The Third Saturday in October currently stands in favor of Alabama, 45-38-7. Vol fans are hoping a rivalry built on streaks isn't getting ready to turn fully in the Tide's favor: the Vols won seven straight and nine of ten from1995-2004, but since then Bama has won three of four, two straight and two straight in Tuscaloosa.
The damage that thousands of Tennessee fans did by not showing up was surpassed by what Alabama did on the field in a 29-9 humbling win over the Vols, where apathy danced to the tune of Yea Alabama. For me it was the point where denial turned to anger, and Joel rightfully called us adrift in the Season of Constant Sorrow. It was case in point for both teams, another frustrating and helpless loss for the Vols, and another do-what-must-be-done win for Alabama, who picked up 12 of those along the way to an SEC Western Division title before the bottom fell out in the last five quarters of their season.
The Tide won a championship with John Parker Wilson. Their previous appearance in the SEC Championship Game featured Andrew Zow. Freddie Kitchens before that.
You don't have to be great to play quarterback at Alabama. You just need to be good enough to let the defense carry you the rest of the way. So can Greg McElroy add his name to that list?
Similar to Joe Cox but with an extra year of eligibility, McElroy held off freshman Star Jackson in spring practice, and though the Tide have a slew of young arms behind him, McElroy will have his shot to make this his team.
It helps, of course, when you've got Julio Jones to throw to and a ton of solid options to hand the ball off to.
Jones turned in one of the most dominant freshman WR performances of this or any decade, 58 catches for 924 yards and 4 TDs. Mike "Star Trek Joke" McCoy returns as his partner in crime, and Marquis Maze is still alive after Eric Berry tried to kill him last year. The tight ends are new and Bama loses Andre Smith and 3/5 of the offensive line from last year, but if McElroy can get it to them, Bama has the weapons to not miss a beat.
In the backfield, which do you like? Mark Ingram's 743 yards and 12 TDs? Roy Upchurch's 6.0 yards per carry? Trent Richardson's status as the highest rated incoming tailback not named Bryce Brown? Even without Glen Coffee, Bama's got options and they're all good ones. If McElroy is merely interchangable with JPW, Bama will be just fine - they scored 30 points per game last year. If McElroy is better than the 10-8 TD/INT ratio JPW put up? Look out.
Well...they're really good.
Their numbers from last season are actually better than Florida's: 7th nationally in scoring defense, 3rd in total defense, 2nd in rush defense. And while they don't return the 11 starters the Gators do...I think they'll be just fine returning 9.
The wealth is spread around too: Terrence Cody is back to hold down the middle of the line in Bama's 3-4 defense. Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower are two of the best linebackers in the SEC, with McClain a candidate for the best defensive player in all of college football. Javier Arenas, Justin Woodall and Kareem Jackson all return with starting experience in the secondary.
What's more, Bama's schedule doesn't bring Florida or Georgia calling (or won't unless it's in Atlanta), their marquee non-conference game is against Virginia Tech, a team where the offense is usually the third best unit on the field, and only Ole Miss has readily evident firepower in the SEC West. Which means this defense could be a statistical marvel by the time the season ends.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
Alabama takes them for granted. Tony Barnhart called this the second biggest trap game in the SEC this year, and while I can't imagine the Vols ever taking Alabama for granted, perhaps it doesn't work both ways. The problem for Tennessee against Alabama and Florida isn't just the talent gap between the teams, hostile environments or the dichotomy of what happened in 2008, but the fact that Tennessee's offense that struggled so mightily will be facing two of the best defenses in the country. So as with Florida, the Vols would need to create several turnovers, play out of their minds defensively and simply try and stay with Alabama as the game goes to the 4th quarter. There's no chance Florida overlooks Tennessee this year. Maybe Alabama will be a little more kind.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Alabama blows them out for the third year in a row. That would make it four of five for the Tide, three straight, and would definitively put us back in the late 80s/early 90s, which is not a place you want to be with these guys. It's miserable when Alabama has your number, and another blowout would hand it to them for sure. How much of what happened in 2008 can be chalked up to "we had a terrible year", and how much is the true decline of this program? Three straight blowouts at the hands of your biggest rival would produce tangible evidence that Alabama is vastly superior to Tennessee right now. The Vols need to show up and fight in Tuscaloosa to prevent that notion from becoming reality.
Game Importance Ranking: 8.4
Somehow, with the exception of a comment involving Lance Thompson, the Crimson Tide have avoided the verbal wrath of Kiffin to this point. So while Kiffin has inflated expectations for the equally "unwinnable" Tennessee-Florida game, this one feels like more of an accepted conclusion. I'm sure between now and then Kiffin will do or say something to rekindle the flame with the Tide, but honestly, right now this feels like the fifth or six biggest game of the season. When we're expected to lose on the road against a great team, the home dates with UCLA, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina all feel like more important contests. It's weird to say...but until the Vols improve, they're not holding up their end of the bargain in this rivalry. Looks like we'll be 17 years and counting without these two teams meeting in Atlanta, which still ranks atop my sports bucket list.
Recommended Reading - Roll Bama Roll
Five Players Alabama Can't Afford to Lose (excellent series, all five parts linked in the final piece)