Most people will be watching any number of big Southeastern Conference games this Saturday, so why would anybody bother with a game between two teams with a combined 3-9 overall record and a 1-7 SEC mark?
Because it is a tremendously important game … for those two teams that’s why.
That will be the situation when Auburn and Vanderbilt kickoff Saturday morning from Vanderbilt Stadium.
Vanderbilt has navigated its way through a tough schedule that included three ranked teams in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and an unranked Northwestern team that is now 6-1. Vanderbilt is sitting at 2-4 and still holds hope that it can reach six wins and land one of the SEC’s 10 bowl agreements. But beating Auburn is paramount to those hopes.
Does Vanderbilt coach James Franklin believe that playing three ranked teams has helped put his Commodores in position for the rest of the season?
“It’s interesting because it’s all how you spin it and handle it with your team,” he said. “If you still have really good chemistry and your kids still have a great attitude and they believe and they’re passionate and excited about what the future holds, then I think it’s a positive.”
Auburn coach Gene Chizik would be happy to find anything positive in Auburn’s 1-5 start.
“Our focus every day is to improve and win,” Chizik said. “We have challenges on our team in every phase. I think that’s obvious if you watch us play. We have one goal, and just like I talked to them, we’re not coming off the goal. The goal is to every day stay positive and every day to go out to practice and work to continue to improve. That probably sounds very simplistic, but that is the message.
“When you get to these situations for young guys, it requires leadership and a lot of an unbending mentality in the direction that you have to head and how to try to get there. I am the leader of the team and the leader of the group, and I’m unbending with how I approach every day with our football team,” Chizik added.
The main message for both teams is that they need a win on Saturday.
“This is a team that, if you look at their record, it’s not going to be impressive on paper, as is ours,” Chizik said. “But they’ve had some really, really good football teams that they’ve played. Their four losses have come to teams that are very good. Three of those four (losses) obviously are Top 15 teams in the country at some point or another.
“They had a very good win on the road against Missouri, so they played really, really well on the road in an SEC game. This is a good football team. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Franklin feels the same way about Auburn despite the Tigers’ record.
“They’ve lost to No. 14 Clemson, No. 15 Mississippi State, and No. 6 LSU. I think they are a very talented team,” Franklin said. “When you look at their recruiting in the last four years, they’ve had the number 9, 10, 7 and 4th-ranked recruiting class, so for us to think or anybody to think this team is not talented would be a major mistake.”
So both coaches realize their opponent’s potential despite the records.
Vanderbilt has the statistical edge in almost every category. The Commodores have scored more and given up fewer points than the Tigers. Vanderbilt is also outgaining the Tigers by an average of 24 yards on the ground and 54 more yards through the air.
Two of the reasons the Commodores have an advantage through the air are junior Jordan Matthews and sophomore Chris Boyd, the most productive pass receiving duo in the SEC. The pair is averaging 170.3 yards per game and has 1,022 yards on a combined 62 catches. Only Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg of Arkansas are close with 166.2 yards per game.
Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers has three touchdown passes and two interceptions and backup Austyn Carta-Samuels has been effective in limited playing time with a touchdown pass and no picks.
On the ground, Zac Stacy has been Vanderbilt’s main man. He has 499 yards rushing on 99 carries and has scored four touchdowns. But he’s also a threat in the passing game. He has caught three passes out of the backfield for 68 yards. Stacy is now second all-time on Vanderbilt’s career rushing and touchdown lists.
Vanderbilt’s defense has not been as opportunistic as it was last season, with only three fumbles recovered and two passes intercepted. As a result, opponents are averaging 22.3 points and 351.7 yards of total offense per game.
Auburn could be the perfect solution for Vanderbilt. The Tigers have struggled offensively. They have tried two quarterbacks — Kiehl Frazier was the starter at the beginning of the season but Clint Moseley started last week — but neither has made a huge difference. Moseley got the start in the last game at Ole Miss and had moderate success. True freshman Jonathan Wallace has also played quarterback, but only in the Wildcat formation.
“I think we’re going to have to prepare for all three of those guys,” Franklin said. “Like a lot of programs in this country, you want an established quarterback. Some programs have it; other guys are still searching for that. They have three guys who are all capable. They are going to see that we had some issues stopping the quarterback running-game, so that’s going to be a big part of their game plan.
“I think Wallace has been strictly a wildcat quarterback, but he was a quarterback in high school, so it’s not like they are putting a running back back there and you don’t have to worry about the pass at all. You still better be ready to defend the pass.
“I don’t think it causes too much of an issue because it’s not like the one kid is a straight, drop back passer and the other guy is a dual-threat guy. I think all of them are very similar,” Franklin said.
One area that Auburn will need to get going is the running game. So far, despite having guys like Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason and Mike Blakely, the Tigers have not been able to mount a sustained rushing attack this season. The Tigers are averaging 125.5 yards per game and just 3.4 yards per rush. Auburn has only five rushing touchdowns in its first six games.
Auburn and Vanderbilt will not capture the attention of the nation this weekend, but, for both teams, this Saturday’s game will be huge.