December 17, 2014

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Reporter: Wes Boling

Will Saturday's trip to Death Valley be an Auburn flashback?

Several signs suggest that when UT clashes with LSU Saturday afternoon, the product may look a lot like that fateful festival of futility two years ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The 2008 Tennessee-Auburn game was the football equivalent of a tug-of-war battle between toddlers in a nursery: endless frustration, tears of anguish...and not a lot of progress.

The 14-12 Tiger win featured 8 fourth-quarter punts, 17 drives of three plays or fewer, and only two offensive touchdowns.  That, despite the fact that Tennessee's worst starting field position in the second half was its own 35 yard line. 

The setback cemented Phillip Fulmer as Public Enemy No. 1 for many Vol fans, followed closely by quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who was a grotesque 8-for-23 for 67 yards.  Auburn fans left with a grateful sense of undeserved victory, while Tennessee fans drove back from the Plains counting the number of high-school quarterbacks who could have earned the single first down that would have put the Big Orange within shouting distance of victory.

If you didn't like the way that loss felt, don't bother traveling to Death Valley this weekend.

Several signs suggest that when UT clashes with LSU Saturday afternoon, the product may look a lot like that fateful festival of futility two years ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Sign #1: LSU's passing offense ranks 115th in the nation.

Has there ever been an offense with this many five-star recruits that underachieved so miserably?  Rueben Randle, Jordan Jefferson, Terrance Toliver, Russell Shepard & company came to Baton Rouge with expectations as lofty as Les Miles' hat placement.  But they haven't scored a passing touchdown since the first game of the year, and that was against a North Carolina defense depleted by discipline.

Sign #2: Tennessee's third-down conversion rate ranks 119th in the country.

The Vols have moved the chains a meager 19 percent of the time on third down -- 11 times in 58 tries.  It's the same achilles heel that crippled the Vols two years ago in Auburn, when they were 4-for-16.  Throw in a raucous Tiger crowd and the fact that it's Tennessee's first time away from home, and we could be witnessing an ugly scene Saturday.  After all, the UT offense was 2-for-15 on third downs last week against UAB, one of the worst defenses in the nation. 

Sign #3: LSU's rush defense is the best in the SEC.

Tennessee's key to victory may very well be establishing the run, and LSU's greatest strength is stopping it.  The Tigers are surrendering just over 74 yards per game on the ground, eighth best in the nation.  The Vols rank near the bottom of the SEC in rushing.  It's a lethal combination that could put pressure on quarterback Matt Simms and an offensive line that has struggled in pass protection -- it's allowed the most sacks in the SEC (3.5 per game).

Put these factors together and you're looking at some serious offensive woes.  Just like the Vols and Tigers in 2008, first downs may be rare, turnovers and field position could be vital to victory.  The good news?  If Tennessee can keep things close against these Tigers, anything is possible.  The bad news?  Another week of anemic offense and questionable third-down defense could cause the Vols to wilt in the waning minutes of a hostile first road game.

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