Scouting the opposition: Jason Witten

When Tennessee gets the ball in the hands of tight end Jason Witten good things happen for the Vols, therefore he's a critical player in Saturday's showdown with the Alabama Crimson Tide.

That truth was vividly illustrated during last season's game in Tuscaloosa when Witten caught a 21-yard scoring pass after the Tide had seized a 17-14 advantage in the third quarter. Alabama overcame a 14-3 deficit and appeared to have all the momentum until Witten caught Casey Clausen's pass at the goal line and withstood a blast from a Bama DB to score the go ahead TD.

Stopping Witten will be a major challenge for the Alabama defense. (GettyImages)

Witten finished the day with a career-high seven receptions for 91 yards in what was a breakout performance for the 6-5, 265-pound sophomore from Elizabethton, Tenn.

He improved on that day with a six-catch, 125-yard effort against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. That groundbreaking game included a 64-yard touchdown in which Witten split Wolverine safeties and won a race to pay dirt.

That was the day Witten truly arrived as a major talent, and he was soon being projected as a first-round NFL Draft choice should he choose to come out early next spring. Witten's 2002 season (21 catches for 249 yards) hasn't quite followed form to this point. However, he leads the Vols with four touchdowns and pulled down the 25-yard game-winner in the sixth overtime of Tennessee's victory against Arkansas.

He also caught a 48-yard post route earlier in the Arkansas contest and threw the clearing block on Jabari Davis' 58-yard TD gallop.

Two weeks ago, Witten dove in the back of the end zone to scoop up a low throw by tailback Derrick Tinsley and close the gap on the Georgia Bulldogs to 18-13. Otherwise, he's been limited by extra defensive attention teams have been able to afford because the Vols complementary wideout has yet to emerge.

Witten tries to break a tackle in the 2001 SEC championship game. (GettyImages)

With Clausen expected to be back at the controls and Kelley Washington back near 100 percent, Witten will have a chance to shine on Saturday. And with his outstanding size and 4.59 speed, he's a walking mismatch for most defenses. Ultimately, he is most effective if Tennessee can establish enough of a running threat to make play-action passes effective.

Additionally, the Vols O-line has to provide time and protection enough for Witten to work the deep middle zone behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties.

Witten presents a big target in the red zone and near the sticks. Clausen will look for him when the Vols need a key first down or a score. So will Alabama's defense.

The game may hinge on who finds Witten first.

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