Starting with the Coach Shug Jordan Era, the Auburn vs. Tennessee football games in September were an indicator for the Tigers and Volunteers of what type of season it was going to be for both programs.
Normally the first Southeastern Conference game on the schedule for each side, the matchups were highly anticipated and normally played with major intensity.
When the SEC expanded in 1992 and began divisional play in football, the annual Tigers vs. Vols contest went away and the teams have played infrequently. If everything goes according to plan, which is not a given in this era of COVID-19 postponements and cancellations, the rivalry will be renewed Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn is favored to win, but the history of the series is loaded with examples of the underdog team pulling out a victory. It is also a series that has produced memorable individual and team performances.
Perhaps the best defensive team performance in Auburn history took place in 1958 when the Tigers won 13-0 at Birmingham. The Volunteers couldn’t manage a single first down that day and they finished the contest with minus 30 yards of total offense.
Offensively, the series featured one of the most impressive clutch drives to win a game. In 1971, Pat Sullivan’s Heisman Trophy winning season, with time running out in a game during which little went right for the visitors, the quarterback led the Tigers on an 86-yard scoring drive to pull out a 10-9 victory at Knoxville.
There are numerous other memorable games from the series as well as ones that Auburn fans would like to forget. One of the most disappointing results for the Tigers came the last time the two teams met. The Vols upset Auburn 30-24 at Jordan-Hare Stadium two years ago with the Tigers hurting their cause with three turnovers, including a fumble that the Vols recovered for a touchdown.
The Vols came into this season with very high expectations after a strong finish in 2019 and were expected to be a factor in the SEC East race. However, that hasn’t happened with Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s team bringing a 2-4 record to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn is ranked and is 4-2, but a big X factor this week is exactly who will be available to play for Gus Malzahn’s team. Last week the coach noted that 10 players tested positive for COVID-19 and the SEC guidelines require those players to be quarantined for at least 10 days. There is also the possibility that contact tracing protocols will keep other players out of the game, which means fans will likely see the Tigers take the field Saturday night minus multiple players who have been key performers.
Going back to preseason practices in August the Tigers prepared for the possibility of playing short-handed so this looks like it will be the proving ground to see if that work pays off.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter.