Although they are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss, while in the midst of a 6-year slide versus Tennessee, the Crimson Tide has been upbeat and optimistic about their chances Saturday. Taking a look at the Vol lineup, glaring injuries at several key positions have given Bama fans the idea that this might be the year that the streak ends.
Receivers Kelley Washington, Dante Stallworth, and Eric Parker have all had limited practice this week, with each nursing injuries. The Vol defense is also weakened by the predicted absence of defensive end Will Overstreet. And All-American defensive tackle John Henderson, although slowed recently by an ankle sprain, is expected to start.
Looking ahead to Alabama, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer noted the respect that his defense must have for the young Crimson Tide offense. It all starts, Fulmer says, with the quarterback. "Tyler Watts is a heck of a player as a field general, a runner and as a passer. He will certainly demand a lot of our attention."
A quarterback is little help, however, without talented receivers--a quality that Fulmer also sees in this Alabama team. "The wide receivers, Freddie Milons and Antonio Carter, are excellent players, capable of taking it the distance every time they touch the football. Tight end Terry Jones is probably very unappreciated, or under publicized, at least. He is an excellent football player."
Another aspect of the game that concerns Fulmer is the complex offensive scheme utilized by the Crimson Tide. "The system they've employed there is quite flexible. The option, misdirection all over the place, open sets, and lots of formations will take a lot of discipline and good tough assignment football from our defensive team. They get you chasing the option too much and the play action pass or inside run gets you," Fulmer explained. "It's going to be a heck of a challenge for our defensive football team."
In speaking of his own offense, Coach Fulmer has been impressed with the continued development of his young quarterback, Casey Clausen. Fulmer commented; "I've seen significant progress in (Clausen's) maturing process as we've gone along."
However, he is also quick to note, "Casey will have to continue to play well, manage the game well and make good decisions. We need to be able to be a more complete offensive football team, getting more people involved in what we're doing and getting people back that will be able to help that area, and also getting more young players involved."
Looking at the Crimson Tide defense, Fulmer joins the list of coaches that have been impressed with the speed of Bama's defensive front. "Kenny King is certainly one of the best defensive linemen in this conference, with Kindal Morehead right behind him. They're both excellent players.
"A guy we will have to pay special attention to is Aries Monroe. We put him right up there with Freeney from Syracuse. He's the fastest defensive end we have seen thus far this year."
It should be noted that part of Fulmer's concern over Monroe may rest on the senior's performance in Neyland Stadium last year, when he laid several brutal hits on the young Clausen, and came up one time with Clausen's empty helmet in his arms.
One Tennessee advantage has been much maligned by Bama fans over the last few years--the seemingly guaranteed open date that the Vols enjoy the week before their contest against the Crimson Tide.
"From our standpoint, the open date helped us heal both bodies and souls after the disappointing loss to Georgia," Fulmer said. "I'm looking for continued improvement from our offensive football team, which has made steady progress even in the absence of a number of starters. I'm looking for better discipline and better execution as we go along. Hopefully, we'll end up being the type of offensive team we want to be."
Getting a victory over the Volunteers will not be an easy task for Coach Dennis Franchione's Alabama Crimson Tide, but the pieces are in place for the game to be very winnable. The home teams have had a noted advantage in the SEC thus far this season, with even the "elite" of the conference finding trouble on the road.
This advantage, along with the absence (or limited play) of some key Vol starters, may be enough to let the Tide do what all Alabama fans wish--end that "streak" against the Volunteers of Tennessee.