For the second time this season, the Auburn defensive coordinator has been tasked with preparing a game plan against a quarterback with only one career start. This week, it’s true freshman Joshua Dobbs of Tennessee. Last time, it was Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, who ran all over the Tigers to the tune of 133 rushing yards (with two touchdowns) and passing for another 213 yards Sept. 14. In that game, the Auburn had to conjure up a last-minute, 88-yard drive to escape with a 24-20 victory.
Johnson is hoping Saturday’s game isn’t as dramatic, noting what he’s seen on film from the Volunteers showed they didn’t make sweeping changes to their base offense even though they’re working with a new quarterback.
“They're running the same offense,” he said. “A little different player (at quarterback) a different skill set. It's hard to tell how much they've changed (in play calling) as far as how much they're going to throw and run.”
Dobbs’ proficiency with the zone-read game — which saw him run for 45 yards on seven carries last Saturday in a 31-3 loss to Missouri — impressed Johnson. It even reminded him of an offense he’s seen on a regular basis.
“Their offense has a little similarity to ours,” Johnson said. “We're getting back into a little more of a one-back offense and using a tight end as a two-back.”
To what extent that familiarity will help Tennessee’s defense is uncertain, as Auburn will try to do what it always does: get its vaunted rushing attack, which averages 306.2 yards a game, untracked early.
“That's where it's got to start with us,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We've got to establish the run, kind of like (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee said last week. The way the game unfolded last week was pretty unique. We didn't have a lot of snaps, but we were running the football.”
The Vols boast a mammoth nose tackle up front in the 6-foot-8, 351-pound Daniel McCullers. But everyone — Auburn’s coaching staff included — knows the star of the defense resides at linebacker. A.J. Johnson is second in the SEC in total tackles (76) and has registered double-digit stops in more than half of his games at Tennessee (17 of 33).
Malzahn was well aware of the challenge Johnson presents for his no-huddle, up-tempo scheme.
“I'm very impressed with him,” Malzahn said. “He's got a very good motor, he's got a nose for the football. He's one of the best we've seen.”
Despite Johnson’s efforts, however, Tennessee’s defense as a whole has struggled, ranking in the bottom quarter in the SEC in every major statistical category. Whether it’s scoring defense (10th at 29.4 per game) or total defense (13th at 429.3 yards a contest), the Volunteers have had little luck slowing down other teams.
The stat the Tigers' offense found most pertinent?
The Volunteers rank last in the league against the run, allowing an average of 201.7 yards every outing.
“You’ve got to like that,” said running back Tre Mason, who leads the SEC in touchdowns with 14, including a career-best four last week against Arkansas. “You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that are given, and I’m pretty sure we’ll do that.”
And the Tigers assured they aren’t taking their opponent lightly, especially when the Volunteers are playing within the confines of Neyland Stadium.
“The fact that they were able to beat a (ranked) South Carolina team and had a chance to beat (then-No. 6) Georgia, both at home, that's what I'm looking at,” Malzahn said of Tennessee, which is just 1-4 in conference play this year. “They're a different team at home and we know we're going to get their best.”
Besides, as Tigers cornerback Jonathon Mincy pointed out, the fact Tennessee isn’t ranked — compared to No. 7 Auburn — means nothing once the teams take the field Saturday.
“We’re still going to go out there and work hard everyday at practice, and go out there and show it on Saturdays,” he said. “That’s something we don’t really feed into. It’s nice for us to start to get recognition, but it’s not something that makes us think we’re better than anybody.”