At the moment, we are just under 48 hours to go until The Third Saturday in October, so here goes the Tennessee preview.
The Crimson Tide comes into 90th meeting of the two traditional powerhouses of Southern football with a 5-2 record, tied for first in the SEC West with LSU and Auburn. The 5-2 record, though, may be a bit misleading. The truth of the matter is that the Tide really hasn't played that well all year, and the "best" game we've played to date is a 41-38 miraculous come-from-behind victory over an Arkansas team that, just to be brutally honest, is going to have to do all it can just to become bowl eligible. Moreover, the two blemishes on the Tide's schedule look to be particularly eyesores at the moment. Georgia beat the Tide in overtime after leading all night in Bryant-Denny, and they have a resume that currently includes a loss to South Carolina, an embarrassing blowout loss to Tennessee, and a squeaker win over Vanderbilt when honestly the 'Dores beat themselves. The other blemish is to Florida State, a team that lost to Clemson, middled by UAB, Colorado, and 1-5 North Carolina State before losing to Wake Forest.
Taking the grand view of things, the sky is still the limit for the Crimson Tide. 'Bama currently is tied for the lead of the SEC West with LSU and Auburn, with games against those two still remaining. If the Tide can knock off those two teams in head-to-head play, 'Bama will be headed to Atlanta regardless of what happens on The Third Saturday in October. In that sense, a loss could occur Saturday and the Tide still win the West, win the SEC, and land a BCS bowl berth.
But putting all of that sunshine pumping aside, that's a lot of ifs, and as they say "if" is the biggest word in the entire English language. The harsh truth of the matter is that there are major question marks as to how good this team is, and the three game stretch of Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn is likely to be much more difficult than anything we've seen to date -- Arkansas, FSU, and Georgia included. As much as I'd like to say otherwise, the truth be told we are going to have to play better than we have to date, or we are likely to lose all three of these games and finish up, at best, 7-5. The 5-2 record looks nice, but no one should be fooled by it. 5-2 record or not, we've got a lot of improvement to make over the course of the next five weeks.
The Tennessee Volunteers come in sporting a 4-2 record. After being annihilated by the Florida Gators, it looked like the Vols were in major trouble, but then out of nowhere they came out and annihilated Georgia. There is little doubt to the fact that Tennessee is a very talented team, but there are major questions as to just how good they are, too. The annihilation of Georgia looks nice, but that game was in Knoxville, and there are major questions as to just how good the Bulldogs are. Aside from that one great showing, the Vols haven't played well all year long.
In terms of the SEC East race, the Vols currently control their own destiny, but with a loss to Florida already on the resume-- plus games remaining against South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky -- the truth of the matter is that the Vols cannot afford another conference loss. If they lose to the Tide this upcoming Saturday, they are likely eliminated from contention in the East. They would still be alive, but would have to run the table and pray that Florida falls somewhere, and that's all unlikely.
For the Vols, the bottom line is that they have to win Saturday if they want to get where they want to go.
Rough Glance at the Statistical Comparisons
Thanks go to Todd for working up this nifty table comparing Alabama and Tennessee statistically:
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|Red Zone Offense
Alabama Offense v. Tennessee Defense
The Alabama offense comes into this game about like expected. All in all, we have the weapons to be very effective -- don't we always? -- but once on the gridiron itself we have struggled greatly to actually put a high number of points on the board. Last week against Ole Miss, the Rebels came in with what is with little doubt the worst defense in the conference, and we still couldn't get a whole lot down. As a whole we moved the ball pretty well, but as per usual we left a ton of points sitting on the table. Well into the fourth quarter, we were staring up at the scoreboard -- again, facing the worst defense in the conference -- to see that we had only put 17 points up on the board. Moreover, another problem, we still couldn't muster any particularly big plays against the Rebels porous defense.
All in all -- except when the defense and / or special teams gives up a short field -- we are a team without a big play element, and that means that we generally have to slowly and methodically work our way down the field one first down at a time. But that gets very tough, especially considering our very inconsistent quarterback play, and overall general tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot with a high degree of regularity. The usual routine, therefore, is to move the ball a little bit and then crap out, getting little or no points, and giving the ball back to the opposing team's offense. And, of course, with that routine we don't put up many points on the board.
Now moving onto the Tennessee defense, these guys aren't particularly good. The Volunteers usually have a great defense, but this year's unit has struggled a good bit. Cal torched them in the season opener, and Florida put up 59 points on them. Even against Mississippi State last week, with a third string quarterback, the Vols allowed 21 points, a 100 yard rusher, and couldn't force a turnover.
So theoretically speaking -- again, just like last week -- the Crimson Tide offense should be able to move the ball quite well and score a lot of points against a rather porous looking Volunteer defense. Tennessee's defensive line play has struggled this year, and team's have run the ball well on them. Their secondary -- even Hefney -- has struggled, too, and teams have thrown the ball well against them. So, again theoretically speaking, we should be able to put up a lot of points with a good running game and an efficient passing attack.
But you can probably bet your life that isn't going to happen. Tennessee's defense isn't good, but it's certainly better than the Ole Miss defense, and we all saw what we did against the Rebels.
We certainly have the potential to have a breakout against the Volunteers, and in all honestly we should put up a lot of points against. But if recent history is an accurate indicator -- and it usually is -- we are again likely to struggle to put up points on the board amid a bag of poor quarterback play, penalties, lack of a big plays, and overall incompetence.
Alabama Defense v. Tennessee Offense
Of the two unit match-ups, the Alabama defense v. the Tennessee offense is likely the more interesting.
For Alabama, it's a defensive unit that is short on talent, depth, and experience. And of course that's not a particularly good thing to have. You have to give the coaches and players a lot of credit of performing like they have to date, but the point remains that there is a lot of legitimate concern with this unit. Against good offenses who can both run and pass, unfortunately, we are likely to struggle and allow a relatively high number of points. Ole Miss showed us that last week, and Tennessee is going to be even better on offense than those guys.
Tennessee, on the other hand, comes into this game with a very good offense. At the moment it's probably -- Kentucky included -- the best offense in the conference, and they can attack you in so many ways.
The Tennessee offensive line isn't particularly great, and quarterback Erik Ainge struggles under pressure. So, to compensate that, the Tennessee coaching staff has went to a lot of quick throws off of three and five step drops. Obviously, it has worked extremely well. The Vols are young and generally inexperienced at wide-out, too, but again the scheme they are running really simplifies things for the receivers, and that improves performance. As a whole, the end result is that Erik Ainge -- who is a very accurate quarterback and one who reads defenses well -- is able to avoid pressure and make the throws into the openings in zone coverage.
So what does all of the mean on the field? Essentially, it means that the Vols complete a very high percentage of their passes, they rarely throw interceptions, and Ainge never gets sacked. The throws are shorter, and combined with Ainge's natural accuracy, that translates into a lot of completed passes. And with the short throws, Ainge's accuracy, and his ability to read defenses, that means few interceptions (only three on the year). And the short drops means that Ainge is never sacked (Tennessee leads the country in fewest sacks allowed), despite the fact that the Tennessee offensive line isn't that good.
About the only downside to the Tennessee passing attack is that they haven't had a lot of big plays to date. Ainge has thrown 221 passes on the season, but only two passes have gone for longer than 35 yards. All in all, it's not a big play passing game, but then again that's not what it is designed to be either.
The Tennessee rushing attack, too, is quite good. Arian Foster is the team's leading tailback, but they have a slew of talented backs and they rotate them into the game often. All in all, they've done a very good job of moving the ball all year long in the running game, and that's likely to continue. They really haven't hit a lot of long runs, but don't think they don't have explosive backs. The lack of long runs is likely attributable more to the lack of a deep threat passing game than anything else.
When you put it all together, our defense and our coaching staff have their work cut out for them. This Tennessee offense is very good, and there is a major deficit of talent and depth for the Crimson Tide defense relative to the Volunteers' offense. Last year we were largely able to stifle the Tennessee by giving Ainge some confusing coverage looks, and that is likely what we will have to do again this year. I know you are probably going to scream "BLITZ HIM!!!!" a thousand times Saturday when you see Ainge getting no pressure, but in reality that's probably not the optimal strategy. The Vols have a lot of quick throws -- and when they do throw long they generally go into max protect -- so heavy blitzes are just playing into their hands more than anything else because that will create massive holes in the zone for Ainge to pick apart. All in all, we're going to have to give Ainge a lot of confusing coverage looks such that he can't make easy throws into predictably open zones.
It's going to be very tough for the Crimson Tide to stop, no doubt about it. There's a reason these guys have probably the best offense in the conference.
Putting It All Together
So... what does it all mean for our beloved Crimson Tide? All in all, it means that we really have our work cut out for us if we expect to come out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with a win over the hated Vols.
Our offense should be able to put up a good bit of points on the Tennessee defense, but we all know how that goes, and the harsh truth is that they are unlikely to do so. The Tennessee offense, on the other hand, is likely the best in the conference and we are shaky at best on defense against quality offenses. It's not that the Vols are that good, but we are unlikely to be able to exploit their weakness (the Tennessee offense), and you can basically bet the farm that our defense is going to allow a good number of points.
We can win this game, but you shouldn't fool yourselves about how difficult it is going to be, and how well we must play in order to do so. In short, we can win, but the offense is going to have to finally score a higher number of points, and the defense is going to have to limit the Tennessee offense as much as it reasonably can. Rest assured that we are not going to fall ass-backwards into this one, to pull out the victory we are going to have to play high quality football for 60 minutes.
In a lot of ways, the Tennessee game is just like the Ole Miss game, except tougher. The Vols and Rebels are actually more similar than you would initially think, except that the Vols have more talented players, better depth, a more potent offense, a slightly better defense, and a better coaching staff.
For us to win on Saturday, we're going to have to play our best game of the season. If we play against the Vols like we did in any of the previous seven games, you can almost rest assured that we will be falling to 5-3. Being quite frank, we're going to have to play better than we have all year to knock off the hated Volunteers and the Fat One.
And it could get worse. If we continue to middle around on offense, and the defense does as expected (which means allow a relatively high amount of points), this thing could get ugly. And if Tennessee comes out and plays against us like they did against Georgia, we are likely to get steamrolled. Moreover, we should all be wise to remember the Fat One's hatred for Alabama, and the fact that his Tennessee teams usually play their best games against the Tide.
At this point, the schedule is getting tougher, and we're going to have to play much better football if we expect to keep on winning.
Hope for the best.