Six games into the season, Auburn coach Gene Chizik is still seeking fixes for a dreadfully unproductive offense and win No. 2.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt Commodores are about to find out how much their challenging start to this season really helped them out.
After a schedule ranked the third-toughest in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Commodores head into the final half of this season with no teams currently in the Top 25. They have six games needing four wins to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, something this program never has done before.
Just as they try to start stacking wins, the Commodores host a team Saturday even more desperate for victory in the Auburn Tigers.
“This is a dangerous team coming in, and we’ve got to be ready for them,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “We’re still kind of growing as a program, evolving and getting better every week. We started out the season with a really challenging schedule. … This has prepared us for this type of opponent.”
The Tigers (1-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) did not expect this just two years removed from their national championship. The seven-time SEC champs now hit the road as the underdog against a team Auburn beat 13 straight games until a 14-13 loss in 2008 desperately needing a win to avoid the first 1-6 start since Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s second team in 1952.
“If you’re going to use a word, I would say urgency is the name of the game,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “The team that will come up there and be prepared, but there’s certainly an urgency in our game.”
Auburn’s lone win came in overtime Sept. 15 over Louisiana-Monroe. Chizik has switched quarterbacks from Kiehl Frazier to Clint Moseley trying to jumpstart an offense averaging 287.5 yards a game, 116th nationally. Chizik said Thursday night on his radio show that Moseley will start his second straight game against Vanderbilt.
“We definitely feel like our backs are against the wall,” Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. “At the same time, we’re going to into each game trying to win that game. We’re not looking forward to any other games. We’re not giving up on the rest of this month. They’re struggling as well. It’s another game for us to try to get our backs off the wall and make progress.”
On paper, Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3) is only a game better than Auburn. But the Commodores do have a road win at Missouri to go with tough losses to South Carolina, Northwestern and Georgia. The Commodores capped the first half this season with a 31-17 loss to then-No. 4 Florida that the Gators didn’t put away until the fourth quarter.
“Playing well against those opponents are important, but the most important thing is wins,” Franklin said.
The Commodores also have plenty of offensive weapons too on a unit averaging 365.7 yards per game even with the tough first six games. Zac Stacy needs 132 yards to become Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher, and he had 86 yards against Florida not including a 57-yard touchdown wiped out by a penalty. The senior is averaging 5 yards a carry.
Jordan Matthews leads the SEC averaging 7.2 catches a game, and he’s second in the league with 102.8 yards receiving for Vanderbilt. He caught eight passes for 131 yards against Florida.
“From a defensive perspective, if you’re not going out on the field always aware of where he is, then that’s probably not a very good thought process,” Chizik said. “I think he’s really drawing that attention.”
Auburn is throwing for 162 yards a game, and Chizik said it could be tough throwing on Vanderbilt. The Commodores rank third nationally and seventh in the nation giving up only 148.2 yards per game.
Considering how the Commodores gave up several big plays to Florida, including three TD runs by the quarterback, and a fake punt that went 54 yards, Franklin said they are expecting trick plays both from Auburn’s offense and special teams. Auburn does have Onterrio McCalebb, who has a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD this season.
“I’m sure we’ve opened it up to other teams,” Vanderbilt senior defensive end Johnell Thomas said. “They see where we made some mistakes in that category. It’s something we’re working on.”
The Commodores also will have a sold-out crowd for the second straight game, the first time that’s happened at Vanderbilt since the first two games of the 1996 season. Franklin said he wants Vandy fans at the game early and loud when the defense is on the field, especially when opponents are backed up in the closed end of the stadium.
“I want more,” Franklin said. “Just like they want more from me and our team, I want more from them.”