Here Come the Vols

There’s nothing that intensifies the highs and lows of fandom like a rivalry game.  At least that’s certainly been the case for me as I’ve experienced the Alabama – Tennessee football rivalry over my lifetime.

I stepped into the Tennessee rivalry at a great time – during the 1970s.  The years of my youth were spent dominating the Vols (and many other teams).  My teenage years brought some heartache.  As ‘Bama came back to earth, the Vols (and several others) earned a little payback.  My early adulthood saw the Tide not lose to Tennessee from 1986 until 1996.  And unfortunately, I was there to see Manning and company destroy us.  (However, don’t tell coach Saban, but I did leave before getting a chance to see Peyton direct the band.)

That win by the Vols ushered in a long dark period in this rivalry.  UT went on to win nine of the next 10 and 10 of the next 12 against ‘Bama.  (I threw up a little bit just thinking about that again.)  Folks, that’s hard to endure.  There’s no way to understate this.

And then, just like that, Nick Saban arrives and ‘Bama has reeled off six straight.  The average score in these wins?  34-11.  Under Saban, the Tide has surged and, except for the 2009 game, rear ends have been stomped.  Just the way we like it.

Which leads us up to this game.  The Vols travel to Tuscaloosa this weekend as four touchdown underdogs.  They are a 4-3 team that is statistically near the bottom of the conference in both total offense and total defense.  On paper, this shouldn’t be a contest.  But, they are also a team that is showing some signs of life.  In week three, they traveled to Oregon and were humiliated, 59-14.  A week later, they were beaten by a Florida team we now know is not so good.  A week after that, they barely held off South Alabama.

But then, something changed.  They beat up Georgia before eventually losing in overtime.  After a week off, they came out and found a way to beat a decent South Carolina team.  So, they have some momentum as they roll into town.

Again, on paper, this isn’t a game.

‘Bama is more talented, better coached and is playing at home.  So what happens in this one?  Alabama will win by a score that looks pretty good in the end, but it’ll be a much closer game than the last several.  Here’s what I’m looking for in this one:

* If both teams play their best games, Alabama wins going away.  Turnovers are one thing that changes that, so we don’t need ’em.  AJ McCarron hasn’t historically slung the ball around throwing care to the wind and I don’t expect that here.  T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake need to hang onto the ball.

* The defensive front seven needs a good game.  UT’s offensive line is experienced and is pretty good.  Their backfield alone won’t blow anyone away, but with their big uglies, they can for sure run the ball.  And with enough time, their quarterback Justin Worley can make a play or two.  There’s a rumor or two that a Tide defensive lineman is suspended, so this becomes an even more interesting match up.

* Amari Cooper, we’re looking at you.  The last two games have seen Cooper more involved and looking like his old self.  He’s a playmaker and when he’s healthy, he stretches the field and forces defensive double teams.  When he’s on, the offense is more effective and explosive and we need him to be on.

* I would expect the Tide offense to be very aggressive to start this game.  The Vols have played with a lot of emotion the last couple of weeks and they’ve hung with teams and made it interesting in the fourth quarter.  I would not expect Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to fall into that trap.  Look for ‘Bama to get up early and try to run away from the Vols.

Enjoy the game and Roll Tide!