By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 17, 2012
There is a truism regularly applied to the Alabama-Auburn series, and it states that the better team usually wins the Alabama-Auburn game. But the same truism does not apply to Alabama-Tennessee.
There have been plenty of times in recent years when the better team in this series didn’t win. Sometimes, the presumptive favorite even got blown out. And then there are times like 2009, when Alabama was within a Terrence Cody fingertip of losing the game and its national championship hopes in one play.
As Alabama travels to Knoxville to face Tennessee in 2012, there is the anticipation of another Bama blowout in this historic series, and sportsbooks in Las Vegas are certainly buying into the idea. But there is also the realization that this Tennessee team – however soft its defense might look, or how long the odds might seem – has a top-shelf passing attack, a solid offensive line and several years’ worth of pent-up frustration regarding the school’s performance in this series.
Given that Alabama has yet to be tested by a front-line aerial attack in 2012, the correct course of action to take with this game would be one of caution. Alabama is a heavy favorite for a reason, but this game has the feel of a trap game, as Alabama is set to face undefeated Mississippi State and LSU in the coming weeks.
Both teams run a pro-style attack. Alabama’s is a bit more multiple in its setup, with multiple tight end looks and even a zone-read option set it can use with its backup quarterback. Tennessee’s offense bases from the I-formation, but is at its most dangerous when it goes three-wide plus a tight end. Alabama has shown good balance in terms of yards per game (217 rushing, 205 passing), and the passing game is among the nation’s leaders in efficiency, if not total yardage performance. Tennessee has been more potent overall in generating yardage, and far outclasses Alabama in the passing game (22nd nationally vs. 85th nationally for UA) although Alabama has a better scoring average. In summary, Tennessee is the first team Alabama has faced so far in 2012 that can match it point for point in production.
Both teams have stars at the position, and both starters come into the game nursing minor knee injuries. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray has one of the strongest arms around and is an effective deep passer. He is 131-for-217 (60.4%) on the year for 1,730 yards, 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Because of his talent in stretching defenses, Bray is always at least respected, if not feared by opposing defensive coordinators. But there are also questions about his head, and that doesn’t mean he has a concussion problem. Bray has been erratic late in games and when the outcome is in doubt, and hasn’t shown the ability to consistently lead. On the flip side, when he’s on, he’s really on, and he has the wide receiver corps necessary to make those times very uncomfortable for opposing teams. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is 89-of-132 (67.4%) for 1,170 yards, 12 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in 2012. The big question surrounding McCarron, of course, is the status of a knee injury he suffered in the second half against Missouri. McCarron returned to the game and an MRI later showed no damage, but McCarron likes to run more than Bray does and Alabama fans will be holding their breath every time he takes off Saturday. As for the backups, Tennessee’s Justin Worley has more experience than Alabama’s Blake Sims and can run the same playbook Bray can, whereas Alabama shifts more to a zone-read shotgun team when Sims is calling the shots. This category is hard to call because McCarron has done more meaningful things during his two seasons as a starter at Alabama, while Bray has the bigger arm and Tennessee holds the depth advantage. Still, if this is about results, give it to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Again, injuries are the story. Alabama’s injury issues are well-documented, with Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart out for the year and Eddie Lacy still not quite 100 percent after a bout with turf toe. But Tennessee is now in a similar position, as Rajion Neal (112 carries, 500 yards, 4.5 avg., 5 TD) may not be able to go in this one thanks to an ankle sprain. Even if he is playable, ankle injuries are no fun for running backs and he wouldn’t be close to 100 percent. With Neal sidelined, Tennessee would likely turn to Marlin Lane (37 carries, 185 yards, 5.0 avg., 0 TD) and Devrin Young (26 carries, 116 yards, 4.5 avg., 0 TD). Lane has a decent build and can run inside between the tackles, but Young is entirely a scatback and Tennessee would have to devise ways of getting him the ball in effective space. Alabama counters with Eddie Lacy (82 carries, 491 yards, 6.0 avg., 7 TD) and T.J. Yeldon (68 carries, 436 yards, 6.4 avg., 4 TD). Lacy is finally starting to appear close to full-speed, while Yeldon stepped up his game immensely against Missouri. Kenyan Drake adds depth. Tennessee will start Ben Bartholomew at fullback. He has no carries on the year, but has caught 6 passes for 58 yards (9.7 avg.) and 1 touchdown. Alabama uses no fullback. Alabama probably held the edge already, even if Neal were healthy. With him out, it’s no contest. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee is known as a place where receivers go to develop, and the 2012 Volunteer team is no exception. The Vols boast two big, tall outside wideouts in Justin Hunter (35 carries, 497 yards, 14.2 avg., 4 TD) and Cordarrelle Patterson (23 catches, 315 yards, 13.7 avg., 3 TD). Just as important to the Vols’ success has been slot receiver Zach Rogers (17 catches, 284 yards, 16.7 avg., 2 TD) and tight end Mychal Rivera (15 catches, 262 yards, 17.5 avg., 2 TD). Depth, though, hasn’t been all that great, as only Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter have any appreciable stats, and they’ve combined for only 10 catches. Patterson is unique in that he is also the team’s second-leading rusher (11 carries, 214 yards, 19.5 avg., 2 TD). Alabama counters with its top group of Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell and Amari Cooper, with Cyrus Jones, Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson Jr. and Nathan McAlister providing depth. Alabama spreads the ball around more, as Norwood, Bell, Cooper and Christion Jones all have at least 163 yards receiving each, but the Tide’s leading receiver, Cooper, trails Tennessee’s third receiver, Zach Rogers, in terms of production. Tight end Michael Williams has been more of a blocker than a receiver this year, while H-back Kelly Johnson is rarely a target. Brian Vogler provides depth at that position. Alabama’s younger group has a lot of potential and arguably more depth, but Tennessee has three of the most feared receivers in the SEC right now, plus a solid tight end. Advantage: Tennessee
Talk about an interesting comparison: With Alabama, you get overpowering brawn in the running game. With Tennessee, you get one of the best pass-blocking units in the country, as Tennessee has allowed only 3 sacks all year long. Each group struggles a bit with the other discipline. Tennessee has put up good rushing stats (45th nationally), but there are a lot of empty yards in that ranking and the Vols don’t power the ball well when they are required to do so. Alabama, meanwhile, is 25th nationally in rushing and can wear down even a deep defense, but has allowed too much contact on McCarron (77th nationally in sacks allowed). Tennessee will start James Stone at center, with Dallas Thomas and Zach Fulton at guard and Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson at tackle. In addition, the Volunteers have the best sixth man in the conference, Alex Bullard. Alabama counters with Barrett Jones at center, flanked by Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at the tackle positions. Arie Kouandjio fills the Bullard role for the Tide. This one is razor-close, but Alabama will get the presumptive edge, albeit with a huge caveat: Alabama has the better unit IF the Crimson Tide can impose its will in the running game the way it did against Missouri. Otherwise, the Volunteers would have deserved this edge. Advantage: Alabama
Things might have been close up to this point, but here’s where Alabama pulls ahead a bit. Tennessee has struggled defensively this year, against both run (81st nationally) and pass (84th). The Vols do, however, come up a respectable 39th in pass efficiency defense, but are 87th in total defense and a horrific 90th in scoring defense. Such numbers are not acceptable for a SEC team. Tennessee is moving from its familiar 4-3 to a 3-4 over/under alignment, very much like Alabama’s, but the first year of transition is always difficult, especially on this level. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme, meanwhile, leads the nation in all five major statistical categories listed above, and Alabama also leads the nation in turnover margin.
Tennessee is still looking for the right combination, but the one thing the Vols do have going for themselves is depth. Daniel McCullers is the name to watch in the middle, based on size alone (6’6”, 370 pounds). Unfortunately for Tennessee, McCullers has been more James Carmon than Terrence Cody to this point, and as a result, Daniel Hood will see just as much time if not more than McCullers will. Tennessee will also use Maurice Couch both at tackle and end. Corey Miller will start at the other end position, with Steven Fowlkes and former Alabama player Darrington Sentimore providing depth there. Tennessee’s biggest problem this year has been the pass rush, as the Vols are 95th nationally in sacks and the defensive line collectively has amassed just 4 of them. Sentimore has 3 by himself. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle, flanked by Damion Square and Ed Stinson at end, with Jeoffrey Pagan, Quinton Dial, LaMichael Fanning and D.J. Pettway providing depth outside. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake will sub for Williams when needed. Tennessee will get better in time, but Alabama has more muscle at this point. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee is thin here, and depth took a further hit when Curt Maggitt was injured. He probably won’t play against Alabama, meaning either Willie Bohannon or Channing Fugate, a converted fullback, will have to take his place. Maggitt was one of the team’s steadiest players, so his loss will be felt. A.J. Johnson and Herman Lathers are good linebackers, but Tennessee has struggled to get much of a pass rush from either. Jacques Smith, the Jack in this defense, rounds out the starting group. Besides Fugate, the only other backup expected to see playing time is Dontavis Sapp. He and Lathers are both a bit light for a 3-4 alignment, and other than Bohannon as an outside linebacker/end combo player, there isn’t a pure 3-4 linebacker on the team. Alabama counters with Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson on the outside, with the trio of C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest splitting time inside. A lot of Tennessee’s issues are due to the changeover in defensive styles, but Alabama is a bigger, stronger group overall and much more adept at both rushing the passer and providing pass coverage support. Advantage: Alabama
One of the biggest reasons for Tennessee’s struggles in recent years has been the inability of its defensive backs to live up to their recruiting hype. Those problems haven’t abated for Tennessee in 2012. Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman will start at cornerback, with Brent Brewer and Byron Moore at the safeties. Tennessee would seem to have experienced depth on its bench, but both Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague have had their struggles at corner, and Rod Wilks has never made a real impact at safety. Freshman LaDarrell McNeil rounds out the safety group. Alabama will start Dee Milliner and Deion Belue at cornerback, with Robert Lester at one safety position and Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix splitting the other position. With the Vols using so many three-wide sets, expect to see Alabama using three and four safeties most of the day. John Fulton provides depth at corner along with Geno Smith and Bradley Sylve. Alabama will be challenged by Tennessee’s multiple wide receivers, but Tennessee has yet to be a roadblock to anyone’s passing game in 2012. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama backslid a bit against Missouri, but the Crimson Tide’s kicking situation is in much better shape than Tennessee’s. Vol kickers Michael Palardy and Derrick Brodus have collectively missed 4 PATs and another field goal inside 30 yards. Tennessee hasn’t even tried a kick from outside 38 yards yet, and long kicking is not Brodus’ nor Palardy’s specialty. Two of his kickoffs have gone out of bounds this year, which is somewhat of a feat itself given the new kickoff rules. Matt Darr has struggled as a punter, although Palardy has done a bit better in limited work. Tyler Bray is also able to execute quick kicks reasonably well. The one area in which Tennessee is very dangerous is in the return game behind Cordarrelle Patterson. Although the Vols trail Alabama statistically in those categories, Alabama doesn’t necessarily have the edge. Where Alabama does carry the edge, though, is off the feet of placekickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley and punter Cody Mandell. As long as Alabama doesn’t get burned on a big return, the Tide should handle this category easily. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Tennessee in one. But the offensive line category is as close to a tie as we’ve seen it. As for OL/DL matchups, Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its offensive line versus the Tennessee defensive line, while the Tennessee OL/Alabama DL matchup is basically a push.
But where this game will turn will be on the issue of how Alabama handles Tennessee’s receivers. As Alabama hasn’t used a third cornerback yet in 2012, Tennessee slot receiver Zach Rogers will likely find himself matched up against a safety all day. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri must be able to keep the damage to a minimum, or Tennessee will march down the field just as it did against Florida and Mississippi State, two teams with excellent secondaries.
The mere threat of scoring thus puts pressure on Alabama’s offense to keep up. The Crimson Tide running game must get off to a good early start and maintain the intensity, as it will likely take 25 or more points to put this game away. It’s unlikely that Alabama will completely shut down the Tennessee offense; if the Tide manages to do it, it’s hard to see anyone else in the SEC mounting a serious challenge to the Alabama defense.
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