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Hope For the Best: Tennessee edition

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While their record may not reflect it, the current Volunteer team is the best one the Tide has faced during its current winning streak

Can Josh Dobbs power through Bama's vaunted defense?
Can Josh Dobbs power through Bama's vaunted defense?
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The fabled "Third Saturday in October" (or, in this case, the fourth Saturday in October) is a rivalry that has a life and history of its own. The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry represents the pinnacle of football hate for two teams who have played each other 96 times since 1901, and the venomous disdain that flows between the programs and their fan bases is no secret. A series of streaks, the Third Saturday in October rivalry has been played every year since 1928, and if it's true that familiarity breeds contempt, then the two teams are boiling in a cauldron of unadulterated contempt, to be sure.

But familiarity is not the only source of contempt. No, the rivalry has been honed to such a keen edge of disgust due to the stakes that are generally riding upon the outcome of this mid-season match-up. In some years, both teams are contesting for the SEC title, or more. In other eras, such as the current one, one team can only muster high hopes of ruining the destiny of the other. Rarely is one team or the other not involved in a title hunt of some kind, thus throwing fatwood kindling on the already roaring fires of a long-burning loathing.

Make no mistake, regardless of the respective records of the teams involved, for Alabama and Tennessee, this game is of the utmost importance, not because of its bearing on the conference or national title races, but because of the pride and bragging rights that go along with the victory. After the last eight meetings, it has been the Crimson Tide that has enjoyed locker room cigars to celebrate victory. The Vols hope to turn that streak on its head in 2015 with an upset of the national title contending Tide at Bryant Denny Stadium. A loss at BDS, with SEC title and playoff hopes on the line, would be the feather in Vol coach Butch Jones' cap, and the Vol nation would revel in the tears of the Crimson Tide faithful.

But is such an outcome truly likely for the Vols? Some would argue that UT is so outclassed by this Bama team, that at best, theirs is but a flickering candle of hope blown dim by the Tide's tempest. However, a closer look at Tennessee's strengths and weaknesses should give the Crimson Tide some pause, as this is not Derek Dooley's Volunteer team. These Vols won't go quietly, and with an explosive run-based offense, they can back Alabama into quite the unfortunate corner if the Tide players show the malaise of previous home games.

Can Alabama do something it's not done at home this season and execute with 100 percent precision? Alabama has been a much better road team, while the only loss of the season came in the familiar confines of Bryant Denny Stadium. The Tide even struggled at home against a lowly Arkansas team before pulling away late. Will a similar outcome await the men in crimson in T'Town against their most hated rival? Let's take a closer look...

The Alabama offense versus the Tennessee defense

At first glimpse, this looks like a huge mismatch in favor of Alabama. The Tennessee defense, though arguably improved over its previous incarnation, is still nowhere close to what one would consider "elite" on a national (on even conference) context. They are a tad undersized up front, their linebackers are not particularly adept in coverage, and the defensive backs cede the height advantage to the Tide's rangy corps of wide receivers. So what's to fear?

Many projected the Vol defense as vastly improved 2015, with its deep but young defensive line seemingly the strongest unit on that side of the ball. But a rash of key injuries (and a key suspension) gashed into that preseason depth and left the unit somewhat young. As a result, the Vols have struggled to stop opposing teams from imposing their will. Starting up front, Tennessee still has an adequate defensive line, though that line was in much better shape before the suspension of tackle Danny O'Brien. With O'Brien out of the line-up, the Vols had quite the spot to fill (figuratively and physically, as O'Brien's 300+ pound frame would have made the interior of the line nearly impenetrable.)  Filling in at the proxy nose position in the Vols' 4-3 defense has been Kendal Vickers (6-3, 286 pounds), who, though small for the role he is asked to play, has good athleticism at the position and has done a workable job. While Owen Williams (6-0, 297 pounds) plays alongside him at the other tackle position, the addition of behemoth freshman Khalil McKenzie has given the Vol front much-needed added girth, despite McKenzie's somewhat unrefined technique.

Another blow came to the Vol defense with the injury to leading sack specialist Curt Maggitt earlier in the season. Maggitt was the grease that made the Vol defensive machine work. Teamed with defensive end Derek Barnett (6-3, 257 pounds), the unit formed a terrific pass rushing tandem that held up well against the run. With Maggitt out, Jalen Reeves-Maybin has stepped into the fray as the leading linebacker, and though he has filled in admirably, he's no Curt Maggitt.

Expect Alabama to heavily test the Vol front seven with their power running game. The Tide employs a zone blocking scheme that has become more potent as the season has worn on, with the offensive line becoming more familiar with roles and blocking assignments while developing cohesiveness. Derrick Henry has refined his decision making in selecting holes and creases, and the result has been the kind of spectacular display of running that the Tide used to bludgeon the Texas A&M Aggies last week en route to a huge road victory. Because zone blocking requires directional movement off the line of scrimmage, the Tide will have an advantage in most situations because of the offensive line's size relative to the lighter Tennessee front (at least when Williams is on the field isntead of McKenzie). While the Vol linebackers flow well to the ball in the running game, with somewhat undersized linebackers (Henry outweighs all of the starters), Henry can take physically take advantage of one-on-one match-ups versus linebackers and safeties to brutal effect.

However, if the Tide line underperforms, as it has in previous home games, the Vols have the talent to make things frustrating for Alabama on the ground. Reeves-Maybin can run sideline-to-sideline, and he is particularly good in run pursuit. Mental errors that lead to penalties kill drives, as has been the case throughout the season for Alabama's young line. One lead look no further than the Tide's dismal third-down conversion numbers (Alabama is in the bottom third of the nation in third-down conversions) to remember how those types of mistakes create insurmountable third-and-longs. Against Tennessee, Alabama simply can't allow UT to keep the offense behind the sticks, so to speak, so Alabama will need to execute and run effective on early options to keep the playbook open on third downs.

Against the pass, Tennessee likes to use a lot of man coverage with Cover 1 over the top and a strong safety in the box. This is nothing the Tide hasn't seen before, and given the height advantage the Tide receiving corps has over the Vol secondary (only one player in the two deep defensive back rotation is over 5-11), expect Richard Mullaney, Ar'Darius Stewart and O.J. Howard to have the advantage on passing downs if Coker can continue to accurately execute through the air.

And then there's Calvin Ridley. Ridley will likely be paired against the Vols' strongest defensive back, Cameron Sutton (5-11, 186). Sutton is aggressive and physical despite his size, and when called upon to play press coverage, he likes to jam receivers coming off the line of scrimmage to disrupt their routes. This may have mixed results against Ridley, as the slippery freshman receiver has proven that he can get open against press coverage and make defenses pay. All Ridley needs is a seam to make a play, and if he can routinely get behind Sutton, expect him to have a huge day.

Overall, the Volunteer defense really doesn't do much the Tide hasn't seen before. Their attack is similar to the one used by Arkansas, just with different athletes, of course. Alabama moved the ball well between the 20s against the Hogs, and most of the struggles of the offense could be based on mental errors and turnovers. One would expect the Tide to be focused against its biggest rival, so in the absence of mistakes the Tide should be able to move the ball against Tennessee.

Another factor in the Tide's favor will be Tennessee's ongoing problem with the fundamentals of pursuit and tackling. There simply is no arm-tackling Henry, as he plows through poor tackling the way a John Deere plows unturned delta soil. Drake is as slippery as they come, and the Tide wide receivers are too physical not to take advantage of broken tackles in the secondary. The Yards-After-Contact numbers in this game could end up making YAC Master Mark Ingram smile, as the Vols really struggle with closing out plays on defense. That does not bode well for their ability to snuff Tide drives, and combined with poor angles of pursuit, could lead to the Vol defense getting a great many looks at the backs of Crimson Tide jerseys.

That said, Alabama has struggled at home for whatever reason, committing uncharacteristic errors that could have led to losses against stronger competition. If Jake Coker struggles with his accuracy, it won't matter how inadequate the Volunteer pass defense may be, and the Tide will find itself caught in a frustrating three-and-out offensive maelstrom. It is this dynamic that should give the Tide the most cause for concern, as the circumstances are similar to those in play when Alabama played Arkansas: the Tide is coming off of a huge win over a ranked opponent and will be playing in front of the home crowd (with all of the inherent distractions therein. Fortunately, Arkansas didn't have the offensive firepower to take advantage of Alabama's miscues, but the same can't be said for a Tennessee offense that has been rather potent at times this season.

The Alabama defense against the Tennessee offense

Speaking of the Volunteer offense, the unit has evolved into a multi-threat squad loaded with talent at the skill positions and good size along the trenches. With the roster Jones has assembled in Knoxville, one ca argue that it's not the level of talent, but rather the coaching, that has led to at least two of the Vol losses on the year. Quarterback Josh Dobbs has matured as a signal caller, and he possesses the kind of dual-threat running ability that has given Bama defenses trouble in the past. The wide receiving corps is as talented as any in the conference, and the running back tandem of Jalen Hurd and former Tide player Alvin Kamara can be just plain scary.

That said, it's not only the personnel the Volunteers use but the way they use them. Early in the season, first-year offensive coordinator (and former NFL assistant) Mike DeBord seemed to struggle with his transition from the pro game, showing a conservative streak that partially cost the Volunteers games against Oklahoma and Florida. The Vols have the talent to be explosive, and with DeBord coming into his own as a college play-caller, the Tennessee offense has become a much bigger threat.

In regard to talent, take for example the Vol wide receivers. Marquez North (6-3, 229 pounds), Jauan Jennings (6-3, 201 pounds) and Josh Malone (6-3, 197 pounds) present a tremendous height advantage over all but the tallest defensive backs, combining those physical measurables with good hands and solid route running skills. Often overlooked is their effectiveness as peripheral blockers in the running game, as their size gives them the ability to take defenders out of the play when the Vol offense punches at the edges of an opposing defense.

Then there's the Vol quarterback, Josh Dobbs. The young playmaker was thrown in against the Crimson Tide as a freshman in 2013, and he held his own despite being surrounded by lesser talent. He's only gotten better since then, combining a surprisingly strong arm with fleet feet. His mobility gives the Vols a third potential running threat in the backfield (along with Hurd and Kamara), and the Vol scheme makes great use of his skill. As a passer, Dobbs completes 58 percent of his passes and currently has a 126.0 passer rating with eight touchdowns to two interceptions. That said, he has 386 yards on the ground as a runner, averaging 5 yards per carry.

Now granted, those aren't Heisman type numbers for a quarterback. But, within the confines of DeBord's offense, it is evidence that Dobbs is getting the job done. Sure, the Vol passing game struggles at times, ranked 80th nationally in passing yards. But the Vols don't need him to do a lot through the air, in part because of the potency of their ground attack.

Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240 pounds) is, quite simply, much like Alabama's own steamroller, Derrick Henry. With fantastic, brutalizing size, a physical running style and good open-field speed, Hurd is the centerpiece of a pounding running attack that, like Alabama's, depends on zone blocking concepts. Kamara is used in much the same way the Tide uses Kenyan Drake, flaring him out as a receiver and using him in motion on pitches and screens.

Combined with Dobbs running ability, two thunder-and-lightning running backs and a veteran offensive line that averages 311 pounds, DeBord and Jones have an offensive package that has the potential to be among the best in the conference. What makes the Vol offense potent is not just the overall talent level, but the subterfuge the Vols use to keep defenses guessing. DeBord likes to repeatedly run the inside zone, then catch defenses snoozing with an ISO weak or split zone call that takes advantage of aggressively pursuing defenses that follow the flow of Vol blocking. The Vols use a great deal of motion as well, at times lining up in a standard one back set before bringing Kamara in motion in the backfield, creating a triple-threat running attack (Hurd, Dobbs or Kamara) that defenses must read correctly on the fly. The UT offense is built on RPOs, though if given their druthers, they'd rather run the bulk of the time and keep things simple.

That type of psychological strategy will keep the Tide guessing, and against a lesser unit, it has created myriad problems. The Florida defense is above average, and the Vols gave them fits in the first half with their running prowess through motion and misdirection. The Tide defense will need to be on its toes mentally and play gap-sound football to prevent the Vols from getting in their heads. This is one case where the Tide could stand to dial back the aggressiveness, at least early on, to limit the damage the Vols can do with their pulling linemen and against the grain ISO plays.

Another complicating factor is that, in much the same way Texas A&M runs multiple play schemes out of an identical personnel package and alignment, the Vols package plays that allow Dobbs to have multiple options to which he can pivot after reading the look the defense gives on a particular play. The Vols may line up exactly the same on four consecutive plays, then run four completely different schemes from that alignment, making it nearly impossible for a defense to read and anticipate the call based on the formation or personnel. Alabama will need to b quick off the ball and disciplined in its gap responsibilities to keep Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs from slashing them up.

Finally, the Vols do some really funky things with their offensive linemen. While many teams use pulling guard to lead backs into the second level, the Vols are prone to pulling a tackle, even the center, at times to create unanticipated blocking mismatches on the edges. This is something that the Tide hasn't seen much this season, and it gives the Vols the advantage of not only getting big men in space as lead blockers for the potent running attack, but it also increases the effectiveness of the blocks due to the unfamiliar angle of approach (think of a penetrating linebacker getting hit from an angle parallel to the line rather than perpendicular to it) and the "hide-and-seek" factor of blocks thrown from those vectors. It will be interesting to see how the Alabama front seven handles this twist, though if any defense is capable of handling the subterfuge, it is this Bama unit.

These factors make the Tennessee offense a challenge for the Crimson Tide defense. That said, the defense has proven time and time again this season that they are up to the challenge presented by multiple offenses. Take the previous game against A&M, for example. While the Aggies prefer to pass rather than run, stylistically, they share tactics with the Volunteers in that they run multiple packaged plays from identical formations and use motion to keep defenses guessing. Alabama was able to sniff out and defeat the Aggies' attempts regardless of package by stoning the offensive line, collapsing the pocket and playing aggressive lockdown coverage in the secondary.

The approach will be a little different, but given the Tide's stellar performance against the run this season, there's little doubt the Vol running game versus the Tide run defense will be the pivotal match-up of the game. If the Vols can't run their offense consistently, then they will have little chance of victory. Alabama's run defense is currently ranked 3rd in the nation...and that's with run-heavy teams like Arkansas and Georgia on the Tide's resume. It would be difficult to believe that there will be much of a drop-off for the Tide against UT, and as a result, Tennessee will have a hard time gaining headway on the ground...that much is certain.

It would be wise for the Vols to test the pass defense, if for no other reason than to keep the Tide from loading the box and stuffing the run without consequence. Against A&M, Bama was able to contain the run and pressure the passer with a four man rush while leaving the remaining defenders in coverage and run support. If Alabama once again has the luxury of getting the job done up front without a major commitment of personnel, the passing lanes may not be any more productive than the non-existing run gaps in Alabama's front line. One has to think Tennessee will have to muster some kind of offense through the air, or else their performance will be riddled with three and outs and punts at best. There are few teams in the nation that could stagger the Tide's run defense, and though the Vols have the nation's 19th ranked rushing offense at the moment, expect them to drop in that ranking after Saturday. Quite simply, the Tide run defense offers no quarter.

Special Teams

This is the scary part for Alabama, and the only point of advantage the Vols definitely hold over the Tide. While Alabama's place kicking has been limited and less disastrous, the special teams pendulum of mediocrity has swung decidedly towards the kick coverage team in the last week. An ongoing problem (to a lesser degree) for much of the season, Bama's punt coverage team gave up a touchdown on a return due to sloppy pursuit angles and overall lackadaisical play. It's puzzling that a team as defensively gifted as the Tide could play so poorly in kick and punt coverage. There's simply no reason for it, especially when Tide punter J.K. Scott is once again booming his punts with authority.

Unfortunately, the Tide must deal with yet another return dynamo this week in Evan Berry, the younger brother of Vol All-American Eric Berry, who is the current NCAA leader in kickoff return yards this season. Berry has returned two kicks for scores, and is averaging nearly 40 yards per return. That should send a shiver up the spine of any Bama fan who has observed the Tide's woes in kick/ punt coverage. The time to get the return game on track is this weekend, as gaffes against Berry and the Vols could prove costly. It'd be a shame for the Bama offense and defense to execute against the Vols, only to have a litany of special teams mistakes doom the outcome. It is a very real possibility without improvement, as the special teams have put the team in tough spots throughout the season. This is not the week for sloppiness, as the Vol special teams are one of the only elite things about the team from Knoxville this season.

In a storied rivalry the likes of the Third Saturday in October, things like turnovers, missed field goal attempts and explosive kick returns can be daggers in the heart of the losing team. Those types of factors are great equalizers that give lesser teams life and fire, thus swinging the momentum and giving the underdog a fighting chance of winning. While Alabama has the better overall team, the Tide can be undone by petty errors in judgement and failure to execute at 100 percent.

Yes, Alabama should beat this Tennessee team going away...but then again, the same was true in Kiffin's only year in orange in 2009. That eventual National Champion Tide team was dramatically better than the upstart Vol squad they faced, and yet it took a memorable miracle at home for the Tide to emerge victorious.

Could that same type of outcome be in the cards for this Saturday? Will the Tide's resurgent title hopes be squelched at BDS by another upstart pack of Volunteers playing for pride and recognition? Or will Alabama transfer its dominance on the road to the familiar confines of Tuscaloosa? Can the Volunteer offense do the unthinkable and execute its running attack against the best run defense in the land? Or will Alabama pitch a shutout over its outclassed foes from the north?

We'll find out Saturday evening...until then, hope for the best.