Tennessee wants to become as competitive as Alabama
By Dave Friedman
There was a time that a ticket to the Tennessee vs. Alabama game was among the most coveted in college sports. Since Robert Neyland coached the Vols, and Wallace Wade led Alabama, fans have gone through every obstacle imaginable to see the two powerhouses square off. However, while Saturday’s matchup at Bryant-Denny Stadium will be sold out, it will lack the number of folks wearing orange to which the rivalry has been accustomed. Five straight sub-par seasons for Tennessee since the firing of coach Phil Fulmer has sapped the enthusiasm of Volunteer fans despite a 23-21 upset victory over South Carolina last week. On their fourth coach in six seasons, Tennessee fans returned a portion of their ticket allotment to Alabama earlier this week. Nonetheless, the Vols are playing well, and ‘Bama remains unbeaten, ranked number one, and seeking its third straight National Title.
Last week’s win over South Carolina was the first Tennessee victory over a ranked opponent since 2009. It was their first win over a team ranked among the Top 10 in the coaches poll since 2006. At 4-3, Tennessee is above .500 after seven games for the first time since 2007. First year coach Butch Jones knows where his program has been, and looks at Alabama as the model for where it is headed.
“The one thing you can say about their program is it is what we are building here at Tennessee,” said Jones. “It is based on competition, it is a competitive environment every day when you walk in there; that is what we are building here at Tennessee.”
While the Alabama has won six straight against Tennessee including last years 44-13 victory in Knoxville, the last two weeks the Vols have looked like a different team. After starting SEC play 0-5 each of the last three seasons, this year Tennessee lost a competitive 31-17 battle at Florida September 21, fell to Georgia 34-31 in overtime October 5, and last week clipped South Carolina. Alabama coach Nick Saban sees signs of progress from his rival.
“Tennessee is emerging as a very good football team in the last two weeks,” Saban said. “I think Butch Jones has done an outstanding job there. When a team improves like they’ve improved, it’s always a sign of good coaching, good coaching staff and a lot of people doing a very, very good job”
If the Vols have an Achilles heel, it is turnovers. They gave the ball away six times against Florida, and fumbled in overtime during the loss to Georgia. Tennessee is 3-0 when they win the battle of turnovers, and 0-3 when they have more giveaways than takeaways. When the Vols went 5-7 last year, they were -4 in turnover margin
While turnovers can be hard to predict, most of last season Tennessee struggling in coverage was a foregone conclusion. Last October three quarterbacks set career highs in passing yards against the Vols. However, this season the Tennessee defense has stiffened. Aaron Murray of Georgia and Connor Shaw of South Carolina were held under 200 yards through the air. With 12 interceptions this year, Jones is feeling good about his corners.
“I think they’re playing with a very high level of confidence, but again, we’re going to be challenged [by Alabama,] said Jones “Its all team defense. We were able to generate pressure on the quarterback [against South Carolina], and it goes hand in hand. Great secondary play is usually linked amongst winning up front and winning your one-on-one matchups.”
The Vols will have their hands full with Alabama. The Crimson Tide is averaging more than 40 points a game while giving up an NCAA best 9.7 points per contest. Alabama yielded one touchdown since its 49-42 win over Texas A&M on September 14. Since that game Alabama has outscored their opposition 201-16, and held opponents to just over 225 yards a game. Last Saturday Alabama blanked Arkansas 52-0. The Razorbacks were seven for 25 in passing attempts totaling 91 yards through the air. The Crimson Tide has not allowed a touchdown in any of their four home games this year.
“We pride ourselves on being a tough, relentless defense and we got it done tonight,” said Tide corner Deion Belue following the Arkansas game. “Having a zero at the end of the game is going to feel great. We come in to play great defense”
On offense Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has tossed 14 touchdowns while being intercepted three times and is completing 69-percent of his throws. TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have combined to rush for 1,059 yards and 14 scores while averaging more than seven yards a carry.
The Vols have lost nine straight conference road games. The last time they knocked off the number one team in the country was September 28, 1985 against Auburn.