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Most Important Vol: Alabama

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Our writing staff makes their picks for this week's most important player.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Will Shelton - Darrin Kirkland Jr.

There are many match-ups here where it just seems unrealistic to expect somebody to have a career day when the opponent is Alabama.  Many of Tennessee's most talented players will be challenged by the most talented counterparts they've seen so far this year.  But of one thing I am fairly sure:  Alabama is going to run, and Tennessee is going to need to tackle well to give themselves a chance.  And so one of the places I'm most optimistic there can be improvement on that front is with our freshman middle linebacker.  Kirkland is fifth on the team in stops, but for the Vols to finish strong this year they need to make more tackles in the front seven and less with safeties struggling to make plays in open space or having to run guys down.  So off a bye week and having already seen Arkansas and Georgia, perhaps Kirkland can help this effort improve against Alabama.  We're not going to shut these guys down.  But if the Vols are in it late, you will probably be thinking to yourself, "You know, we haven't missed as many tackles today."

Incipient_Senescence - Todd Kelly Jr.

We've seen Lane Kiffin against John Jancek twice (2009 and 2014), and they were both pretty ugly for the defense. Both times, he took a mediocre quarterback and was able to exploit matchups in the secondary to rack up buckets of yards through the air. We know that Tennessee has a strength at one corner and a weakness at the other (and at nickel). We can expect that Kiffin is going to hit Tennessee's weakness pretty hard. So we need the safeties to play an A+ game, lending support where needed and preventing the big play. Alabama has struggled to drive the field slowly, and Tennessee has been good at preventing long drives. If the Vols can prevent the big play as well, they have a real chance in this game. And to prevent big plays, they need Brian Randolph and Todd Kelly Jr making smart and athletic plays to cover the weak spots in pass coverage--and maybe even grab a pick or two--all while being strong in run support. Kelly is a sophomore, but he's a great athlete with loads of potential. If there's any time to play the game of his life, it's this week.

Nathanael Rutherford - Evan Berry

Will the running ability of quarterback Joshua Dobbs be vital to Tennessee's success against Alabama on Saturday? Absolutely. Does Tennessee's defense need to be able to contain Alabama's best players? Definitely. But the one phase of the game the Vols may actually have an advantage over Alabama is in the special teams, and it's that edge that makes Evan Berry the most important Vol against the Crimson Tide. Berry has already returned two kicks for touchdowns this year, and Alabama doesn't have an air-tight coverage unit on either kick-offs or punts. Berry may not return one for a score against Alabama, but he has the ability to do so. Even if he can't his ability to rip off big returns will put Tennessee in better position on offense more consistently than the Vols have done any time during the current 8-game losing streak to the Tide. His importance cannot be undervalued for the Vols this weekend, and in a game full of play-makers, Berry could end up making some of the biggest plays.

Charlie Burris - Josh Dobbs

For Tennessee to have a real chance at winning in Tuscaloosa, Josh Dobbs has to have a great game. He not only has to have a great game but the best game of his career. He has to be able to throw the ball vertically, he has to be able to make plays with his feet, he has to run the offense masterfully. He can't turn the ball over and he can't take sacks and anything less will likely come up short. It's a tall order to fill but it's possible. Dobbs shouldn't feel real pressure to perform at this level because, let's be honest, it's Alabama, nobody is expecting a win. But the fact is, Astro Dobbs has to play at an astronomical level for the Vols to pull out a victory against the Tide.

Hunter Turner - Kyler Kerbyson

As Will pointed out the other day, almost all of Alabama's losses under Nick Saban have been to teams with exceptional quarterback play-- Florida (Tebow), Texas A&M (Manziel), and Auburn (Newton) all trotted out Heisman Trophy winners to defeat the Tide. Of course, teams led by Heisman Trophy winners defeat most of the teams they face, so it's far more interesting to consider the other teams that have defeated Alabama in the same stretch of time, the ones led by quarterback non-entities like Stephen Garcia (South Carolina), Brian Jefferson (Utah), and Trevor Knight (Oklahoma). What all of these other teams have in common is offensive efficiency-- the ability to pick up positive yardage on first- and second-downs, avoid negative plays, and stay out of long yardage third down. Football Study Hall measures offensive efficiency with two statistics: Leverage Rate (how often you're in long yardage situations, measured by dividing short yardage standard downs by all downs) and Success Rate:

A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

For example, a team that picks up 5 yards on first-and-ten or 7 yards on second-and-ten is staying on schedule and will have a high success rate, while a team that picks up 10 yards on third-and-eleven will not. It's easy to grasp how offensive efficiency affects defensive playcalling-- it's harder to defend teams in short yardage situations than obvious passing downs.

How important is it to stay on schedule? As noted by SB Nation's Bill Connelly, ten of the twelve teams that have defeated Alabama since 2008 have ranked in the top 20 nationally in Success Rate (chart from Bill C.'s article linked above):

Year Opponent Success Rt.+ rank
2008 Florida 1
2010 Auburn 1
2014 Ohio State 1
2015 Ole Miss 3
2011 LSU 4
2012 Texas A&M 4
2013 Auburn 9
2010 South Carolina 12
2008 Utah 13
2014 Ole Miss 19

So here's the bottom line: if the Vols want to beat the Crimson Tide for the first time since Coach Fulmer was forcibly retired, Tennessee's offensive line needs to open holes in the running game and keep Josh Dobbs from feeling too much pressure in the passing game. I could have picked any of the starting offensive linemen for the Vols, but it starts with left tackle Kyler Kerbyson-- if he can keep Alabama's horde of pass-rushing outside linebackers from getting to the quarterback's blind side, Dobbs will have the chance to make plays downfield with his legs and arm.