On Nov. 29 of last year, Tennessee and Auburn were both shutting down for the season. At 5-7, no bowl bids were forthcoming.
Tennessee at least sent Phillip Fulmer out with a win over Kentucky. Auburn’s finale was a 36-0 drubbing from Alabama, setting the stage for Tommy Tuberville’s resignation a couple of days later.
Fulmer and Tuberville both became unwanted because their respective offenses were a mess. The Vols and Tigers averaged a matching 17.3 points a game.
When they met at Jordan-Hare Stadium last year, it was a tandem exercise in futility — or a punting showcase, depending on how you look at it.
In the decisive fourth quarter nobody could make a first down. Auburn won, 14-12, because it finally did, with 2:04 to play, and was able to run out the clock.
Well, Tigers, you’ve come along way, baby.
Tennessee’s offensive progress in 2009 under Lane Kiffin is measurable, but comes in fits and starts.
Auburn, under Gene Chizik, has been shot out of a cannon. Might the Tigers score 17.3 points in the first quarter Saturday at Neyland Stadium?
Auburn is spewing 45.3 points and 526 yards a game, ranking third nationally in both.
Last year quarterback Chris Todd couldn’t hit a tree on Toomer’s Corner with a roll of toilet paper (OK, permit an exaggeration). This year his pass-efficiency rating of 171.5 ranks sixth in the nation. He has 11 thrown TD passes and but one interception.
No one-trick pony, Auburn rushes for 261 yards a game, fifth best in the nation.
Most important, Auburn is 4-0. Tennessee is 2-2.
Has Auburn really made that much more progress than Tennessee? Tune in ESPN for the answer Saturday.
This we know: UT’s offense has faced one great defense (Florida) and one very good one (UCLA). In winning all four games comfortably Auburn has yet to meet that kind of resistance.
This we also know: Chizik made a great hire when he signed Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator. Malzahn is in only his fourth year as a college coach but his track record speaks for itself.
His two Tulsa offenses each averaged more than 540 yards per game. In 2006, when Houston Nutt hired him from a high school to direct Arkansas’ offense, the Razorbacks went 10-4 and won the SEC West.
The night Arkansas beat UT 31-14, Malzahn’s offense had a 28-7 lead by the half. I remember thinking I had rarely seen a John Chavis defense seemingly at such a loss about how to defend an opponent.
“It’s a wilder offense than Florida’s,’’ Kiffin said Tuesday. “There’s so much stuff going on.
“My dad (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) said it’s like trying to read a book and someone’s waving his hand in front of the book.
“You’re trying to look at what’s going on and you can’t really see it. You can’t focus because there’s so much misdirection and shifting and motion.’’
Tennessee’s new offense, by contrast, is considerably more straight-forward. That’s part design and part reaction.
For whatever reasons, Jonathan Crompton hasn’t advanced as a quarterback like Auburn’s Todd has. Crompton often still seems stuck in 2008.
And that affects his play-caller — Kiffin.
Kiffin eloquently addressed the dual role of play-caller and head coach Tuesday. The task weighs heavier than when he was merely calling plays at Southern Cal and letting Pete Carroll deal with the bottom line.
“When you’re a play-caller as a coordinator, it’s almost impossible to put the team first,’’ he said. “You’re not even watching what’s going on on defense. It’s how can we move the ball, instead of how can we win the game?’’
The coordinator might allow an errant quarterback to plow on and throw through his problems. Not so the head coach.
“I go back the other way,’’ Kiffin said. “We’ve got to win the game. So what’s the best way to win the game?’’
When your QB is throwing interceptions and you can’t always count on your receivers being on the spot, you get conservative.
“Hopefully,’’ Kiffin said, “there will be a game coming up where we can keep moving it through the air.’’
Whether that game is Auburn remains to be seen. So does whether the Vols will even try to make Auburn that game.
Somebody asked Kiffin if the last thing he wants to see Saturday is a shootout.
“I wouldn’t say that’s the last thing,’’ he said. “The last thing is for them to score a lot of points and us not.
“So if they’re scoring a bunch of points, I hope we’re scoring a bunch of points.’’
If that turns out to be the case, it’ll be a far cry from last year.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.