Shula On Tennessee

Alabama Coach Mike Shula knows that Alabama-Tennessee week is big and excitiing and he knows that this year the game is on the road. The game fell for years on the Third Saturday in October until the Southeastern Conference office reworked the schedule to fit with a 12-team league working towards a championship game.

And still the game is familiar as "The Third Saturday in October," Shula said. "Everyone in the South–everyone who follows college football, really–knows you're talking about Alabama vs. Tennessee," he said. "It's a great example of what college football is all about. It's played in a great atmosphere whether in Knoxville or Tuscaloosa and almost always on national television. It's as big as it gets in an out-of-state rivalry."

Alabama will be in Knoxville Saturday–the third Saturday in this October–to face Tennessee in a CBS televised game. Kickoff will be at 2:30 CDT (3:30 EDT).

Shula said, "The game always seems to be close. I don't know what kind of game we'll have this year, but I know you have to be at your best because you'll be playing against real talented players. You have to play with poise and confidence."

Shula said, "We'll have to play better this week to have a chance. We have to do a good job with all their schemes. They present a lot of problems. We'll have to deal with the crowd noise. We'll have to play four solid quarters–offense, defense and special teams. We have to do a better job with penalties."

Although the all-time series is very close (Alabama leads 44-37 with seven ties), there have been periods of one team or the other having long streaks of wins. Shula agreed with that, but pointed out that current players "don't really think about that. They might think about last year. The ones who were in Knoxville two years ago will think back that far."

In his Tuesday meeting with sportswriters, Shula was asked if playing tough road games against Arkansas and Florida would help Alabama this week in Neyland Stadium. The Crimson Tide coach said, "It helps. It would have helped a lot more if we had won those games, though. We talk about where we are and we also talk about where we could have been. We have to do the things we know to do to win games."

Tennessee knows how to win games. Other than a one-point loss to Florida, the Vols have been perfect. Tennessee is 5-1 overall and 1-1 in Southeastern Conference games. Bama is 5-2 overall and 2-2 in SEC games. Tennessee had an open date last weekend.

Shula is aware that Tennessee has rebounded from last year's poor 5-6 season, that included a 6-3 loss to Bama. He said, "Defensively they were good last year and they're good again this year. Last year they had some tough things happen before our game. This year it seems like it's gone the other way. They're a hot team and they have some things going their way.

"They're doing a couple of things differently with the way they run the ball. The key is their quarterback is more efficient. He's trying not to force the ball downfield, he's being more patient. He's matured like a lot of good talented young quarterbacks and he's got a lot to work with with those two wideouts."

The Tennessee quarterback is Erik Ainge and the wide receivers are Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain.

While acknowledging Tennessee's offensive excellence, Shula said "They're playing well on offense, but we think our defense is pretty good."

The Tide coach said that Alabama prepares every week "for what we think we're going to see. This year, particularly, we've been seeing things we haven't expected. You have to have your guys coached well enough to handle that."

He also said Bama has "a little momentum from our win last week."

Tennessee almost always has an open date before playing Alabama, including this year. Shula was asked if that is significant. He said, "It depends. It depends if the week before you have injuries or depends on how your season's going. A lot of times if you're on a roll then you want to keep playing."

Alabama has some injuries with top wide receivers Keith Brown and D.J. Hall and back-up halfback Jimmy Johns nursing injuries. Shula said he thinks all will be limited, in preparation but that the medical staff thinks all will be ready to play by Saturday. Shula called it a balancing act, where the players have to get practice time, but also have to get rest in order to rehabilitate. He said, "Hopefully, all three of them will be as close to full speed as possible. If not, it's that time of year where guys are beat up and we've got to give them a little bit of rest. We want to be smart."

Although placekicker Jamie Christensen has been injured, Shula said "he's fine. He'll be our kicker this week." Last year Christensen kicked two field goals, one in the final seconds of play, in Alabama's 6-3 win. Shula also said that in the event Christensen couldn't kick that he has confidence in freshman Leigh Tiffin.

Shula said that because of the success of Bama wide receivers D.J. Hall and Keith Brown that the Tide has seen "some different coverages in the past few weeks." He said that has sometimes meant a better opportunity for the running game and senior halfback Kenneth Darby "has taken advantage of that."

This week, though, the Tide will be facing very good safeties who are capable of both helping the cornerbacks and playing run support.

Shula said Bama has made an effort "to get the ball into the hands of those guys who make plays, whether it's down the field or a 15-yard throw. We want to get them touches. They have the ability to turn a five-yard completion into a 25-yard completion."

He said the success of the receivers "helps our team. People have to play us differently. It gets our players excited. It helps in play-calling. They are different in some ways, but we are comfortable with both. Both are doing more things better. But they have to prove it every week."

Former Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle said that a Crimson Tide quarterback would be remembered for what he did in games like the Tennessee contest. Shula said that sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson "is not going to try to make a name for himself in this game. He's going to try to win this football game. If that means handing it off 50 times, he's going to hand it off 50 times. He understands how this game is perceived by Alabama fans. It's big."

He said Wilson "prepares really hard. The game means a lot to him. Does he make mistakes? Yes. But he's made some big plays that make you forget those mistakes. We continue to talk about consistency. If he eliminates the minuses, he'll be really good."

With Marc Guillon, the senior back-up quarterback having quit the team, Shula reiterated that redshirt freshman Jimmy Barnes is the back-up quarterback. How much work is Barnes getting? Shula said, "He's our number two and we'll give him the same amount of reps our back-ups have always had. Ideally, you'd like to give more, but there's not enough time. If you did give him more, you'd be taking them away from John Parker, and we can't do that. And you can't be out there all day, either."

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