With an ugly win over South Carolina, Alabama moved to 7-0 on the season and is now considered by many the #1 team in the country. Tennessee, on the other hand, hasn't quite been so fortunate. Most expected that year one of the Lane Kiffin era would be a tough one, and that is generally what has played out to date. Despite those struggles, however, the Vols surprisingly thumped Georgia in Knoxville two weeks ago, and they head to Tuscaloosa with an off week at their back that allowed them to get so much needed rest for some banged up players. Whether it's justified or not, Tennessee is coming in with some swagger and confidence this week and they clearly have upset on their minds, so let's look a bit closer at the match-ups.
Alabama Offense v. Tennessee Defense
The strength of this Tennessee team -- much like was the case with Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and South Carolina -- lies in its defense, led by the long-time defensive mastermind Monte Kiffin. Regardless of how you look at this unit, it's been a very productive one and in fact has generally done so despite being consistently put in bad positions by their offensive counterpart. The Vols rank in the top fifteen nationally in both total defense and pass defense, and a clearly above-average 31st in run defense. And in fact, they come into this game on the heels of easily their most impressive performance of the season, giving up only three points defensively to Georgia, and not allowing the Bulldogs to advance beyond the Tennessee 34-yard line.
All in all, it's just a good group. They aren't quite like Alabama, but they do have a good enough of a mix of legitimate stars (see Eric Berry) and solid role players needed to be a good unit. Monte Kiffin also proves to be a valuable asset because his defenses are a lot more multiple than anyone gives them credit for -- call them "Tampa 2" if you want, but the notion that all Kiffin defenses do is sit back in that one package is laughably erroneous -- and his commitment to sound fundamental football is clearly paying off. And don't underestimate the value of a great coach, either. Any Alabama fan ought to be well aware of that.
With that ringing endorsement in mind, however, this Tennessee defense is not a flawless one, and does have a couple of legitimate shortcomings. First and foremost, unlike 'Bama, there isn't a whole lot of depth on this unit. The defensive backfield is pretty solid, but beyond that it gets dicey. The defensive line really has a big drop-off with the second team, and the linebacker corps' depth has been hurt quite a bit with injuries to Nick Reveiz and Greg King. Reveiz was probably the second best player on this defense, behind only Berry, and he will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. Likewise, Greg King is probably the top back-up, and he may also miss this game with a knee injury. Bottom line, the front-line is clearly a fine unit, but they don't have very good depth in a lot of places, and as a result they really don't have the luxury of rotating lots of warm bodies throughout the course of the day.
And secondly, this is a pretty small defensive unit for the Vols. Dan Williams anchors the interior defensive line at approximately 330 pounds, but the rest of the defensive line is very small. Guys like Wes Brown, Chris Walker, and Gerald Williams are all roughly 250 pounds and below, and frankly everyone else aside from Dan Williams would be a linebacker at Alabama. Likewise, while the linebacker corps isn't exactly small, it's not very big either. They generally range between 200 and 220 pounds, and none of them are the big, physical stuffers like you see with guys like Rolando McClain.
Meanwhile, the early season prolific Alabama offense has since crashed and burned in recent weeks, and has effectively devolved into the Mark Ingram Show. The weeks of 500+ yards and 35+ points seems like ages ago now, and at this point production has basically been predicated on (1) giving the ball to Mark Ingram, and (2) praying Ingram makes something good happen. It's a ridiculously unbelievable statistic, but it's nevertheless true... Mark Ingram has accounted for a whopping 65% of Alabama's offensive production the past two weeks, including the only two offensive touchdowns we've put on the board.
The running game has remained very good for the Tide, but unfortunately Greg McElroy has looked like a completely different quarterback in October than he was in September. His mechanics have been all over the place, his accuracy has gone down accordingly, and his decision-making has been downright bad. Making matters worse, we've lost all explosiveness from the passing game, largely because we simply cannot effectively get the football to our wide receivers, including Julio Jones. All told, McElroy has completed only about 50% of his passes the past three weeks, and only about 30% of those completions have gone to wide receiver. In other words, we're not completing a lot of passes anyway, and the overwhelming majority of the relatively few completions were are getting are going to the backs and the tight ends. All in all, the explosiveness of the passing game has just gone completely out the window.
Making matters worse, though, is the Tide's apparent demand to beat itself offensively. For all of the problems that we had against the Gamecocks, those guys never really stopped us. We stopped ourselves with missed kicks, turnovers, and by being inefficient in the red zone, and that has pretty much been our reputation for the past weeks now.
All in all, it's hard to say exactly how this match-up will go, and in truth it will all depend on the play of Greg McElroy. Rest assured, even though we have a major size advantage up front, Monte Kiffin won't allow Mark Ingram to just run it right down their throats... they'll respond defensively and force someone else to beat them. That is where McElroy comes in. If he plays pretty well, we'll move the ball relatively well through the air, and that combined with the efforts of the running game will do enough to win. On the other hand, if McElroy cannot throw the football effectively, Tennessee will slow down our running game enough to where -- when matched with our commitment to continue beating ourselves -- this turns into a game with the Tide scoring very few points offensively. Whither McElroy... the rest of the Tide's offense will likely follow.
Alabama Defense v. Tennessee Offense
Suffice it to say, things haven't gone quite so well for the Tennessee offense. Jonathon Crompton's overall stat line looks respectable, but once you factor out his performance against lowly Western Kentucky, it's a completely different story. Likewise, the receiver corps features a long of young, inexperienced receivers, and the few proven veterans have been slowed by injuries. Making matters worse, the offensive line is a complete patch-work unit, and one that features at least one walk-on as a starter.
As a whole, Tennessee runs a pro-set offense that is effectively as stereotypical pro-set as you can get. That is Lane Kiffin's background at USC, and it should come as no real surprise that he has implemented the same scheme in Knoxville. That said, though, the general trend the past several years of pro-set offenses in major college football is that those with a lot of really high-end players tend to do extraordinarily well, but those that don't have a lot of really high-end players tend to extraordinarily poor. With a bad offensive line, a bad quarterback, and an inconsistent quarterback, it's no real surprise as to which end of this spectrum that Tennessee has found itself on.
But what about the Vols' 45 point, 472 yard explosion against Georgia? Is it just that this Tennessee offense is finally turning the corner?
Based on what I have seen, I would say no. To begin with, Georgia is not a particularly good team right now, and even a bowl game is not a certainty for the Bulldogs. Moreover, Tennessee's running game -- which was previously its strength -- didn't look particularly special against Georgia, with Hardestly and Brown combining for only 116 yards off of 29 carries (4.0 ypc). No, believe it or not, Tennessee was powered by Crompton's career performance. But can we reasonably expect him to be a legitimate threat to do that against the Tide? Again, I say no. Crompton's big day came with an average-at-best Georgia defense playing a lot of vanilla coverages, and giving him all day to throw the football and get outside the pocket on bootlegs and rollouts. And exactly what do you think the odds are of Nick Saban and company allowing him to do that on Saturday? Hell will freeze over first, I can guarantee you that much.
For the Tide defense, things look to be as stellar as usual. Both Javier Arenas and Josh Chapman missed last week's game against South Carolina, but the defensive was exceptional as always. The quality depth has been built to the point that we can absorb some injuries and plug and play with no real drop-off. Marquis Johnson played the game of his life in Arenas' role, meanwhile walk-on Tyrone King played well in his own right, and Kerry Murphy filled in for Chapman with a sound performance. Fortunately, both Arenas and Chapman should be back this week, and the Tide defense should be running at full song, just like usual. Anything short of another outstanding performance by this defense will be a surprise.
Putting It All Together
In the final analysis, you have to like Alabama's chances in this game. As has been the case most of the year, we clearly have more top-end talent and quality depth throughout the roster than do our opponents. Clearly, we should win this game.
Offensively, we may have some problems if Greg McElroy continues to struggle to throw the football. Tennessee will probably be able to limit our running game to the point that -- if we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot -- they will really limit our overall offensive production if McElroy indeed has another bad showing. On the other hand, Tennessee will probably try to run the football at us, and in all fairness they will probably have some success. That said, though, at some point Crompton is going to have to both protect the football and make some plays with his arm, and with the talent of our defense mixed with Saban's multiple defensive scheme, it'd be a major surprise if Crompton could do both of those things on Saturday afternoon.
If we struggle offensively yet again, it's going to be yet another relatively close, low-scoring game, just like we saw against Ole Miss and South Carolina. And, of course, it goes without saying that close, low-scoring games can easily go one way or the other. Tennessee will come out ready for a fight, and this game is absolutely no different from the rest of the brutal conference schedule... you have to play at a very high-level each and ever week, or risk the unthinkable. The Tide is beaten black and blue after seven consecutive weeks of action, but nevertheless that is the dilemma we are facing when the Vols came to town. If we play well offensively, we ought to win with relative ease. If not, expect another close, low-scoring game that could go either way.
Hope for the best.