Game Preview: Alabama vs. Tennessee
Sat 24 Oct 2009 • 3:30 pm ET • Bryant-Denny Stadium • Tuscaloosa
Tennessee rolls into T-Town on Saturday, fresh from a bye week. Alabama looks invincible after leap-frogging Florida in the AP poll to the nation’s number one team. Tennessee is trying to rebuild a depleted program. Alabama is trying to build a dynasty. Tennessee’s coach is hated as a loud-mouthed fraud. Alabama’s coach is hated as a narcissistic liar. If you wear the orange, you hate the crimson. If you don the crimson, you hate the orange. Yankees-Red Sox. Lakers-Celtics. Packers-Bears. Canadiens-Maple Leafs. Manchester United-Liverpool.
For those who thought that this rivalry had lost its spark, I believe Saturday will give evidence that it is back in full voice. Whatever it is – Lane Kiffin’s request to wear orange in enemy territory, or the festering residual of Fulmer’s snitching – I haven’t felt or heard this level of disgust out of the Crimson Tide supporters over our fair Big Orange in several years. Seems like old times. Glad things are back to normal. I was afraid there for a while that we were going to make nice.
Given this landscape – if it is possible to maintain a shadow of objectivity about Saturday’s game – let me try to give a neutral perspective on what to look for on Saturday.
The Vols and the Tide may have more similarities than distinctive characteristics. Important similarities in both strengths and weaknesses.
Both programs rely on the running game as their offensive strength. Alabama sophomore RB Mark Ingram has developed into a Heisman Trophy candidate by gaining almost 1,000 yards so far this year. He is a one-man wrecking crew – a straight north-south kind of runner that reminds you of Jim Brown at times. He’s the leading rusher in the SEC and the 4th-ranked RB in the nation. Tennessee has Montario Hardesty, who seems to dominate not so much like the terminator power of Ingram, but by his scampering, knuckle-balling style punctuated with an incredible will to finish every run by gaining a couple more extra feet as if they were worth a ticket to paradise. And both Ingram and Hardesty have quality aids in Trent Richardson and Bryce Brown to give them some rest while not rendering the running attack impotent.
So sit back and enjoy the show. It should be fun to watch what are arguably the two best runners in the SEC. But give the advantage to Alabama. Just more dominating.
The Crimson Tide and the Vols also excel in their defensive exploits. Objective number one for both sides is to stop the other team. ‘Bama is the number one ranked team in the nation in Total Defense. Tennessee is 13th. For Alabama, their defending the pass and the run are equally dominant. The Vols’ strength is notably defending the pass as opposed to the run. Which doesn’t bode well against the Tide. Last week, Gamecock QB Stephen Garcia was at his best when in a play action/rollout scheme. So was Jonathan Crompton two weeks ago in his stunning performance against Georgia. Look for Tennessee to employ the same.
But, advantage here goes to Alabama. Bigger, and more balanced.
Nice to know that Alabama actually has a soft spot. Last week against South Carolina, QB Greg McElroy at times appeared pretty confused and rattled by the Gamecock defense. Watch Monte Kiffin’s Vol defense try to do the same with different looks, stunts, and blitzes. Similar to the Old Miss game, McElroy never really looked comfortable against South Carolina. In fact, he at times can remind you of Jonathan Crompton at his worst. And that’s saying a lot.
But advantage here also goes to Alabama. If McElroy and Crompton are about the same quality (with an edge here to McElroy), the Tide wins the comparison via strength of wide receivers. The Vols receiving corps finally put on a good performance two weeks ago, but Bama’s crew is better. I’ll take WR Julio Jones over any of the Tennessee pass catchers.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
Looks like if everything else was equal, Alabama is two scores better. So, it’s up to special teams to make this something other than a predictable 10 to 14-point ‘Bama victory. Better or worse.
Let’s start with kickoff returns. Tennessee ranks 10th in the SEC. ‘Bama is 7th. But if ‘Bama played against Tennessee’s kickoff coverage squad every week (two KO’s returned for TDs this season already), they might be the conference’s number 1 KO return squad. Advantage ‘Bama.
How about punt returns? Tennessee ranks 7th in the SEC. ‘Bama is 1st. Ouch. Advantage ‘Bama once again. From what I’ve seen of Nu’Keese Richardson and even Dennis Rogan trying to return punts, I’m very nervous. Richardson’s decision-making has been nothing short of atrocious – balls bouncing between his legs, indecision. And Rogan trying to make an over-the-shoulder catch, but instead having the ball bounce off his shoulder pads, doesn’t make one comfortable even with his experience.
In a game as big as Saturday, I would consider having Eric Berry return punts. He is sure-handed, and his running ability, especially in heavy traffic, is first-class. At this point, Richardson is a game-ending train wreck waiting to happen. Rogan is a proven quantity. So, mix Eric and Dennis. That is, if we can make ‘Bama punt a few times.
So if ‘Bama gets my advantage rating in all these facets of the game, how does Tennessee stand a chance on Saturday? Big plays. That’s it. That’s the only possibility. Fumbles. KO/punt returns. Interceptions. If those things go heavily in the Vols’ favor, we have a close game, even a Vols win. A shocker. IT CAN HAPPEN. But if they don’t, you’re looking at a ‘Bama win by about two TDs. And if ‘Bama gets advantages in the big-play category to go along with everything else, you’re looking at a big Crimson Tide blowout. Ugly.
Who’s Gonna Win?
Since I don’t take turnovers into consideration when making game predictions (that is until I change my mind on that policy – at my whim), I’m relegated to profound suffering via watching a decisive defeat in T-Town at the hands of the hated Bammer. The success against Georgia will look like a distant memory, and Crompton will be back in our collective dog house. And we’ll be looking at needing 3 of the last 5 to break even. Bummer. But expected.
Alabama 34 Tennessee 21
This Week’s Games Involving Upcoming 2009 Opponents
Saturday October 24
- Arkansas at Mississippi (12:21pm ET)
- Vanderbilt at (23) South Carolina (7:00pm ET)
- Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky (7:00pm ET)
Tuesday October 27
- East Carolina at Memphis (8:00pm ET)
This Week’s Games Involving Past 2009 Opponents
Saturday October 24
- Kent State at Ohio (2:00pm ET)
- Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee (3:30pm ET)
- UCLA at Arizona (6:30 pm ET)
- Auburn at (9) LSU (7:30pm ET)
- (2) Florida at Mississippi State (7:30 pm)
- Georgia – BYE WEEK
Thanks to Chris Lowe at ESPN.com, here is this week’s SEC TV schedule.
- Arkansas at Ole Miss, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network/ESPN Regional
- Tennessee at Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
- Vanderbilt at South Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
- Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Net
- Florida at Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2
- Auburn at LSU, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2