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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The grind of a brutal schedule may be catching up to Tennessee.
If the Volunteers don't turn things around soon, they'll have the entire holiday season to rest.
Nick Marshall rushed for 214 of Auburn's 444 yards Saturday as the seventh-ranked Tigers rolled to a 55-23 victory over Tennessee. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return - the first time the Tigers have ever done both in the same game - and set an NCAA single-game record by averaging 44.85 yards on seven combined kickoff and punt returns.
Tennessee (4-6, 1-5) lost its third straight and must win the rest of its games to become bowl eligible and avoid its fourth consecutive losing season. The Vols host Vanderbilt on Nov. 23 and close the regular season Nov. 30 at Kentucky. Tennessee hasn't had four straight losing seasons since 1903-06.
"This senior class now, they're going to be defined by how they finish," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "How do they finish their careers?"
Tennessee was playing its fifth straight opponent ranked 11th or higher and was facing a ranked foe for the seventh time in eight games. According to STATS LLC, Tennessee is the first team since Pittsburgh in 1993 to play seven ranked teams in an eight-game stretch within the same season.
The Vols have been outscored 131-36 by top-ranked Alabama, No. 9 Missouri and Auburn over their last three games.
"We're just going through a rough patch that we've got to find our way out of," Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said.
Neal rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown for his fourth 100-yard performance of the season. Michael Palardy kicked three field goals for Tennessee.
Auburn needed just seven pass attempts to beat Tennessee after throwing only nine passes in a 35-17 victory over Arkansas a week earlier. Marshall's third and final pass completion Saturday was a 25-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 6:36 remaining in the first quarter.
"They couldn't really stop the run so we just kept our foot on their throat and just ran it down their throat," Marshall said.
Auburn entered the day leading the SEC with 306.2 yards rushing, 69 more than anyone else in the league. Tennessee was allowing 5.1 yards per carry and a league-high 201.7 yards rushing per game.
Marshall ran for two touchdowns on just 14 carries and threw for a third score against Tennessee. Tre Mason rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns as Auburn averaged 8.4 yards per carry and had the most yards rushing by a Tennessee opponent since Alabama ran for 457 in a 56-28 victory over the Volunteers in 1986.
"We knew what their game plan was," Tennessee defensive end Jacques Smith said. "For us not to go and execute our own game plan, it hurts a lot."
Every time Tennessee seized the momentum, Auburn regained control by running the ball.
After Neal broke at least three tackles on a spectacular 17-yard touchdown run in the first play of the second quarter to put Tennessee ahead 13-6, Auburn tied the game less than a minute later on a two-play, 75-yard drive. Marshall started the drive with a 62-yard keeper and Mason followed by running 13 yards around the left end.
Marshall made a rare mistake when he threw an interception that Smith returned 18 yards for a touchdown that cut Auburn's lead to 27-20 with 1:28 left in the half, but the quarterback redeemed himself 37 seconds later by racing 38 yards around the left end untouched for a touchdown that restored Auburn's 14-point advantage.
"Even when we had individuals in position, we couldn't get him down," Jones said.
Tennessee also struggled to slow down Auburn's returners despite entering the day ranked 27th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in punt coverage.
According to Auburn's sports information department, the Tigers' average of 44.85 yards on seven combined kickoff and punt returns set an NCAA single-game record, breaking the previous mark of 41.8 per return set by Florida State in a 56-21 loss to Virginia Tech in 1974.
Chris Davis put Auburn ahead for good and broke a 13-all tie in the second quarter with an 85-yard punt return, Auburn's longest since 1970 and the third-longest in school history. Davis also had a 42-yard punt return that set up Auburn's first touchdown of the day. Corey Grant returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards to extend Auburn's lead to 41-20.
Tennessee wouldn't threaten again.
"We've played some extremely, extremely talented football teams," Jones said. "I know exactly where we're at in our football program and what we need to do to move forward and get better. I'll tell you this and you can write this. We will get it done. This place is too special."