We've seen several different views on this matchup this week, from the insanely optimistic to the depressingly realistic. The latter was written by SB Nation's Bill Connelly, who provides the best possible blueprint for beating the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately, as Joel pointed out yesterday in our stat-heavy preview, Tennessee isn't the best possible team to execute that blueprint.
But that won't keep us from trying.
So here they are, the five things Tennessee should do to give themselves the best possible chance on Saturday night. How successful the Vols are will determine how interested you are in watching as the game wears on...
1. Focus on containing Trent Richardson
This should be a surprise to no one - "Sell Out Against The Run" is the first point Connelly makes in his assessment, and given that Alabama is 12th nationally in rushing offense but just 72nd in passing offense, they're not hiding their strength.
And why would you if you had a back like Richardson? His 130.29 yards per game are fourth nationally and best in the SEC by fourteen yards over the now-lost Marcus Lattimore. Last year only Knile Davis and Cam Newton averaged more than 100 yards per game in the SEC, both just barely getting there. This year Richardson is the best offensive player in the league and it's not even close.
Here's what's brutal about trying to contain Richardson, especially if you're Tennessee: he gets so much stronger as the game goes on.
In the first half of games this season, Richardson has 363 yards at 4.91 yards per carry, including nine runs of 10+ yards. In the second half of games this season, Richardson has 549 yards at an insane 9.47 yards per carry, including thirteen runs of 10+ yards. Your defense will get tired. He won't.
Two years ago the Vols gave themselves a chance in Tuscaloosa by committing to stop the run. In that game, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Roy Upchurch combined for just 114 yards on 27 carries; it was Greg McElroy's running that really hurt the Vols.
Is Tennessee's defense good enough for something similar this time around? The Vols used this blueprint against Georgia and LSU - Isaiah Crowell had just 58 yards and his worst per-carry average of the season (3.05), and LSU running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford combined for just 115 yards on 28 carries, almost identical to what Alabama's stable got in 2009.
But in taking away a team's tailback(s) against Georgia and LSU, two different problems emerged, and both could be a factor in Tuscaloosa.
We're trying to keep these rational, so while of course it would be nice if the Vols got, say, five sacks on A.J. McCarron, the fact that UT hasn't been able to pressure the quarterback and Alabama has only given up 11 sacks in 7 games leads me to believe it's not going to suddenly happen Saturday night.
That means what went wrong against Georgia will again be on the table: Tennessee's defense pushed up to stop the run, A.J. McCarron with time to throw, and the Vols in single coverage downfield.
The good news here is, unlike Georgia, Alabama basically has one receiver and A.J. McCarron isn't as polished as Aaron Murray. Marquis Maze leads Alabama with 34 catches for 376 yards this season. The next closest player in both categories is Richardson, who has just 15 catches for 179 yards.
After a rough showing against LSU, Marsalis Teague is expected to be benched in favor of preseason All-SEC Prentiss Waggner, who will return to corner from free safety. That'll put pressure on true freshman Brian Randolph to step in at safety, but the greatest responsibility in stopping Alabama's pass game should fall on Waggner and Izauea Lanier. If Bama tests us deep, can we keep them from cashing in? Tennessee's pass defense has been stronger this year even without Janzen Jackson and with only one interception on the year. Bama shouldn't look to open it up a bunch downfield, but when they do, the Vols need to avoid the big plays that have broken their defense in every game this season.
3. Keep drives alive
What killed Tennessee against LSU, even when they effectively contained Ware and Ford, was Jordan Jefferson's running in the second half (14 carries, 73 yards). A.J. McCarron can't hurt the Vols that way, but Richardson in the wildcat could. Either way, the Vols had no chance to do anything because they got annihilated in time of possession by a difference of sixteen minutes and twenty total plays.
So the absolute best way to keep your defense fresh and tackle ready? Keep them off the field.
You know who leads the SEC in third down conversion percentage?
We do, at 54.32%. The Vols were pretty decent at it against LSU, going 4 for 10. But here's what effectively ended each of Tennessee's drives against the Tigers:
- 3rd and 4 dropped pass by Da'Rick Rogers
- False start penalty on 4th and 1
- 3rd and 2 dropped pass by Zach Rogers
- Matt Simms interception at the LSU 6
- Devrin Young 7 yard loss on first down (the play that's been discussed this week after he got his bell rung on the kickoff)
- Matt Simms interception at the LSU 35
- Tauren Poole touchdown
- Kneel, end of first half
- Tauren Poole loss of 7 on option check at LSU 30
- Incomplete pass on 4th and 8 at LSU 35
- End of half
Tennessee wasn't straight up dominated by LSU's defense by any means. Almost every single drive ended because the Vols beat themselves. When Tennessee couldn't sustain drives by their own mistakes - be it a dropped pass, an interception, or a poor playcall - the defense goes right back out on the field. The more tired they got, the less effective they were, and the less opportunity the offense had to respond.
I believe Tennessee's defense is good enough to do their part against Alabama's offense early on. Tennessee's offense needs to make sure they sustain drives and keep the defense as rested as possible to give them a chance to do so in the fourth quarter. If Alabama's defense is able to do what LSU's couldn't and simply dominate us the entire game, so be it - there's no shame in losing to the number two team in the country. But if the Vols find a way to move the ball the way they did last week, they need to get out of their own way and keep drives alive as long as possible. I can take getting dominated by a great defense much better than beating ourselves with drops, penalties, and poor decision making.
4. Take the right chances in the passing game
Matt Simms isn't necessarily an interception-heavy quarterback, but he's thrown some very costly ones: the pick six against Oregon, an end zone interception against Florida, and the two last week with the Vols desperately searching for any momentum.
You want him to manage the game and not make any mistakes against Alabama. However, as was the case last week, Tennessee could use some big plays and Da'Rick Rogers is a big play guy. The Tide have also been vulnerable to the deep ball here and there.
So if Simms is going to take chances, they need to be the right ones. The expression we used to use with Crompton was, "Johnny, don't be a hero." The Vols could use a heroic moment or two from Matt Simms - which we've also seen before against the Gators and at LSU last year - but he needs to minimize risk and maximize reward.
5. Be mature
Last year Tennessee played with Alabama in the first half before the same old same old reared its ugly head in the second half: missed tackles, offensive mistakes, and a complete inability to handle adversity. As a result, Bama turned a 13-10 halftime game into a 41-10 blowout, the largest Crimson Tide win in Neyland Stadium history.
Again, Tennessee had their chances to stay with LSU last week. But dropped balls, dumb penalties, and questionable playcalls took it away from them. Tennessee is not good enough to be the less mature team against anybody, let alone Alabama.
If luck is on our side, then Bama will be relaxed with the news of LSU's suspensions this week and perhaps not at their best. Turnovers, as always, would be helpful. Maybe we'll catch a few breaks.
But even if we don't, Tennessee needs to learn to fight through adversity for sixty minutes regardless of the outcome. They have to avoid penalties that kill drives, and they have to stay strong defensively in the second half. In a game like this one, you can't even entertain the thought of keeping it close if you can't be sure you can play for sixty minutes. The Vols will need to survive early to give themselves any chance to surprise late. Some of the pieces were there against LSU, but Tennessee gave them away or couldn't put them in place offensively, and eventually the defense simply gave out. Has Tennessee made progress in the last seven days? Can the Vols be better against Alabama than they were against LSU?
Either way, for the rest of this season and the trajectory of Derek Dooley's career, the Vols have to keep fighting. It's possible that everyone wearing orange on Saturday will face no greater challenge in their college careers than this Alabama team in Tuscaloosa. It's the steepest of mountains to climb. But it can also be a tremendous growth experience if this team attacks it with not only their hearts, but their heads. Be smart. Help yourself instead of hurting yourself. Stand tall against the greatest adversity yet...and fight back.
Because that's what I want to see the most on Saturday: carry the fight to Alabama and keep it there for sixty minutes.