The last time we played this game, the Vols faced a team bent on Old Testament fire and brimstone, did so one week after our quarterback played arguably the worst game of his storied career, and walked away with some comfort in only a ten point loss.
This time, the number one team in the land bears no specific hatred towards Tennessee and Lane Kiffin, just the general kind that defines this rivalry. We meet on the heels of inarguably the best game of our quarterback's storied career. And this time, there will be no moral victories.
Tennessee was shaky going towards Gainesville, and the best we could do was to indulge curiosity. Heading to Tuscaloosa, Tennessee has found a reason to believe in itself and its new coaching staff. And this time, we've traded curiosity for opportunity.
Look...Alabama is a tremendous football team. They're not ranked number one because everybody's pulling for them or because of their coach's magnetic personality. Their defense is probably the best in all of college football, and their running back might be also. Playing at home as a team that's looking for their 20th consecutive regular season victory against this Tennessee team, there is simply no logical reason believe that the Vols are the better team. I do think Alabama is going to win - I wouldn't pick against this defense except under unusual circumstances, and I don't see them this week - and while I don't think the Tide is going to roll by +16.5, I think it strains the boundaries of journalistic integrity (or whatever we're going for here) to look at the matchups and then pick an outright Tennessee victory in this game, even for Vol fans.
However...unlike the Florida game, I'm excited about the opportunity to be wrong.
You know who I think is expecting victory? This Tennessee team.
I can't speak for the team or the coaching staff, I'm not in the meetings or on the practice field. I don't know if they truly went to Gainesville expecting to win or not, though I do think that by the second quarter they had reason to believe in themselves.
But this time, the tone is different. This was a team that hadn't won a big game in two years, and was looking for something to believe in. They found it against Georgia, a game that offered tangible proof that this team under this new leadership can win. And there hasn't been any evidence since to disprove it.
For the first time in who knows how long, Tennessee is a confident football team. And confidence is a very valuable thing.
They'll have a chance on Saturday to take that confidence and create an opportunity to do something more. We've had too many close losses already to indulge another moral victory, but at the same time, what do we have to lose? No matter how much Alabama may win by, I feel like this team, coaching staff and fanbase would be right back on track as long as the Vols beat South Carolina at home next week. There's no shame in losing to the number one team in the country, and I think we'll all be understanding of that fact as long as the Vols win the games they are supposed to win (and Carolina in Knoxville falls under that banner).
The Vols are a confident team playing with nothing to lose against their biggest rival. I like how that sounds. I like how that feels.
Here's what else I'd like:
Good Crompton gets on the plane to Tuscaloosa, Evil Crompton stays home
Look, I'm just happy that we can finally use a good/evil metaphor with our quarterback, now that we've seen the other side of Mr. Hyde.
Crompton doesn't need to go for 310 and 4 TDs again this week - as we mentioned last week, performances like that at this university are few and far between if you're not Peyton Manning. In fact, merely an above average performance from Crompton (read: no turnovers) would actually bring some welcome balance to his whole journey, because right now Good Crompton plays like Manning and Evil Crompton plays like...well, Evil Crompton is really still just Regular Crompton until we see more evidence.
Even after the Georgia game, I think it's still true that Crompton can't win the game for us on Saturday, but he can absolutely lose it, especially against this defense. One of the things I'm most curious about will be the offensive gameplan and early playcalling: with the exception of the Florida game, in spite of Crompton's struggles the Vols have come out firing every single week. Are we going back to the cloud of dust offense because of the quality of the opponent this week, or will Crompton get a chance to unleash the fury again? And if so, will he unleash it on us or them?
If we do employ more of the cloud of dust strategy - and Kiffin did have Johnny Majors address the team this week, so look out - then I'd also like to see:
Montario Hardesty outrushes Mark Ingram
Is this really such a crazy thought?
I know Mark Ingram has entered the sacred realm of Jack Bauer this week in Tuscaloosa - he was the lightning that hit Ben Franklin's kite, according to the Roll Bama Roll Podcast last night - and hey, I think he's great at what he does.
But our guy has been pretty special too.
Montario Hardesty has played well in every single game this season, currently averaging 112 yards per game with seven total touchdowns. Underappreciated stat: the SEC has four of the top twelve RBs in the country, including Ingram and Hardesty, plus Ben Tate and Anthony Dixon.
Last year, Hardesty carried the ball 8 times for 12 yards against these guys. Last time a Tennessee back ran for 100 yards against Alabama? Travis Stephens, 2001. In the seven years since, here's what the Vols have done:
- 2002: 26 carries, 59 yards, 2.3 ypc (L)
- 2003: 41 carries, 209 yards, 5.1 ypc (W - remember, five overtimes)
- 2004: 34 carries, 63 yards, 1.9 ypc (W - still good enough to beat Spencer Pennington)
- 2005: 35 carries, 109 yards, 3.1 ypc (L)
- 2006: 21 carries, 57 yards, 2.7 ypc (W - Erik Ainge 302 passing)
- 2007: 19 carries, 103 yards, 5.4 ypc (L - got too far behind to keep running)
- 2008: 21 carries, 36 yards, 1.7 ypc (L - Clawfense)
This is a new coaching staff, obviously, so comparisons to what previous teams have done aren't as valid. Which is just as well, because those numbers are horrific. But it's also just as well that we keep overlooking Hardesty, because his perseverance and performance when no one believed in him have been incredible. This may be his toughest test, but he hasn't disappointed us yet.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's defense is no slouch: 13th nationally, and allowing only 110 rushing yards per contest. If Alabama lines up and tries to run right at us, I like Tennessee's chances. I'm much more concerned about the Vols' ability to deal with some of the different looks Alabama might bring - Ingram got the ball a lot out of the shotgun and pistol sets last week, and Ben Tate had a field day on UT's defense when they were less prepared for what was coming.
The best way Tennessee can negate Alabama's potential advantage in the running game is:
First Downs, Field Position & Time of Possession
While I like Tennessee's chances to stop Alabama's running game straight up, I don't like those chances if the defense is gassed and needs a stop in the fourth quarter. Ingram (and don't forget about everyone else back there - Trent Richardson is averaging 5.4 per carry to go with Ingram's 6.7) will wear on a defense all day long, and if Tennessee's offense can't buy the Vol defense time to rest, three yard runs become eight yard runs become backbreaking touchdowns.
The Vols have to avoid three and outs like the plague. And something else I think is a good point, which Hooper mentioned when we talked at halftime of the Auburn game, is that a better stat to watch is total plays, not time of possession. Tennessee needs to extend (and finish) drives and run more total plays, keeping the defense rested and ready for whatever Ingram has for them.
As for field position, Joel's got your complete breakdown here from yesterday.
Greg McElroy & Turnovers
The joke about Crompton and McElroy's Freaky Friday experience has only been valid for one week. McElroy wasn't great in wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss, but he wasn't truly Cromptonesque until last week: 10 of 20, 92 yards, 2 INTs. That's incredibly similar to Crompton's line vs. UCLA.
Before that, McElroy had his moments against a good Virginia Tech defense, then did what quarterbacks are supposed to do against the defenses of FIU, North Texas, and Arkansas (before last week). His struggles were noteworthy against the Cats and Rebels, throwing for 148 and 147 yards in those two games respectively...but he didn't throw any interceptions, didn't come close to getting his team beat, and has only thrown three picks and taken eight sacks all season.
I think the real McElroy is the one we've seen the last three weeks - meaning I doubt he goes for 250+ against the Vol defense. Given that, Tennessee's defense needs to press him (part of which is containing Ingram) into making more of the bad decisions that led to his two interceptions. If the Vols blitz, they need to get him - the last quarterback Tennessee sacked was Tim Tebow. Like Crompton, I don't think McElroy can win the game for Alabama...but he can lose it.
Alabama's Arrogance & Tennessee's Confidence
Any chance the Tide are overconfident and/or overlooking the Vols? Bama has every reason to be confident...but there's a fine and important line between confidence and arrogance.
There's an off week between Saturday and the Saban Bowl on November 7. A team that's won 19 consecutive regular season games is clearly consistent. However, a team that's won 19 consecutive games is also more apt to take one here and there less seriously...especially when the world at large has already booked Alabama and Florida for Atlanta.
I think Saban is a great coach who, with the possible exception of Utah, has had his team ready to play every week for the last two years. It's in his emotionless, robotic nature to do so.
Tennessee will be confident, hungry, and playing with nothing to lose. Will Alabama match the Vols' intensity?
Opportunity, she knocks. And the Vols will arrive at the door on Saturday at 3:30, fully aware of how big the moment could be.
Can this team take advantage? This time, I can't wait to find out.