While some of the older RBR readers may vividly remember the struggles Tennessee occasionally suffered in the Bowden Wyatt and Doug Dickey eras, plus the slow early start for Johnny Majors in the late 1970's, I'll be blunt from the outset: By all accounts this is the single worst Tennessee team of my lifetime. The disastrous 1988, 2005, and 2008 teams all look semi-respectable when compared to the 2010 edition of the Vols.
Even as their own head coach admits, this team has no depth whatsoever, and the legitimate high-end talent is few and far between. Injuries have been a problem, freshmen are routinely placed in key roles, and most starters on this team could not start for Alabama, or most other upper-tier SEC schools for that matter. It's an ugly, ugly situation in Knoxville with Derek Dooley and company paying for the sins of the two previous regimes, and things will probably get worse before they get better. The 2-4 record could be even worse than it is, and just getting to 5-7 may very well be a legitimate stretch at this point. Kentucky would be favored over this team if they were to play tomorrow, and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt may be as well.
Earlier this week in the RBR Radio Hour, I said that if we could pick any SEC opponent to play this weekend, I would probably pick Vanderbilt first and Tennessee would be the second choice. Todd was even more outspoken, choosing the Vols over even the lowly Commodores. Either way, this is a bad team and in that regard, this is the year we've all been waiting for, the perfect opportunity to annihilate and embarrass Tennessee in every way imaginable.
Having said that, though, Alabama remains in survival mode at this point. Tennessee gets an off week and the home date, while we're a physically beaten up team just looking to make it to the off week. Furthermore, as welcomed as it would be, some of the issues we have been having this season will likely not magically rectify themselves this weekend. Combined, that's not exactly a recipe for a blowout, so even considering the poor quality of the Vols, perhaps expectations should be tempered slightly. A win is clearly to be expected, but a 41-3 shellacking is probably a bit of wishful thinking.
For Alabama, the standard caveat applies: this is the SEC, and while it may not have the exact character of the NFL and "Any Given Sunday," it's not too far removed from that either. With the occasional exception, the disparity between any two teams is rarely that large, and with a middling performance a loss is always a possibility. And with a truly poor performance, well, not only is it likely that you could lose, it's likely that you will lose. That caveat also applies even to this Tennessee team, and if you remain unconvinced then I suggest you speak with an LSU supporter.
And that is effectively what happened to us a year ago in this game. We were obviously an elite team while Tennessee was not very good, but nevertheless we played poorly and with a costly late turnover we moved to the very brink of defeat against a team that objectively we should have blown out of the water. That could certainly happen again this year with another poor performance, but with that point established the reality remains that an upset here against Tennessee may very well be the single greatest upset for the Vols in this series.
I wrote last week that we could not have beaten either LSU or Auburn with the performance we had against Ole Miss, and while I think that remains true, it should be kept in mind that we do not need great performances to beat teams like Tennessee and Ole Miss. Greatness would certainly be welcomed tomorrow night in Knoxville, but given the state of the Vols mere competence should be enough.
Hope for the best.