On Saturday, Neyland Stadium will see 102,455 fill the seats for the annual game between rivals Tennessee and Alabama. While there will of course be plenty of Crimson in the stands, the majority of folks in orange are hoping to witness their Volunteers pull off the school's first win over a top five opponent since 2005.
With a fan base hungry for a reason to celebrate, Kiffin on the sidelines (or up in the box) and a chance to ruin Alabama's playoff hopes while taking a giant leap towards bowl eligibility, what a time it would be for the Volunteers to snap an 18-game losing streak to top five opponents.
Let's make one thing clear. Tennessee might need Amari Cooper and possibly all of Alabama's defensive line to miss the bus to feel real confident about getting a win on Saturday. The chances of improving their record to 4-4 are not great but still for the thousands of fans that will be attending and the millions watching at home, here are a few reasons to still have a little optimism.
1. It's not the toughest defense the Vols have faced
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian knows his offense will be challenged tremendously again this Saturday. “Last week we faced the number two defense in the country, these guys are only number three, so we expect it to be a little easier,” Bajakian said sarcastically.
Tennessee might have been lucky to put three points on the board against Ole Miss. The offense ran 15 plays where they needed more than 10 yards for a first down. Now with Justin Worley questionable to play, the offense hasn’t exactly improved in seven days.
With that said, Bajakian did acknowledge that the Vols were a couple plays away and maybe just one from changing the way that game went.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney agrees.
“The thing that’s glaring for us,” Mahoney said. “As (Butch Jones) would talk about, it’s one or two guys away on a given play of being a good play. It’s a lack of execution from us upfront.”
This week, maybe the line executes just a few times to allow a big play. MaybeMarquez North catches that big pass. Maybe this week the quarterback doesn’t throw three interceptions in opposing teams territory. Maybe this week other “what ifs” become big plays and the Volunteers are able to move the ball for multiple scoring drives.
Maybe this week, those momentum swinging plays will go Tennessee's way.
2. Luck is bound to change
That segues into the second point. Tennessee has had many unlucky breaks in 2014.
A fumble in the end zone cost the Vols a win against Georgia. Florida got a game-winning field goal with zero seconds on the play clock from a kicker who was 4of 13 and had never made one from that many yards out. Last week, Tennessee saw the ball bounce off of the hands of receivers and defensive backs that are usually dependable. Of course, the worst of their luck has been the numerous amount of injuries.
“I feel I haven’t been living right, or something.” offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. “I don’t know what’s going on. When Marcus went down in the game I said you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me right?"
It’s been a whole lot of that this year but eventually luck has to change.
Jacob Gilliam is back on the offensive line and Tennessee will be asking a lot out of the senior missing an ACL.
Coach Mahoney says Gilliam will slide over into the right side of the ball and will have to play many snaps due to the other injuries to the offensive line this year.
“He’s determined to play this year," Mahoney said. “Guys like that are guys you enjoy to come work with.”
3.The defense can keep it close
Alabama has four running backs averaging nearly 5 yards or more per carry. They have a quarterback who is rushing for over five and a half per attempt and is just as deadly throwing the ball as long as it’s thrown somewhere in the vicinity of Amari Cooper.
“He’s fast, he's extremely quick he’s athletic,” Jancek said of Cooper. “He’s got great ball skills. He can stop on a dime. He can start on a dime. Really just a dynamic player. I mean he’s awesome. He’s a great player."
Seeing last week’s scoreline has probably struck fear into some Volunteer fans. If they saw where the Tide led 52-0 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, maybe a little more fear but Tennessee’s defense is far greater than Texas A&M’s. The Aggies have given up nearly 40 points per game in SEC play while the Vols' defense has been one of the best in the conference.
Cam Sutton will have the duties of staying on Cooper and hope no one else beats them in the secondary.
“Cam is very confident,” said Jancek. "I trust Cam with everything we ask him to do. Having a player like Cam Sutton, period, is good."
Against a similar styled quarterback, Tennessee’s defense forced six 3-and-outs on the first seven drives. They only allowed first half scores on a play that followed a third and five conversion and a play that followed a fourth down conversion.
This week, Tennessee will have to slow down a team with a much stronger rushing attack and might have to get a defensive touchdown or three.
The odds are against Team 118 but this is not David versus Goliath. They will have the crowd on their side, ready to erupt at any second. IF Tennessee can find a way to pull this off…the goal post are coming down for the first time since 1998.