Tennessee's ability to knock off No. 23 Auburn inside Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night could come down to stopping a tank.
After failing to reach the end zone during a 27-6 loss at Georgia on Oct. 3, Auburn turned much of its offensive workload over to freshman running back Tank Bigsby. The 6-foot, 204-pounder from LaGrange, Georgia, has responded with 75 carries for 457 yards (6.1 yards a carry) and five touchdowns in the four games since, providing a needed jolt for first-year Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
"I see where he got the name Tank," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week. "Guys just bounce off him. He's probably one of the more physical runners in our conference. He makes a lot of guys miss. He runs through contact and gets lots of yards after contact. He returns on the kickoff return team, so he has really good hands.
"He's playing really well for a young guy."
Bigsby's abrupt emergence has resulted in a sizable shift from the beginning of the year, when Morris relied heavily on sophomore quarterback Bo Nix and the receiving trio of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove. Auburn's passing attack was effective in the 29-13 opening defeat of Kentucky and disastrous in Athens, with the turning point of the season occurring in the 30-22 upset loss at South Carolina on Oct. 17.
Auburn outgained the Gamecocks 481-297, but Nix had an outlandish stat line of 24-of-47 passing that included three interceptions, and he also was sacked three times. Bigsby, by comparison, averaged 6.9 yards a carry but had only 16 rushes.
"Chad is learning his guys, and we started running the football more, and that's kind of helped everything," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "Getting the same guys up front together has helped. Our running backs understand the blocking schemes, and when Bo Nix keeps the ball every now and then, that changes everything and opens up things."
Nix is coming off his best back-to-back performances with the Tigers, having completed 41 of 54 passes (75.9%) for 538 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Ole Miss and LSU. He also has rushed 21 times for 133 yards and two scores, which includes an 11-carry, 81-yard showing in the 48-11 crushing of LSU on Halloween.
Should Auburn's offense remain in high gear Saturday night, it would come at the expense of a recent nemesis.
In his run as Alabama's secondary coach (2010-12), Florida State's defensive coordinator (2013), Georgia's defensive coordinator (2014-15), Alabama's defensive coordinator (2016-17) and Tennessee's head coach (2018-present), Pruitt has faced Auburn every season with the exception of last year. Pruitt's teams were 7-2 against the Tigers in those matchups, losing only the Iron Bowl "Camback" of 2010 and the 2017 Iron Bowl, the only loss of the Crimson Tide's most recent national championship season.
"They clearly play with really up-tempo different looks and spread you across the field," Pruitt said. "You have to keep your edges on the defense and eliminate explosive plays. You have to make them drive the ball through you."
Pruitt has known the Nix family since his father, current Marion County High School coach Dale Pruitt, was the defensive coordinator for Bo's grandfather, Conrad Nix, at Haleyville (Alabama) High School in 1982. Pruitt remembers being in first grade at that time, while Patrick Nix, Bo's father and Auburn's starting quarterback during the 1994 and '95 seasons, was in third grade.
There is familiarity for Pruitt with Morris as well.
"I coached against Chad when he was at Clemson, and he and Gus kind of come from the same family of offensive football," Pruitt said. "We have lots of history with that offense. (Defensive coordinator) Derrick (Ansley) was showing tape to the players, and I'm trying to figure out what year the video was from. It was from 2013, so we have lots of history.
"You can see that Chad has his thumbprint on this offense, and maybe more so than Gus, but there are still a lot of things and flavor that shows up that is still Gus Malzahn's offense."
Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Greg Emerson was among Tennessee's three highest-rated signees in the 2018 class and started nine games at nose tackle last season.
This year, the 6-3, 300-pounder from Jackson has played in five of six games as a reserve.
"This whole pandemic has affected all of us differently," Pruitt said. "For some reason, Greg was, to me, in a little bit of a funk. He just didn't have a really great fall camp, but over the last three or four weeks, I've seen a guy who has really worked hard every day at practice to be a good football player, and he knows it and he sees it.
"It looks like he's kind of back to his old self a little bit, so that's good to see. He's walking around with a smile on his face, so I'm glad to see that."