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Tennessee vs Alabama: Building an Upset

It's Friday. Time to start believing.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama has blitzed Tennessee so thoroughly these last seven years, progress wouldn't be difficult tomorrow.  This is Alabama, so there are no moral victories.  But if you're looking for optimism, consider how the current line - opened at 15.5, now around 17-17.5 - matches up with the last three years during the seven year itch:

  • 2007:  Tennessee -1 - Alabama 41-17
  • 2008:  Alabama -5 - Alabama 29-9
  • 2009:  Alabama -14 - Alabama 12-10
  • 2010:  Alabama -16 - Alabama 41-10
  • 2011:  Alabama -30 - Alabama 37-6
  • 2012:  Alabama -20 - Alabama 44-13
  • 2013:  Alabama -28 - Alabama 45-10
The one exception to the rules of Alabama victory and Alabama covering was the last time Lane Kiffin stepped foot in this rivalry.  The Vols were close at halftime in each of Derek Dooley's first two seasons but completely blown away in quarters three and four.  And the last two years have gotten out of hand real quick fast.

While we still can't mark progress overall for the Vols with wins and losses, being more competitive has been a slow but consistent move up the ladder.  Consider how long it's taken elite opponents to run up a three-score lead on the Vols the last two years:

  • 2013 Oregon:  24-7 9:53 2Q
  • 2013 Alabama:  21-0 0:28 1Q
  • 2013 Missouri:  17-0 6:35 2Q
  • 2013 Auburn:  41-20 14:45 3Q
  • 2014 Oklahoma:  27-7 12:25 3Q
  • 2014 Ole Miss:  24-3 1:50 3Q
Of course, the leads seem much bigger when your offense isn't scoring touchdowns.  And when your starting quarterback seems questionable at best, any ideas of pulling the upset get put in an even more dark and mysterious place if you have to go to the guy you want to redshirt and/or the guy you really want something good to happen to because every time he's played in a meaningful game something bad has happened.

So let's talk about things other than quarterback, because we don't know about Justin Worley's health and we really don't know about the other two guys.  We'll see.

One common factor in Tennessee's streak-busting games?  Strike first.

Not like 3-0 against the Gators this year when that's all you can get for an entire half and your inability to get more starts hanging over you like a curse.  Something more emphatic.

We'd take it, of course, but it doesn't have to be Peyton Manning to Joey Kent for 80 yards on the game's first play.  When the Tide broke the seven game streak that started on that night in Birmingham, they started by running a fumble back 68 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.  Shawn Bryson went to the house from 57 yards to score the game's first touchdown against the Gators in 1998.  Georgia got on the board first in 2000 to help end Tennessee's decade-plus streak, then four years later freshman Erik Ainge led the Vols to a touchdown on the opening drive by converting 4th and 1 and 3rd and 9 for the score, an 18 point underdog showing, every once in a while, it does happen.

For every reason, Tennessee needs to strike first.  For an offense that both can't get behind Alabama and hope to catch up and hasn't scored a touchdown in its last two SEC games.  And for a crowd that spent all of the Florida game waiting to exhale and is instead still holding its breath.

Scoring first would lift the weight and give confidence, real and irrational, to the team and the crowd.  And Tennessee's defense has to be starving for something to work with.

What Tennessee's defense has done this year has decimated every expectation.  17th nationally in yards per play allowed.  12th nationally in passing yards per attempt allowed.  Fifth nationally in tackles for loss per game.  Eighth nationally in third down conversions allowed.  10th nationally in red zone attempts.

Last week the Vol D was good enough to give Tennessee a chance.  Ole Miss punted on its first seven drives, six of them three and out.  That's plenty of time and plenty of field position for the offense to take advantage, despite any of its myriad woes.  But instead the Vols could only make it 3-0, then started turning the ball over.  We will beat no one with a -4 turnover margin.  The sacks are still going to happen, of course.  But what happens if Tennessee just protects the football?

It was Kiffin on our sidelines who always mentioned turnover margin as the game's most important start.  This year the Vols are level, 14 giveaways and 14 takeaways.  But the timing of the giveaways has been catastrophic:  two end zone INTs against Oklahoma, a red zone fumble and a scoop and score at Georgia, the game's three most important plays against Florida, and another red zone pick and a fumbled kickoff last week.

What if Tennessee just cleans it up, even a little?  Remember this question not just this week, but especially in November.

Being so close but losing so often with so many people in a football town watching your every move, you start getting the pressure Butch Jones has referred to this week.  Young kids trying to be perfect instead of trying to play.

But you don't have to look any further than Tennessee's defense to see an example of kids just playing, and playing well.  They're not burdened with a new system like in 2012, not burdened with having to do too much like in 2013.  Defensively the Vols have weapons at every position, they trust each other, and they simply all play their part.

The parts are newer on offense, broken in in all the wrong ways so far this year.  But hopefully, Neyland Stadium will help put the pressure on an Alabama team that has played poorly on the road this year and ease the burden of a Vol offense that desperately needs something good to happen.

And so it starts there.  Just one good thing to start.  If there's anything left in the kitchen sink, this is the week.  Butch threw it at Georgia last year and it got us to the finish line.  One good thing.  Who knows where it can go from there?  Get something good early.  Put down the burdens of previous weeks and previous years.  Just one play.  I don't think it's wrong to say one big play could change so much for this offense.

The hill is tall.  The Vols have been close.  Play loose, strike first, protect the football, and ride your defense as long as you can.

No matter what's happened so far this year or in the last seven years, 102,455 are still coming.  There is no Saturday more special than the one with Alabama standing on the other sideline.  When that T opens up, hope will be resurrected once again.  Let's see how long we can keep it alive.

Beat Bama.