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Sat, Nov 9, 2013 - 12:00 PM ET
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Auburn-Tennessee Preview

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(AP)

Auburn has plowed its way into SEC, and maybe national title, contention with a running game that has lately been making the forward pass more luxury than necessity.

The run-heavy formula is working well so far for the seventh-ranked Tigers, who face the conference's worst run defense statistically Saturday when they visit Tennessee.

Auburn (8-1, 4-1) attempted nine passes at Arkansas last Saturday and still won 35-17.

"We just feel like we're a big freight train and once we get started, it's hard to stop us," tailback Tre Mason said.

Mason and speedy quarterback Nick Marshall have helped the Tigers continue barreling down the tracks with a running game that leads the league and ranks sixth nationally, averaging 306.2 yards.

Auburn's offense didn't slow down much against the Razorbacks when Marshall was nursing a shoulder injury that limited him in practice leading up to the game, helping contribute to the minimal passing.

Now, the Tigers face Tennessee, which allowed 339 rushing yards in a 31-3 loss at then-No. 10 Missouri last Saturday and gives up an average of 201.7 yards on the ground. That apparent matchup advantage doesn't require much change in philosophy.

"We're going to run the ball," center Reese Dismukes said. "I don't think that's really going to change week in and week out. We've got the mind-set that we're going to run the football and that's the goal here. We're going to run the football."

They're also going to run it with a number of different players, as Auburn has four of the SEC's top 18 rushers, including Marshall.

Mason has emerged as the star of the deep backfield, and was the workhorse against the Razorbacks when he ran 32 times among Auburn's 55 plays. He produced 168 yards and four touchdowns to earn SEC offensive player of the week honors.

The runs have typically been more divvied up among Mason, between-the-tackles rusher Cameron Artis-Payne and speedster Corey Grant, along with Marshall. Mason, though, is the SEC's No. 3 rusher with 921 yards and a league-best 13 touchdowns.

"He wanted the ball the other night," coach Gus Malzahn said. "You could tell he was really explosive, he was breaking tackles. He's a veteran guy and was wanting the football and we just kept giving it to him.

"Moving forward, we'll spread the ball around. We've got two other very talented running backs, but he was hot, and that's what we go with."

That backfield depth has enabled the Tigers to log easily the most rushes of any SEC team and attempt the fewest passes. Marshall and receiver Sammie Coates have combined for big plays, including an 88-yard touchdown against Arkansas, but the running game has been far more consistent, especially lately.

Auburn has averaged 17 passes and 55 runs the past three games, and Mason has received plenty of help. Marshall has rushed for 520 yards, Artis-Payne 515 and Grant 456. All of them are averaging at least 5.7 yards per carry with four or more touchdowns.

"They have a mentality to run the football," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "The thing about Auburn is they can beat you with quick screens, they can beat you with deep balls, and they can beat you with quarterback runs. If they decide to line up and run power offense at you, they can beat you.

"They're a good physical football team."

Tennessee (4-5, 1-4) has its work cut out again Saturday, facing a ranked opponent for the fifth straight game and seventh time this season. The Volunteers are 1-5 in those matchups, getting outscored 221-98.

"I'm disappointed but I'm not discouraged," Jones said. "Nobody said it's going to be easy. ... I said at the beginning of the season that we needed to be a blue-collar team. Our margin of error is very small, we need to overachieve in any and all areas to have a chance."

Auburn extended its win streak in this series to five with a 26-22 road victory in the last matchup in 2009.

Tagged: Marshall, Tennessee, Auburn, Tre Mason, Nick Marshall

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