The Alabama Crimson Tide have dominated on the defensive front, but that defense will face its biggest challenge of the year Saturday night against Tennessee. Alabama should win, but their ability to contain the Volunteers will be a good gauge for what to expect as they begin a daunting four-game stretch.
Alabama lost nine defensive starters from last year’s championship team, but you wouldn’t know it looking at how they have performed thus far.
The Tide are giving up 7.5 points per game. They rank first in the FBS against the pass (average of 125.8 yards per game) and 11th against the run (31.5).
Skeptics would be quick to point out, however, that for a school whose typical trademark is victories over major programs, Alabama has faced a cupcake schedule thus far. Their opponents are a combined 20-19. Games against Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and, surprisingly, Arkansas will help any big-program defense. None of them rank in the top 50 in scoring offense.
Tennessee, although winless in the SEC (and thereby doing little to ameliorate Alabama’s strength of schedule), can score with the best of them. They average 38 points, 299 passing yards and 183 rushing yards a game—a clear balance. On the year, the Volunteers have 225 pass attempts and 229 rushes.
Their total yardage through the first six games of the year is the most in school history over that stretch, as noted by USA Today.
The Vols have been getting it done in the passing game thanks largely to their tall group of receivers. Justin Hunter, who has 497 yards and four touchdowns on the year, is 6’4”, Cordarrelle Patterson is 6’3” and Zach Rodgers is just two inches shorter. Senior tight end, Mychal Rivera, is 6’3” and 244 pounds.
This group has been a major challenge for most defenses, but Alabama is not most defenses. Team interception leaders Dee Milliner, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue have an average height of over six feet—a surprising size for defensive backs.
The matchup between Alabama’s secondary and the receiving core of Tennessee will be one of the most entertaining elements of the game. If the Tide can hold Tyler Bray under 250 passing yards (which, by the way, is still double their yearly average given up), you have to wonder what chance the rest of the nation has.
Unfortunately for Tennessee (and schools/fans across the country who want to know just how good this Alabama front seven is), their leading rusher, Rajion Neal, is doubtful.
However, sophomore Marlin Lane is actually averaging a higher yards-per-carry average. Jesse Williams, C.J. Mosley and the rest of Alabama’s dominating bunch of linebackers and linemen should be careful not to overlook the big back’s ability, although they certainly got a reprieve on this front.
Despite the record of Tennessee, tonight’s game offers Alabama’s defense the opportunity to make a statement that they compare favorably with the ’11 bunch.
The discrepancy between Alabama’s run game and Tennessee’s lack of run defense will make most other elements of this game irrelevant. However, a dominating win could be a much-needed boost for Alabama. The Tide will face three straight Top 20 teams starting next week.