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October 18, 2007

Alabama-Tennessee: How they match up

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John Parker Wilson played his best game of the season, according to coach Nick Saban, against Ole Miss last week (26 of 40, 265 yards). Tennessee's defense has been unusually vulnerable this season, particularly in the secondary, and it's not a stretch to think Wilson can post another strong effort against the Volunteers. Given Alabama's struggles defensively the last two weeks, it's especially important that Wilson not commit any turnovers. Wilson has climbed to fifth in the SEC in passing yards per game (216).


Tennessee's Erik Ainge has turned nearly all the doubters he faced early in his career in working toward his second impressive season in a row. He leads the SEC in passing yards (259 per game), and ranks third in pass efficiency (140.8). Ainge has completed two-thirds of his passes with a 4-1 TD-INT ratio. His ability to connect with "hot" receivers on blitzes has been a major key in his success. He has been well-protected all season, and could have a big day against an Alabama secondary that has struggled of late.


The stability of lineup on the Crimson Tide front has been rocked of late as personal matters have cost guards Marlon Davis and Justin Britt a game each over the last two weeks. Both are back now, but problems at right tackle have re-surfaced and three different players got reps at the position during individual drills this week. Overall, the line has blocked well through the shuffling, especially in the running game.


The UT front is led by Josh McNeil, who tallied an impressive 10 knockdown blocks against Mississippi State a week ago. The Volunteers center will key the UT rushing attack between the tackles. As a group, the Tennessee line averages 300 pounds and has allowed only two sacks of Ainge all season. In fact, UT's line carries a streak into the Alabama game of 218 consecutive pass attempts without a sack. Tackles Eric Young and Ramon Foster get much of the credit for that.


Terry Grant showed his explosiveness again last week after quiet performances against Houston and Florida State. His role in the offense continues to vary depending on the week. Glen Coffee has shown impressive dependability until two fumbles last week that could affect his playing time against the Volunteers. The beneficiary could be Roy Upchurch, who has averaged 6.6 yards per carry in a third-string role this season. As a trio, the Grant/Coffee/Upchurch combination is already approaching 1,200 yards for the season.


Tennessee's Arian Foster has taken over the lead role among Volunteers running backs, something he'd not yet done as of last year's Tide-Vols matchup. The 225-pound junior ranks sixth in the SEC in yards per game at 89.0, including a 5.5-yard average. Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker have settled into spot roles and both have averaged more than four yards per carry. Coker has been dangerous out of the backfield with 124 yards and two touchdowns on only six catches.


For the moment, talk of Alabama's receiving corps begins and ends with DJ Hall. The senior ravaged the Ole Miss secondary last week with 11 catches for 140 yards, and ranks fifth in the SEC in both yards per game (82) and catches per game (5.3). Though he's not had the year UT's Lucas Taylor has had, Hall is more experienced and has blistered Tennessee twice already in his career (10-139 in 2005, 7-102 in 2006). Matt Caddell has become a good third-down option, while tight end Nick Walker has developed into a solid two-catch-a-game guy.


Tennessee's Lucas Taylor has developed into the go-to receiver Vols fans weren't sure they would have in the absence of graduated draft pick Robert Meachem. Taylor leads the SEC in receiving yards per game (103) by a wide margin (15 yards more than No.2-ranked Earl Bennett. His 186-yard game against Mississippi State last week was his best effort of the season, though he was held under 60 yards by both Florida and Georgia. John Briscoe and Austin Rogers have taken on regular roles behind Taylor. Tight end Chris Brown leads the team with five touchdown catches.


The Crimson Tide's noseguard combination of Lorenzo Washington and Brian Motley will have its hands full against UT standout center Josh McNeil. End Wallace Gilberry has found his pass rush groove the last two weeks (two sacks each against Houston and Ole Miss), while the other end spot has been shared by Brandon Deaderick and Bobby Greenwood. Deaderick has provided more of a pass rush, while Greenwood, when healthy, is more reliable against the run.


Fortunately for whoever plays UA's troubled right tackle spot, UT pass rusher Xavier Mitchell is having an off year in the sack department at left end (zero so far). In fact, Robert Ayers leads the Vols in sacks (3) while the team has compiled a disappointing eight in that category. The dominant tackle presence that can usually be found on Tennessee's defensive front hasn't been there this season. Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams man the inside spots with help from J.T. Mapu.


Alabama's linebacking corps made perhaps the play of the game against Ole Miss last week when Ezekial Knight intercepted a pass and returned it inside the Rebels 10. In his first year starting at linebacker, Knight has emerged as the big-play man in the unit. Inside linebackers Prince Hall and Darren Mustin had a rough go in allowing more than 130 yards to Rebels RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis last week, while true freshman standout Rolando McClain has seen his playing time sink of late.


Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rico McCoy lead the Volunteers in tackles with 82 between them, and have provided the most stable play anywhere on the UT defense. Mayo is a preseason All-SEC pick, although some believe McCoy has had the better season. Ryan Karl starts at the other spot and has broken up six passes this season. McCoy and Karl are undersized but give the Vols impressive athleticism. Tennessee's reserves have seen limited action at linebacker.


Alabama's secondary has been picked on the last two weeks, although it has come up with enough interceptions to help save victories in both games. Safety Rashad Johnson is an excellent run supporter who has developed in coverage nicely and is tied for the SEC in interceptions (four). All-SEC CB Simeon Castille has intercepted a pass in each of his last two games. Watch for Alabama to spend excessive time in its nickel package Saturday, which will mean more action for Lionel Mitchell.


UT's pass defense has been one of its major problems this season as the Vols rank 12th in the SEC in pass defense. Watch for Tennessee's best defensive back safety Jonathan Hefney to provide heavy support to whichever cornerback draws the DJ Hall assignment. Hefney is far more experienced than the rest of the UT secondary. Freshman CB Brent Vinson could be an early target of the Alabama offense. Freshman safety Eric Berry has been more impressive than Vinson, but his lack of experience remains a concern for UT.


The Alabama return game remains a step ahead of its kicking game for the time being. Javier Arenas exploded again last week for 71 punt return yards on two attempts, and broke a long kickoff return as well. Kicker Leigh Tiffin connected on two of three field goals last week, while punter P.J. Fitzgerald is averaging under 40 yards for the second year in a row. UA's punt protection unit allowed a block last week, its first of the season.

Special Teams

UT punter Britton Colquitt ranks among the best in the SEC at 43.4 yards per try, while its new kicker, freshman Daniel Lincoln, tops the SEC in field-goal percentage at 92.3 (12 of 13). Lincoln's performance has been one of the Volunteers' most pleasant surprises. UT's return game hasn't been as strong as Alabama's this year, but Jonathan Hefney burned UA on punt returns in Knoxville a year ago, and averages seven yards per return this year.


Prediction: Alabama 30, Tennessee 24

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