Five Keys For Tide Vs. Tennessee

Four consecutive ultra-close games have proven that Alabama and Tennessee are especially evenly matched these days. That means the key match-ups will likely play an even bigger role on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.



Eighteen points.

That's all that has separated the winners from the losers in the last four football games between Alabama and Tennessee. The Volunteers have won three of those by differences of 8, 4 and 3 points; the Crimson Tide getting its only win of late by three points.

The 2003 game ended regulation in a 20-20 tie, before a wild series of overtimes resulted in a 51-43 Tennessee victory. The lead changed hands eight times in that game, including five times in overtime.

Tennessee scored just seconds into the 2004 game, converting an Alabama fumble into a 7-0 lead. Nevertheless, Alabama took a 10-7 lead in the second quarter before the Vols scored back-to-back touchdowns and eventually won 17-13.

The 2005 game didn't feature many scoring swings, because it didn't feature much scoring. Alabama finally broke a scoreless tie with a field goal on the last play of the third quarter, forced a late turnover to preserve a 3-3 tie and then got another field goal with 13 seconds remaining to win 6-3.

Then last year, Alabama missed out on several early chances to take a big lead, but still held a 13-9 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. Tennessee scored its first touchdown with 3:13 to play, however, and won 16-13.

All of the above is a roundabout way of saying that the Alabama-Tennessee series has been extraordinarily evenly matched of late, even when the Volunteers appear to have a huge advantage in overall talent (which they have most every year in the last 10). The Crimson Tide has led in the fourth quarter of three of the last four games with the Volunteers, though it has won only once in that stretch.

When games are so close, individual match-ups can often make a huge difference in the outcome. With that in mind, here are five key match-ups to watch in Saturday's Alabama-Tennessee game:

Alabama WR DJ Hall vs. Tennessee CB Marsalous Johnson

Alabama will need to match Tennessee's big-play capability, and will more than likely try to establish the downfield pass early on. The Vols' pass defense has been porous all year, giving up an average of 230 yards per game.

Hall is far and away Alabama's biggest offensive weapon, and has come up huge against the Vols the last two seasons --- even though he doesn't have a touchdown in either game. He's coming off an outstanding game last week against Ole Miss, and seems to be able to get open against anyone.

Johnson is the Vols' most-experienced cornerback, but that's not saying much given that compatriot Eric Vinson is a freshman. At 5-foot-9, Johnson is also on the short end of a physical mismatch with the 6-3 Hall.

Alabama FS Rashad Johnson vs. Tennessee QB Erik Ainge

This game is more than likely to be decided by big plays through the air, and Tennessee is as good as anyone at attacking opponents with the long pass. Alabama's pass defense is only slightly better than Tennessee's statistically, but hasn't faced a passing game this year like it will on Saturday.

Johnson has been perhaps Alabama's defensive Most Valuable Player this season, an incredible accomplishment for a former walk-on running back. He is tied for the SEC lead in interceptions this season with four, and is also a sure tackler who is rarely out of position.

Ainge is off to another fine start, ranking first in the SEC in passing yards per game (259.0) and third in passing efficiency rating (140.8). But he has had three of the worst games of his career against Alabama, including a three-interception effort last year.

Alabama DE Wallace Gilberry vs. Tennessee RT Ramon Foster

Alabama has jumped all the way from last to fourth in the SEC in sacks in just two weeks, on the strength of nine quarterback traps against Houston and Ole Miss. Tennessee, however, has allowed just two sacks this season, including only one of Ainge.

Gilberry has been on a tear of late, with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss the two weeks. He's also adept at batting down passes, something that could in handy given Ainge's quick release.

Foster is a huge (6-6, 325), athletic pass protector who actually started at guard last season. He'll face a smaller, quicker player in the 6-3, 267-pound Gilberry, but that hasn't been a problem for Foster yet this season.

Alabama PR Javier Arenas vs. Tennessee P Britton Colquitt

In a series where the recent games have been so close, the kicking game might be even more important than it usually is. The last two games have swung on big special teams plays --- Jamie Christensen's game-winning field goal two years ago for Alabama and Jonathan Hefney's long punt return for Tennessee last year.

Arenas is coming off one of the best games of his career, with no fewer than three returns that set up Alabama scores. He doesn't have a touchdown return yet this season, but he probably couldn't pick a better game than Saturday for his first one.

Colquitt, the fourth member of his family to punt for the Volunteers, is particularly adept at directional punting. But given the way Arenas piled up the return yards against Ole Miss, Colquitt's not likely to kick the ball anywhere near No. 28 if he can help it.

Alabama coach Nick Saban vs. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer

Both coaches have national championships on their resumes, and each has won two SEC titles. They have met head-to-head just three times due to the league's rotating schedule, with Saban holding a 2-1 advantage, including a 30-21 win in the 2001 SEC championship game.

Saban is very early in his "process" of rebuilding Alabama's program, but I think most people would agree that the Crimson Tide would not be 5-2 at this point had a coaching change not been made. He showed his on-field acumen last week against Ole Miss, racing down the sideline to call a timeout and force a review of the controversial late-game pass that was eventually overturned.

Fulmer's star has slipped in recent years, as the man who once had the nation's best winning percentage has probably been passed by Saban, Florida's Urban Meyer and perhaps Georgia's Mark Richt as the SEC's pre-eminent coach. He may have the league's best pair of coordinators, however, in offensive mastermind David Cutcliffe and underrated defensive guru John Chavis.

Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for numerous print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at creg_stephenson@hotmail.com

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