The Third Saturday in October renews tomorrow night in Neyland Stadium for its 94th meeting, and even though Alabama comes in as a heavy favorite, the match-up tomorrow night appears far closer than the betting line indicates, and the road trip to Knoxville could easily become the most difficult obstacle to date faced by the Crimson Tide. Alabama comes in as the superior team overall, but it's a bad match-up for the Tide, in a hostile environment, facing a team desparate for a big win, in a series historically littered with numerous upsets. Not that any meaningful amount of such is allowed in Tuscaloosa by Nick Saban, but this is most certainly not the week for anyone to be resting on their laurels and their number one ranking.
Tennessee comes in at only 3-3, but the middling record alone is more the result of strength of schedule than anything else. The three losses came to Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi State -- all of whom are ranked in the top fifteen nationally, with a combined record of 17-1 -- and the Vols were competitive in all three losses, so the .500 record is largely misleading. Compared to one year ago, the team as a whole is healthier, the passing game has improved, the offensive line has matured and played much better, and while the defense has been plagued by big plays, they have been very effective on third down and have produced more turnovers. The Vols aren't the best team in the league by any stretch, but they have been competitive against the top of the conference and at a minimum this team is far better than the one who died a slow Wildcat death in Lexington last November.
Alabama has had the exact opposite problem in the first half of the season. Michigan fizzled amidst the pre-season hype, while both Arkansas and Missouri also derailed prior to facing the Tide. As a result, reaching 6-0 has been as straigthforward and uneventful as humanly imaginable. The fact that even the true freshman who entered the season opener as fifth in the tailback rotation now has four touchdowns ought to be quite telling of the lack of difficulties encountered to date. Nevertheless, no one can expect such an easy course to continue, and with Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, and Texas A&M on the slate in the next four weeks, easy times are coming to an end in Tuscaloosa. 'Bama will face better teams in the stretch run, but Tennessee could well be considered the best opponent to date -- at worst the Vols would be considered a close second behind Michigan -- and Neyland Stadium will undoubtedly be the most hostile environment Alabama has seen.
The biggest concern with Tennessee is the pure match-up of the Volunteer offense against the Alabama defense. The foremost concern all season for 'Bama has been inexperience and a lack of depth in the defensive backfield and a front seven unproven in consistently rushing the passer, both of which combine to place the vitality of the pass defense in legitimate doubt. Fortunately for the Tide, however, it has not faced a team to date that can legitimately throw the football, but that will not be the case with the Vols. Tyler Bray can be inconsistent and erratic, but when he is on there are few, if any, better pure passers in the country, and the weapons he has outside are deadly. Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are arguably the best two receivers in the country, and both will likely be first round NFL Draft picks next April; Patterson, in particular, frequently plays like a clone of former Alabama standout Julio Jones. Combined with a solid third receiver in Zach Rogers, and arguably the conference's best receiving tight end in Mychal Rivera, this is a potentially lethal passing game that will only be slowed by the best secondaries.
The match-up concern for Alabama is this: 'Bama has operated this season out a base defense utilizing only two cornerbacks, DeMarcus Milliner and Deion Belue, while rotating four safeties into the game. Well enough against impotent passing games, but can Alabama legitimately defend the Tennessee passing game with that when the Vols go three-wide with Hunter, Patterson, and Rogers in the game, all the while having a threat at the tight end position as a complimentary option? Can a safety defend Rogers when isolated in space, and more importantly can the Alabama coaching staff prevent Hunter and Patterson from being isolated on a safety, as the Tennessee coaching staff will undoubtedly be trying to do? If the 'Bama coaching staff uses Milliner and Belue to shadow Hunter and Patterson, can they do so effectively and does that simplicity and predictability materially limit the remainder of the defense? If Alabama is forced to bring in a third cornerback, can John Fulton be a viable player against quality competition? Obviously there are numerous questions outstanding that can only be answered tomorrow night in Knoxville.
The redeeming factor for Alabama is that the Vols do not have much of a running game, and the team's top tailback, Raijon Neal, is expected to miss tomorrow night. The hope is that stopping the run can force Tennessee into poor down-and-distance situations, but even so at some point Alabama simply has to cover on the back end. If all goes to plan 'Bama will consistently apply pressure to Tyler Bray, but that is far easier said than done. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the Alabama pass rush in any event, and Tennessee offensive line -- which features numerous starters that Alabama recruited heavily as prep prospects, including former long-time 'Bama commitment Juwuan James -- has been extraordinarily outstanding to date in pass protection, allowing only three sacks this season on 225 passing attempts. Ideally the Alabama pass rush would be able to control the passing game like it did last week against Missouri, but the strength of the Tennessee offensive line will likely prevent that. Again, at some point the back seven is simply going to be forced to consistently cover in space on the back end tomorrow night.
On the whole, though, some degree of success for the Tennessee offense is to be expected. The Vols have put up points even against its better opponents -- 20 against Florida, 44 against Georgia, and 30 last weekend against Mississippi State -- and there is no real reason to believe they won't score their fair share tomorrow night. Alabama will simply have to respond in kind and to a greater degree.
All of which puts the emphasis once again on the Alabama offense. As mentioned above, the real issue for Tennessee all season has been a porous defense which has surrendered countless big plays. The linebacker corps is solid with two fine players in A.J. Johnson and Herman Lathers, but Curt Maggitt will likely miss this game with lingering injuries, and outside of Johnson and Lathers the rest of the defense has struggled. The Vols are near the bottom of the country in terms of rushing the passer, and the run defense has been soft despite the presence of the gargantuan JUCO nose guard Daniel McCulluers. Meanwhile, the defensive backfield continues to give up big plays, and in general continues to be plagued by numerous highly-touted prospects who aren't living up to their prep billing at the next level.
In theory, the Alabama offense ought to be highly successful tomorrow night and put points on the board with relative ease. Only one small problem: That particular role has never been one that the UA offense has relished, even under Nick Saban, and with inconsistent offensive line play to date the concern is that if the big uglies have another sloppy performance the offense will grind to a halt. Quite frankly, the passing game is unlikely to power the offense on its own, and that likely rings especially true with the mobility of A.J. McCarron limited with a knee injury, and Christion Jones potentially missing the game entirely with a sprained ankle. The way to beat this Tennessee team is to outscore them and use their porous defense to overcome the strength of their potent offense, and to that end the Alabama offensive line must absolutely impose its will on the Tennessee defense tomorrow night, with both Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon having strong performances.
Ideally the Alabama offense protects the football, controls time of possession, and puts up 38 or more points, thus largely obviating the effectiveness of the Tennessee offense, but that is far from a given. On the flip side, 'Bama probably needs at least 24 points to win, and if the offense sputters this could quickly turn into a nailbiter. The fact that Tennessee has been horrendous in the kicking game could help swing a close game in the Tide's favor, but 'Bama had issues of its own on special teams a week ago, and even so that only tips the balance of the scale slightly in an otherwise tight game.
Given two national championships in the past three years and the men-playing-against-boys nature of the first half of the 2012 season, Alabama followers have grown not only entitled to winning, but winning big and doing so without even breaking a proverbial sweat. But that won't last forever, and in truth will probably end tomorrow night in Knoxville. At some point soon the quality of competition surges, adversity hits, and you simply have to find a way to get a win in a close game against a quality opponent. The good news for Alabama is that undefeated and defending national champions from the SEC don't need style points to solidify their standing, and to that end all 'Bama needs to do is find some way, any way, to survive the next four weeks. Survival mode officially beings tomorrow night in Neyland Stadium.
Hope for the best.