While the Alabama v. Tennessee series likely remains the most storied in all of southern football, beneath all the traditional and pageantry this rivalry has historically been one of the more predictable in the country. Match-ups of these two when both are at their peak have been exceedingly rare, and for whatever reason, despite the successes of the two programs not being tied together in any meaningful sense, this series routinely pits one clearly superior team against a clearly inferior team, and upsets tend to be quite rare. One school typically dominates this rivalry for years on end until the roles eventually get completely reversed, and fortunately for those who bleed crimson and white Alabama comes in as the winners of four straight over the Vols and as the heavy favorite for tomorrow night.
Alabama comes into this game at 7-0 on the season and in the thick of national championship contention. Barring an upset tomorrow in either Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge, Alabama will take the field against LSU in two weeks in one of the biggest regular season games in SEC history with a berth in the BCS National Championship Game clearly on the line. Fittingly enough, Alabama has been nothing short of a juggernaut to date. AJ McCarron has exceeded expectations, Trent Richardson has solidified his status as a bona fide superstar, the offensive line has rectified the issues that plagued it a year, and the defense has been a suffocating unit that may be the best Nick Saban has fielded to date in his long career. The only chink in the armor so far for the Crimson Tide has been poor play in the kicking game. 'Bama hasn't surrendered more than fourteen points in any game to date, and at no point this season has Alabama even remotely been challenged down the stretch, with all seven contests ending in lopsided blowouts in the second half.
Tennessee, on the other hand, has simply been coming apart at the seams in recent weeks. The Vols haven't beaten a quality team yet (sorry, Cincinnati really doesn't count) and are mainly staying afloat due to a cupcake non-conference schedule padded by Montana, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, and the aforementioned Bearcats. Even with four guaranteed wins on the slate and a de facto fifth in the form of lowly Kentucky, a bowl berth is by no means guaranteed for the Volunteers, and its quite possible that Tennessee could be making one final return trip to Legion Field later this December. Effort hasn't been a problem in Knoxville, but the harsh truth remains that this is about as bad as Tennessee football will ever be.
Derek Dooley has probably done as much as could have reasonably been expected given the roster he inherited from Lane Kiffin, but injuries have hit this team hard and even before the injuries it was largely a squad with few identifiable strengths. Even before the injuries to Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter this was a team that struggled to run the football or play defense even against weaker opponents. Early in the season this team was largely carried by the passing duo of Bray and Hunter, and given the impressive start of those two that may have been well enough to rack up many wins this season. When both went down with injuries, however, the subsequent fall-off has been dramatic and now the Vols are simply struggling to stay afloat.
The remaining pieces of the roster simply do little to impress the rational observer. Matt Simms has solid physical tools but throughout his career he has routinely struggled against quality defenses, and he seems to be a less-than-ideal candidate under center given the problems around him and the quality of competition he must face in the SEC. The offensive line will be a strong unit in due time, but in the meantime they have been plagued by a lack of depth and poor play at both guard spots, and in any event Dooley has decided to change things up this week by flip-flopping James Stone and Alex Bullard at center and guard, respectively. Stone, a 2010 prospect that Alabama recruited heavily, has spent the first half of the year starting at center, but he has been plagued by snap difficulties and he will move back to guard tomorrow night as Bullard will take in his first start at center against the Crimson Tide.
At the skill positions, Da'Rick Rogers looks like a physical specimen on first glance, but a further review of the game film shows that he sometimes has a tendency to be somewhat tentative and thus play smaller on the field, and the raw statistics he has posted become less impressive when the number of passes thrown his way is taken into consideration. The bigger issue outside, though, has been finding a complement for Rogers, and in the absence of Hunter that has largely been a fruitless effort. The third leading receiver on the team is actually tight end Mychal Rivera (Hunter is still second, despite missing the past three games), and while the passing game has turned to Zach Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett, neither have been consistent positive contributors. Rogers has yet to catch more than two passes in a game, and Arnett is a true freshman whose stat line stems almost entirely from an eight catch performance against Florida. On the rest of the year, though, he has managed a meager six catches for 49 yards, and the lack of a threat opposite Rogers has been a real problem.
Senior tailback Tauren Poole has overcome injuries and is a solid player, bringing the mixture of requisite size and speed typical of a starting tailback in the SEC, but he has been bogged down by the problems surrounding him. Nearly all of his production came against the East Popcorn States of the schedule and he racked up only 25 rushing yards combined against Florida and Georgia, though in fairness it should be noted he had a relatively strong showing last weekend against LSU. Poole could be a standout player with a better line in front of him, but he simply does not have that luxury now in Knoxville.
The defense on the whole has been little better, and much like the offense they are plagued with inexperience at several positions and an overall lack of depth. Injuries have hurt, too, as linebacker Herman Lathers has yet to play this season due to a broken ankle he suffered this past summer. The defensive line is weak at the end positions and has been unable to rush the passer, and combined with the inexperience at linebacker the front seven has been suspect against the run. The defensive backfield looks better on a statistical first glance, but a closer look at the pass efficiency numbers makes the raw numbers look to be something of a mirage.
With another year of experience under their belt and some better injury luck, the return trip to Knoxville next season could be a serious challenge for the Crimson Tide, but in the meantime the disparity between these two teams is the largest it has been in many years. Alabama is at a historic peak and Tennessee is at a historic low; do the proverbial math. The Vols aren't exactly a repeat of Ole Miss, but it would be intellectually dishonest to put them in near the same category as Alabama, and admittedly it will most likely take a bad performance from the Crimson Tide tomorrow to give Tennessee a legitimate opportunity to win tomorrow night. It's easy to fear a repeat of the near nightmare of the 2009 game, though in reality this Tennessee team looks to be a shell of what the Vols brought to Tuscaloosa two years ago. The 28-point line that Vegas has assigned may be a bit bullish, but if Alabama plays like it should the Tide should win with relative ease. A loss tomorrow night to the Vols would go right alongside 1980 Mississippi State and 1993 LSU as the biggest upsets in Alabama football history.
As has been the case in recent weeks, the goal for Alabama is to stay focused on the task at hand and emerge on Sunday morning with both an unbeaten record and their overall physical health still intact. LSU looms closer than ever, but the Bayou Bengals aren't on the slate just yet, and in the meantime the Tide must not get distracted and fall victim to its own hubris against its hated rival.
Hope for the best.