October 20, 2006

BOL Breakdown: Alabama at Tennessee

The Alabama Crimson Tide (5-2, 2-2 in SEC) heads to Knoxville in search of its second win in a row over the Tennessee Volunteers (5-1, 1-1 in SEC). The Tide snapped a three-game losing streak to the Vols last season with a 6-3 victory in Tuscaloosa.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier provides an in-depth look at this week's match-up.

Alabama running game vs. Tennessee run defense: Despite having to replace all three starters, linebacker play has been a strength for the UT defense. MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Jerod Mayo and SLB Ryan Karl rank among the Vols' top four tacklers. But these aren't the same Tennessee defensive tackles that played a large role in limiting UA to rushing yards in last year's meeting. Jesse Mahelona is now in the NFL and Justin Harrell is out for the year after sustaining a biceps tear in UT's 31-30 win over Air Force. Harrell played against Florida one week later before undergoing season-ending surgery. The loss of Harrell forced the return of Turk McBride to tackle.

Edge: In rushing for 272 yards in his last two games, Kenneth Darby appears to have regained much of his old form. There is concern, however, behind him. Jimmy Johns is battling an ankle sprain, which means Tim Castille might see increased reps at halfback this week. Granted, it came against one of the weaker defensive lines Alabama will face this season, but from a run blocking standpoint, the Tide's offensive line turned in what might have been its best performance of the season in the win over Ole Miss. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama center Antoine Caldwell and guards Justin Britt, B.J. Stabler and Marlon Davis vs. Tennessee defensive tackles Matt McGlothlin, Turk McBride and J.T. Mapu.

Alabama passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense: DJ Hall has four-straight games with more than 100 receiving yards. Tennessee's defense has not given up a 100-yard day to an opposing receiver this season. John Parker Wilson has thrown for more than 200 yards in each of his seven starts this fall. Only once this season has the Tennessee defense given up more than 200 yards passing (Cal) in a game. It will be difficult for Hall and Wilson to continue their streaks if Keith Brown (knee) can't go this week. Should Brown miss, Will Oakley would probably be next in line, with Matt Caddell and Nikita Stover getting time in UA's three- and four-wide receiver sets.

Edge: The Vols lost starting corner Inky Johnson to a severe shoulder injury in the same game that Harrell went down. Antwan Stewart was moved from strong safety to fill in for Johnson, and while he's not the cover guy Johnson is, the senior does have two interceptions to his credit this season. Jonathan Wade (two interceptions) is solid on the other side, but safety Jonathan Hefney is the standout back here. His three interceptions lead the team and he's second in tackles with 48. With Stewart sliding to corner, Demetrice Morley has taken over at strong safety. He's an aggressive player who will bust a coverage from time to time. This isn't an exceptionally deep secondary. Outside of third-and-long, the Tide won't see much nickel from the Vols. With Brown's status uncertain, this one is even.

Key match up: Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson vs. Tennessee free safety Jonathan Hefney.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Slip screen to DJ Hall.

Don't be surprised if: Darby gets 25 carries for the second week in a row.

Tennessee running game vs. Alabama run defense: The success of the Vols' passing game has overshadowed their inability to run the ball with the kind of authority UT fans have grown accustomed to. Tennessee ranks ninth in the SEC in rushing offense. The offensive line lost four starters -- including both guards and the center -- from a season ago. Tailback Arian Foster went down with an ankle sprain early in the season and is just now getting back to full strength. While Foster was out, LaMarcus Coker put together back-to-back 100-yard games in wins over Marshall and Memphis and emerged as a big-play threat. The two backs compliment each other well, with Foster serving as Mr. Inside to Coker's Mr. Outside. Look for the Vols to lean more on Foster between the tackles this week against Alabama's 30 defensive package.

Edge: Though it has struggled out of the starting blocks, Alabama's defense has done a good job of shutting down the run in the second half of each of its last two games. With Tennessee spreading the field more than ever before, cornerback/nickel back Simeon Castille won't be able to commit to the run this week. Prince Hall continues to show signs of becoming a very good player. Now he needs to string two good games together. Even.

Key match up: Alabama linebackers Prince Hall and Juwan Simpson vs. Tennessee tailbacks Arian Foster and LaMarcus Coker.

Tennessee passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: Apparently, David Cutcliffe is a sports psychologist in addition to being an offensive coordinator. Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge still makes bad decisions from time to time, but they're not coming with the same frequency as a year ago. In taking a lot of the thought process out of the passing game, Cutcliffe currently has Ainge playing at a high level. Of course, it doesn't hurt that a talented (and previously underachieving) group of receivers have all decided to play well at once. The Vols are going to tight end Chris Smith a good bit as well, as evidenced by his 16 receptions through six games.

Edge: For Alabama this week, it starts with tackling. The short passing game has been very good to UT in its first six games. Time and time again, Robert Meachem has taken short hitches and crossing routes and turned them into big yardage. Meachem's running mate, Jayson Swain, has been hobbled by an ankle sprain and will likely be limited this week. Ainge has a tendency to be wild early in games, so it's vital that Tide defensive backs and linebackers make him pay for his mistakes. A pick or two in the first quarter would likely signal a return of the down-in-the-mouth Ainge we saw a season ago. Edge to UT.

Key match up: Alabama corners Simeon Castille, Ramzee Robinson and Lionel Mitchell vs. Tennessee wide receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith.

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe's first play call will be: Zone play to Coker or Foster.

Don't be surprised if: Tennessee keeps it on the ground more than it has in any other game this season.

Special Teams: Neither of these teams excel in the return game. Tennessee is eighth among SEC teams in punt returns (7.0 ypr), while Alabama is 11th. The Tide ranks seventh in the league in kickoff returns at 20.8 per return, while Tennessee (16.2) is 11th. The Vols' gave up a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and an 86-yard punt return for a score in their win over Georgia.

Edge: While Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt's net average (35.1 yards) took a beating against UGA, he does have a gross average of 47.2 yards. For Alabama, punter P.J. Fitzgerald comes into the game with a net average of 34.8 yards, which places him ninth among SEC. After keeping Ole Miss from reaching its own 20-yard line on the Rebels' first two kickoff returns, a 35-yard return followed by two kickoffs out of bounds by Jamie Christensen set the visitors up with good field position from the second quarter on. With the SEC's top-rated offense on tap, that can't happen this week. Edge to Tennessee.

Game prediction: It will take a complete team effort to get a win on the road against one of the nation's top teams, and pulling the trick starts with seniors like Ramzee Robinson, Kenneth Darby and Juwan Simpson. If you're truly one of the better players at your position in the SEC, this should be your kind of game. Other than that, the formula is the same as it was in previous road trips to Arkansas and Florida. If the Tide can avoid a quick start by the home team, it will be in the game in the fourth quarter. Tennessee 24, Alabama 20.

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