Shield your eyes. Here come the Vols.
It's Third Saturday in October Eve and the anticipation of opening all those wrapped packages of pure hate waiting to be opened tomorrow is almost too much to bear. Still, it's not good to let the excitement of the celebration get in the way of one's appreciation for what really matters this special time of the year - beating the crap out of the Vols.
Yet besting Tennessee will take more than ill wishes no matter how far we feel the Vols program has fallen. So to get the inside scoop on what exactly we should expect from this UT squad tomorrow, we asked our fellow SB Nation amigos, Rocky Top Talk, to help us out.
Roll Bama Roll: Despite portents of doom, the Tennessee offense seemed to have taken something of a step forward this season. How much of that upswing was due to Tyler Bray and how much has losing him affected the Tennessee attack?
Rocky Top Talk: Our offensive resurgence is solely because of Tyler Bray's maturation, and it reached its pinnacle when offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was drawing up plays for a healthy Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers running all over the football field.
Unfortunately for us, we never got to see that machine operate in a big game as Hunter was injured against Florida, which kind of left us all with our arms outstretched, wondering what might have been. Then, Bray broke his thumb on a blitzing UGA defender's helmet in the frantic rush to score points at the end of the game. Boom. Season fried.
Without Bray, our offense is, quite honestly, much worse. If there are any positives at all, it's that Matt Simms does a much better job audibling into better run situations for a team that has struggled to produce on the ground all season.
But Tennessee isn't going to dominate anybody on the ground, and the drop-off from Bray to Simms' passing ability is considerable. Simms struggles to read defenses, forces passes, hangs onto the ball too long. But he's all we've got right now.
RBR: Most teams this season seem to be trying the "Utah" approach to dealing with Alabama - try to jump to a quick lead and, presumably, force the Crimson Tide offense to play catch up. Is this a realistic option for the Volunteers given the presence of Sims under center and, if not, what do you think Dooley might try?
RTT: I honestly don't think scoring first is going to matter all that much, but it's certainly better than the alternative. I think the only hope UT has is to score a touchdown first and then get a monstrous play [i.e., a pick six or a punt return for a touchdown] and punch UA in the mouth for a couple of scores before the Cyborg Factory knows what hit them. Even still, it'll be an uphill battle.
Is it realistic? Well, considering the Vols have one interception the entire season and haven't returned a punt for a score yet, I wouldn't exactly call it that. But we've got an emerging dynamo returner in freshman Devrin Young, who can make some things happen in the return game, and UA has been susceptible to that this year. Also, for all his faults, Simms did move the ball some against LSU -- though it didn't translate on the scoreboard -- so I guess it's not out of the realm of possibility. But I'm certainly not banking on it.
The bottom line is Tennessee has to do what nobody has proven it can against Alabama -- sustain long drives that end in touchdowns. We simply don't have the horses yet on defense to rotate in, and we were worn out late in the game against LSU. The Vols have to stay fresh defensively, and they have to get some help from its offense. Against Bama's vaunted defense, that's a tall order.
RBR: Last year at this point in the season, the Tennessee defense was the worst in the conference but this season they are ranked right below the median mark. How much of this is improvement in the level of play and how much of it is the godawful state of affairs for the lower half of the SEC in 2011?
RTT: This team has grown exponentially on defense. Down-to-down, they do a very good job. We're seeing a drastic upgrade in our defensive interior with Malik Jackson, Mo Couch and Dan Hood winning battles at the point of attack, and our two true freshmen linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, are getting better and better.
Three things that have absolutely killed the Vols this year are (1) big plays, (2) not getting pressure on the quarterback and (3) not being able to get off the field in crucial downs. Florida simply gashed us because we don't have the team speed yet. It's something that has to get fixed in recruiting, and it's not something that can be done overnight.
Also, we've got a lot of first year players in the secondary -- just like everywhere. Anytime you have freshmen [unless you're Bama] there are the same ol' lining up issues, being out of place issues and getting burned issues. And they've come at awful times all season. While we'll play well for a couple of downs, they just can't make the big play to end drives.
RBR: Obviously, the turmoil in Knoxville over the past several years has affected the Volunteers' production on the field and it's not looking like the fix will be anything like quick. Given that, is Dooley a placeholder coach in hopes the opportunity for a blue-chip hire might happen down the road, or is he the one to bring this program back to respectability?
RTT: It's impossible to say right now.
If you want me to be completely honest, I love the man. He's a riot to listen to, he's uber-intelligent, an ideal spokesperson for our university, he's re-building things the right way with the Vol For Life program and stressing character, and he's recruited incredibly well, I think, for where our program has been. Each of his first two classes were top-12 in the country -- even though that just puts you middle-of-the-row in the conference. But all that said, he's done nothing to prove he's a good football coach yet.
Is he a good program-builder who doesn't have the coaching chops? Were we so far down that we've just got to be patient while he builds it? We don't know. On the field, there are discipline issues, time-management blunders, confusing time outs, lapses in play-calling ... all the things that make you wonder if "it's because we're young" or "it's because of coaching." Honestly, I think it's a mixture. Nobody on this football team has won any big games, and that goes for our coach as well.
RBR: Given the possibility of conference re-alignment messing with arrangement of the divisions there is a chance the Third Saturday in October may pass into history as a regular series. What are the thoughts on the Tennessee side about that possibility? How important is the rivalry to the Vol fanbase and is there an interest in seeing it continued if at all possible?
RTT: It's funny. I work with a bunch of Auburn fans in Huntsville who would LOVE to move to the East. I don't know why that is, but they see me every day carrying the torch that if it happens, the SEC will be much worse for the wear. I grew up two miles from the Alabama state line. This game is my football life. It's all that matters to me. Lose them all, but beat Bama, if it comes to that. That's why these past few years have been so difficult.
But forget my own personal feelings. The conference NEEDS the TSIO, no matter when its played. It has to be a yearly meeting. It can't be something that we get to see just once in a blue moon. I know for the past several years, one side or the other has not held up our side of the bargain in the rivalry department, but just because this isn't always a marquee matchup doesn't mean it isn't one of the biggest games in the country every year.
There is honestly not one fiber of my being that says "Alabama is a machine. I'll be glad if we don't have to play them every year." That sucks. This year, we've got almost no chance to win this football game, but I'm excited about the opportunity because, while I hate Alabama, I respect them.
I think until Fulmer, this rivalry was built on mutual respect, and that's why it has stood the test of time. To lose this would be to lose a big piece of college football history. But in a world where Texas and Texas A&M is about to split up its longtime rivalry, and Oklahoma and Nebraska just did as well, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. And that scares me.