Staff Photo by Dan Henry UT's Montario Hardesty leads the Tennessee backfield in this weekend's game against Auburn.
KNOXVILLE -- Auburn and Tennessee use drastically different running-game avenues but end up in nearly identical destinations.
The Volunteers (2-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) generally employ traditional, two-back sets and pound opponents with the zone running play. The Tigers (4-0, 1-0) spread the field, sideline to sideline, and use an array of bizarre formations.
"It's like trying to read a book, and someone's waving their hand in front of the book," first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin said of Auburn's offense. "You're trying to look at what's going on, but you can't really focus, and you can't really see it because there's so much misdirection, so many shifting motions."
But the two teams' different paths converge on running-game success.
In the end, one proven senior and one dynamic freshman on each team are going to touch the ball a lot. And they're probably going to gain chunks of yards.
UT senior Montario Hardesty leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally with 121.2 rushing yards per game, and he's fourth in the conference with 130.8 all-purpose yards per game.
Auburn senior Ben Tate is third in the SEC with 103 rushing yards per game, and he's sixth in the conference with 125.8 all-purpose yards per game.
Tate's 5.7 yards per carry only slightly trails Hardesty's 5.8.
UT and Auburn both have dynamic freshman tailbacks, too, in Bryce Brown and Onterio McCalebb.
McCalebb, also a Tigers' kick return specialist, is third in the SEC with 131 all-purpose yards per game. He's fourth in the league with 91.2 rushing yards per game, and he's accomplished that with a sterling 6.8 yards per carry.
Brown averages 79.2 yards from scrimmage per game. He's also recently emerged as a dynamic receiver out of the backfield, with 60 yards and a touchdown on just two catches in last week's win over Ohio.
Kiffin noted the similarities in both tailback tandems.
"You've got the old guy, and you've got the young guy," Kiffin said. "The styles that we play are different, but I think you have a pretty cool matchup of two older guys that are way up there in the conference in rushing and two young potential superstars."
Auburn's overall offensive balance and explosiveness has been leaps and bounds better than UT's, but the Vols have played tougher defenses -- aside from their season-opening thumping of hapless Western Kentucky. Statistics suggest that UCLA, Florida and Ohio collectively defend much better than Auburn opponents Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Ball State.
Of course, it's also early enough in the season that one could reasonably argue the Vols' and Tigers' offenses have helped and hurt their opponents' defensive numbers.
Regardless, answers will show themselves Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, and UT's defense is expecting a stiff challenge from Tate, McCalebb and the Tigers.
"They're tough," said UT senior defensive lineman Wes Brown, an Alabama native. "Those guys can run, and they're strong. They're going to hit the hole hard, and they're going to try to get yards after impact, after the guy hits them. They've got those two bruisers, and then they've got McCalebb, who will just come in and run around you. He's got world-class speed.
"It's going to be a real challenge for us to get these guys on the ground."
UT junior defensive back Dennis Rogan said "the first thing you see when you turn on the (Auburn) tape is those backs making big plays happen.
"Tate's their main guy, and he's a big guy, but he's pretty fast to be that big," Rogan added. "And that freshman (McCalebb), he's a great athlete. They're good players. We look forward to playing those guys."
Auburn's defenders should have a similar challenge. Hardesty said Wednesday night that he will "definitely" play against the Tigers despite a nagging shoulder injury and a knee that had to be drained following the Ohio game.
"I'm fine, man. Totally fine," said Hardesty, who has lost just 11 yards from scrimmage this season, and none against Ohio. "I've only missed practice because they wouldn't let me go. I wanted to be out there, but it wasn't my decision."