aairon Savage (Jr., 5-11, 188)
RCB 20-Patrick Lee (Sr., 6-0, 201)
Special teams
K 18-Wes Byrum (Fr., 6-1, 213)
P 23-Patrick Tatum (Fr., 6-2, 205) OR 21-Ryan Shoemaker (Fr., 6-1, 213)
PR 3-Robert Dunn (Jr., 6-0, 175)
KOR Lee and 21-Mario Fannin (Fr., 5-11, 219)
Auburn has been as consistently good as anyone in the SEC under Coach Tommy Tuberville over the past five years. But this year has tried the patience of many Tiger fans as the identity of this team still isn't clear.
Auburn looked terrific in going on the road and defeating then-No. 4 Florida last week, But earlier in September, the favored Tigers lost at home to South Florida and Mississippi State.
The inconsistency becomes easier to explain with a quick look at the AU roster. The Tigers will start five freshmen and six sophomores on Saturday, and have 10 freshmen listed on the second-team depth chart.
Ironically, it's been the play of one of the team's most experienced and high-profile players—quarterback Brandon Cox—that's been most problematic. The third-year starter had thrown 33 touchdowns and 19 interceptions coming into this season, but has thrown six picks and just three touchdown tosses so far.
Tuberville went as far as to bench Cox in favor of Kodi Burns two weeks ago against New Mexico State, snapping Cox's streak of 24 consecutive starts. Cox regained the job last week in a solid, 227-yard, no-interception performance, but Burns may still see spot duty in certain situations as he's more mobile than Cox.
Behind the duo, running back Brad Lester—the Tigers' leading returning rusher from last year—returns from a five-game, NCAA-imposed academic suspension. Tuberville said Lester "would be in the mix very quick" for playing time, but declined to say what role he'd have or whether he'd start.
That means that Lester will likely split carries with sophomore Ben Tate and freshman Mario Fannin. Both run well, but have had issues holding on to the ball.
Lester has the best hands of the trio, and Tuberville says his comeback means "another touchdown or two" per game to the Tiger offense.
On the subject of sure-handedness, the Tiger receiving corps didn't drop a pass last week. Cox has a variety of targets (13 Tigers have receptions this year) but junior Rod Smith leads the way with 355 yards and a pair of scores.
Auburn's starting offensive line is talented, but is one of the league's smallest and least-experienced. The team returned one starter, tackle King Dunlap, a preseason All-SEC candidate who has been injured and doesn't appear on the team's two-deep chart released earlier in the week.
Only one lineman (the 308-pound Tyronne Green) tops 300 pounds, and left tackle Ryan Pugh, right guard Chaz Ramsey and right tackle Lee Ziemba are all true freshmen.
However, the group was largely successful against the Gators last week in helping Auburn control game tempo, as all four Tiger scoring drives consisted of 10 or more plays.
Tuberville hinted that Dunlap, who did not dress against NMSU or make the travel roster against Florida, could return to the lineup this week. Tuberville termed Dunlap's week of practice terming "his best in two years."
If Dunlap does play, Pugh will be the odd man out.
Defensively, Auburn is young but talented. While the Tigers have been riddled with injuries and start just two seniors, they've yielded just 19 points and 308 yards a game against a brutal schedule.
The Tigers' traditionally-strong defensive line is headed by All-American Quentin Groves, the NCAA's active sack leader (25). But Groves dislocated three toes against UF, and isn't expected to play on Saturday. With him, Auburn became the first team to shut out the Gators in the first half since 1992.
Even as Groves missed the fourth quarter a week ago, the Tigers held an explosive Gator offense to just 17 points, 312 yards and 14 first downs—32 points and more than 200 yards under their average—on the day.
That leaves gigantic Pat Sims as the man to watch on the defensive line. The 316-pound Sims returned a fumble for a touchdown against NMSU and has 5 ½ tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
At linebacker, the Tigers are also hobbled, as Merrill Johnson's dislocated shoulder isn't completely healed. Johnson, who started the opener against Kansas State, will likely play but is not at full strength.
There are plenty of standouts elsewhere on defense. Linebacker Tray Blackmon, who has missed three games, was a preseason All-SEC candidate, as was safety Aairon Savage, who's also been hurt.
Sophomore corner Jerraud Powers looks like an emerging star, and was the SEC's defensive player of the week against UF. He's tied for the team lead in tackles.
Auburn's also young on special teams, but the freshman tandem of Wes Byrum and Ryan Shoemaker has been outstanding. Byrum leads the team in scoring and hit the game-winning field goal at UF last week, and Shoemaker's 46.3 yards per kick would lead the league if he had one more attempt.
Starting lineup
QB 3-Chris Nickson (Jr., 6-1, 212)
TB 22-Cassen Jackson-Garrison (Jr., 6-1, 215)
WR 10-Earl Bennett (Jr., 6-1, 202)
WR 7-Sean Walker (Jr., 6-0, 185)
WR 88-George Smith (Jr., 6-3, 200)
TE 83-Brad Allen (Jr., 6-4, 240)
LT 74-Chris Williams (Sr., 6-6, 320)
LG 78-Josh Eames (Sr., 6-5, 305)
C 53-Hamilton Holliday (Sr., 6-4, 290)
RG 64-Merritt Kirchoffer (Sr., 6-5, 320)
RT 72-Brian Stamper (Sr., 6-5, 300)
DE 48-Curtis Gatewood (Sr., 6-3, 248)
DT 56-Gabe Hall (Sr., 6-1, 290)
DT 54-Theo Horrocks (Sr., 6-3, 290)
DE 96-Steven Stone (So., 6-5, 255)
SLG 24-Marcus Buggs (Sr., 5-11, 228)
MLB 47-Jonathan Goff (Sr., 6-4, 235)
WLB 35-Brandon Bryant (6-1, 235)
CB 17-D.J. Moore (So., 5-10, 175)
CB 5-Myron Lewis (So., 6-3, 195)
FS 2-Ryan Hamilton (So., 6-2, 208)
SS 33-Reshard Langford (Jr., 6-2, 207)
Special teams
K 8-Bryant Hahnfeldt (Jr., 5-11, 190)
P 39-Brett Upson (So., 5-11, 180)
PR 4-Alex Washington (So., 5-11, 190) and Bennett
KOR Walker and 31-Jared Hawkins (So., 5-11, 195)
For a complete two-deep depth chart, please select the "depth chart" option from the "football" menu on the gold bar at the top of the screen.
Riding a two-game winning streak, the Commodores come to Auburn as the more experienced and healthy of the two teams. While most of the preseason optimism around VU centered on the offense, the defense has grabbed headlines in Nashville so far.
The Commodores are the second-best team in the league statistically after shutting down Eastern Michigan's offense last week, and forced six turnovers in an easy 30-7 win over the Eagles.
The story thus far has been the play of the Commodore defensive line. End Curtis Gatewood and tackle Theo Horrocks, both seniors and preseason All-SEC candidates, lead the way.
But the play of young ends Steven Stone and Broderick Stewart has put the unit's performance over the top. The pair have generated constant pressure on the quarterback and helped a secondary led by D.J. Moore shine.
Moore, a sophomore starter, leads the team with three interceptions and ranks second with 31 tackles. He returned a pick for a score against EMU.
The Commodores have also been tough against the run. Linebackers Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs have had outstanding years, and although safety Reshard Langford also provides quality run support, a sign of the defense's improvement is that he's no longer counted on to make so many stops.
Offensively, the Commodores have been somewhat disappointing. A five-senior offensive line has not been consistent, and Vandy has not been consistent in the run or pass games.
Generally speaking, Vandy goes as quarterback Chris Nickson goes. The junior was brilliant against Richmond, throwing four touchdown passes and no interceptions. But he was equally as bad against EMU, throwing four picks in Eagle territory.
Inconsistency through the air has been a Nickson hallmark, but the Brundidge, Ala. native has always been great on his feet. He made several nice runs last week and can be a nightmare to contain both inside and outside the tackles.
His favorite target is All-American Earl Bennett, who's closing in on a number of league receiving records. If Nickson is on, Bennett simply can't be handled in single coverage, which in turn opens up the playbook for Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain.
The Tigers also need be wary of Sean Walker, the team's fastest receiver. Walker caught a touchdown last week and is likely to get a carry or two as well.
Up front, tackles Chris Williams and Brian Stamper are among the league's best. Left tackle Williams is a likely first-round pick this spring and had a 12-game sackless streak snapped earlier in the season.
The pair have been creating running room lately for Cassen Jackson-Garrison, who had a career day against Ole Miss two weeks ago but struggled against EMU. Vandy should get a boost with the return of tailback Jeff Jennings, who has been bothered by an ankle injury for nearly a month.
Moore is an explosive threat on kickoff returns and is capable of taking a kickoff back for a score. Bennett and Alex Washington share punt return duties. Washington returned a punt 70 yards for a score against Alabama but had the return nullified by a questionable penalty.
Vandy's kicking game has been shaky. Bryant Hahnfeldt has a great leg, but struggles with short field goals. Coach Bobby Johnson likes Brett Upson to kick low bouncers that minimize returns, but Upson's habit of shanking kicks and Vandy's unreliable ability to cover them has lead to a low net average.
The Commodores' new three-upback alignment has helped with the kick-block problems that have plagued them the past few years. However, VU's problems with short-snapping and holding still seem to re-occur from time to time.