By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 18, 2011
When Tennessee comes to Tuscaloosa Saturday, the Volunteers will do so as three-touchdown underdogs or more, and conversation among national pundits is centered not on a potential Vol upset, but rather will Tennessee keep the score respectable.
Sleeping on Tennessee would be a mistake; the Volunteers have decent talent, certainly better than Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. But Tennessee also has injury issues throughout its depth chart, and back-to-back losses to LSU and Georgia have shaken UT’s confidence. It doesn’t help the Vol psyche that Alabama just finished burying Ole Miss, turning The Grove into a Nutt-flavored cemetery.
Alabama is trying to get to its off-week before facing LSU the first Saturday in November. Tennessee figures to be fired up to play its chief rival, but a canyon-sized gap in talent threatens to make this game into a snoozer if Alabama is hitting on all cylinders.
Both teams employ versions of the pro-set attack. Tennessee’s is more traditional, based in the I-formation, but the Volunteers haven’t displayed good balance. Tennessee is ranked 25th in passing offense, good for 2nd in the conference, but only 114th in rushing offense and 72nd in total offense. Injuries at the running back position haven’t helped, and Tennessee will also be without QB Tyler Bray for this game. Alabama counters with its Ace-package-based attack that spends more time in the Pistol and shotgun sets than under center. Alabama leads the conference and is 12th nationally in rushing, 4th in the SEC and 72nd in passing, 14th in scoring offense and 24th in total offense. Recently, Alabama has just about done whatever it wants to on offense, and is fully healthy.
Matt Simms will start for Tennessee. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of quarterback Simms is, but to this point in his career, “capable backup” has been the extent of it. Simms has ability, but doesn’t seem to have enough to push him over the top in most comparisons. So far this year, he’s only 11-of-28 (39.3%) for 185 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Tyler Bray had thrown for 14 touchdowns before being injured, albeit against weak opponents. Simms has decent size, a decent arm and decent mobility, but is not outstanding in any way. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is fast establishing himself among the top quarterbacks in the league. He’s been deadly efficient the last few weeks, and on the year is 117-of-174 (67.2%) for 1,380 yards, 9 touchdowns and 2 picks. McCarron isn’t as thick as Simms, but he has a better arm and makes better decisions. With Bray out for Tennessee, Simms’ backup is a true freshman, Justin Worley, who has yet to attempt a pass. Phillip Sims (17-of-26, 65.4%, 153 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) backs up McCarron for Alabama. With Bray out, it isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
Tauren Poole has bravely fought through injury and gives Tennessee a quality back in its backfield, but like Simms at quarterback, Poole is not outstanding in any one area. He has carried 97 times for 395 yards (4.1 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, which puts him in Heisman territory relative to Tennessee’s overall rushing numbers. The Volunteers at least have multiple bodies to back him up in the event he is hurt again. Raijon Neal is a familiar name; Tom Smith and Marlin Lane less so. Lane is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry on 43 totes. Scatback Devrin Young got some work against LSU last week and will likely see more this week. Tennessee has a pair of quality fullbacks, Ben Bartholomew and Channing Fugate. They don’t carry the ball, but both are good blockers and accomplished receivers. Alabama counters with the inimitable Trent Richardson, who is now waging a full-on campaign for the Heisman Trophy. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler back him up, with Blake Sims providing depth. To put things into perspective, Richardson has rushed for nearly twice the yardage of the entire Tennessee team. Nothing more needs to be said. Advantage: Alabama
When superstar Justin Hunter went down with a torn ACL, completing passes got a lot harder in the Tennessee universe. Da’Rick Rogers (35 catches, 576 yards, 16.5 avg., 6 TD) is still a formidable force due to his physicality, however. Tennessee is still searching for a reliable complement to Rogers, as Zach Rogers, Raijon Neal, DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas are working at the position. Arnett and Zach Rogers look like the most promising options so far. JUCO transfer Mychal Rivera is now the team’s second-leading active receiver, and he starts at tight end. Rivera is a good pass-catcher but lacks bulk, and his blocking skills are suspect. Brendan Downs backs him up. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze, tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley, and receiver-by-committee. Maze actually doesn’t have eye-popping stats (34 catches, 376 yards, 11.1 avg., 1 TD), at least not in terms of yardage per catch, but he has the speed to take the top off the defense. Darius Hanks has become an important cog since his return to the team in Week 3. DeAndrew White, Brandon Gibson and Kenny Bell continue to rotate through the third spot, with Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood also in the mix. This is a tough call given that Rogers is clearly having the best year of anyone, but Alabama has better depth now and Williams and Smelley do more things at tight end for Alabama than Rivera does for Tennessee. A very close call here. Advantage: Alabama
Very shortly, Tennessee will have one of the conference’s best offensive lines. Center James Stone and the tackle combination of Dallas Thomas and Ja’Wuan James should all end up playing in the NFL. The current weakness is at guard, where Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard have been inconsistent, and in depth, as Tennessee has very little. JerQuari Schofield is really the only quality lineman off the bench, and the rest of the positions are backed up by freshmen. An injury anywhere along the line would be a problem. Alabama counters with William Vlachos at center, Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker at tackle. Depth is in good hands, with Alfred McCullough and John Michael Boswell at guard, Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at tackle and Kellen Williams at center. Alabama’s line started the season off slowly, but has picked up steam as of late. Bama pass-blocks a little better than Tennessee, but holds a large lead in run blocking, and there’s no question which team is deeper. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee operates from a straightforward 4-3 alignment, making Derek Dooley one of the few Nick Saban disciples not to employ a Jack-style linebacker in a 3-4 over/under scheme. Injuries may be partly to blame, as Tennessee – albeit thin on the defensive line – is even thinner at linebacker. The Volunteers rank 69th in rushing defense, 24th in pass defense and 63rd in pass efficiency defense. The Vols are 43rd in total defense and 44th in scoring defense. Alabama’s numbers in the same categories? 1st, 5th, 2nd, 1st and 1st.
Not only has Tennessee struggled to stop the run, the Volunteers rank only 90th in sacks. In a 4-3 setup, that means the defensive line isn’t getting the required push up front. The tackles, especially Malik Jackson, are solid (Daniel Hood starts next to Jackson). The ends leave a lot to be desired. Ben Martin and Jacques Smith are not considered playmakers, and depth behind them has been disappointing. Willie Bohannon, Marlon Walls and Jordan Williams have underachieved. Jackson is the only real star on the line, a two-time first-team all-SEC selection. The problem for Tennessee is there is no one behind either him or Hood that is close to being as effective. Junior Maurice Couch and sophomore Joseph Ayres are the top reserves along with Corey Miller. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle flanked by Jesse Williams and Damion Square. Nick Gentry provides a spark at nosetackle off the bench, while Undra Billingsley, Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson back up the end positions. All are having solid seasons. The line is arguably the weakest part of the Tide defense, if you could call anything a “weakness,” and it’s still in much better shape than Tennessee’s unit. Advantage: Alabama
An ankle injury to Herman Lathers really hurt this group for Tennessee. Since Lathers’ departure, true freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt have been left to carry the load along with senior Austin Johnson. The freshmen have promise, but are missing too many assignments at the moment. Senior Daryl Vereen gives Tennessee one experienced player off the bench. Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and Dontavious Sapp are also available. Alabama counters with Dont’a Hightower, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley in the middle, with Courtney Upshaw at Jack and Jerrell Harris at strongside backer. Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard back up the outside, while Trey DePriest is available inside along with Chris Jordan and Tana Patrick. Tennessee has talent, but Alabama has far more of it and is more experienced. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee has questions at cornerback, where the Marsalis Teague has been unimpressive and the position opposite him has been unsettled. Izauea Lanier, Justin Coleman and Art Evans will all split time there, and no one is better than the other two. Safety is also an issue, where Prentiss Waggner doesn’t like contact and Brent Brewer is still learning the ropes. Rodriguez Wilks and Brian Randolph, a freshman, provide depth. Alabama counters with the cornerback trio of Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner and the safety trio of Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery. Once the first defensive series is over, Alabama seems to shut everything else down; expect Tennessee to follow Ole Miss’ and Florida’s lead and try to hit a cheap one early. All jokes aside, Alabama’s secondary is as aggressive as Tennessee’s is tentative. No comparison here. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee is 52nd in punt returns and 33rd in kickoff returns, and surprisingly for a school that produced a veritable assembly line of Colquitts at one time, is dead last in the conference (110th nationally) in net punting. Placekicker Michael Palardy has missed one extra point and is 6-of-9 in field goals. Alabama counters with Jeremy Shelley at kicker; his range is similar to Palardy’s, but Shelley has been more accurate. Punter Cody Mandell hasn’t been Ray Guy by any stretch, but he is better than Matt Darr has been for Tennessee. The only area where Tennessee holds an advantage is in kickoff coverage; the Volunteers are 6th in the SEC, while Alabama is dead last. But that isn’t enough to give Tennessee the edge. Alabama is 17th in punt returns and 12th in kickoff returns thanks to Marquis Maze, which pushes the Tide ahead. One point to watch this week is whether Cade Foster will continue to kick off for Alabama after suffering a concussion against Ole Miss. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories, although special teams is close and wide receiver is really a push. The Tide controls both OL-DL matchups by comfortable margins.
Perhaps the biggest advantage is in turnover margin, where Alabama is 20th nationally and Tennessee is just 93rd. The Volunteers haven’t protected the football and haven’t made nearly enough plays. Most of the problem is due to a lack of playmakers, stemming from a general lack of talent, and now the Vols are without their trigger man, Tyler Bray.
It’s almost inconceivable that the Volunteer program has fallen so far in terms of total talent. Under former coach Phil Fulmer, Tennessee never lacked for talent and always seemed to play downhill and with a purpose. The shoe is clearly on the other foot now. Tennessee is a mid-pack SEC team, while Alabama looks like a NFL factory.
About the only thing that could get Alabama in trouble is if the Crimson Tide gets caught looking ahead two weeks to LSU. Tennessee would dearly love to derail its rival’s prospective national title bid, as it nearly did in 2009, but the Volunteers probably don’t have enough horses to pull off the trick. Look for the game to be close in the first half before Alabama’s superior depth allows the Tide to pull away after the half.
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