Winning a football game is kind of like winning a bride. Passion can overcome a lot of shortcomings.
And, make no mistake, Alabama is passionate about beating Tennessee Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Bama's players and fans are convinced Vol head man Phillip Fulmer ratted on the Tide to the NCAA a few years ago, and they blame him for the penalties which have ensued. Thus, the Tennessee game represents an opportunity for vengeance.
Did you notice that Alabama boosters waited until right before the 1999 UT-Tide game to release allegations that Vol quarterback Tee Martin received illegal benefits during his junior year?
Did you notice that the story resurfaced just prior to the 2002 Alabama-Tennessee game?
Did you notice that allegations suggesting Phillip Fulmer broke NCAA rules by helping ex-Vol John Henderson set up a line of credit during his college career came to light just as Tennessee was preparing for this year's Bama game?
So what is the Vols' passion level? Based on the second half of the Georgia game, it's not very high. Once Sean Jones returned a fumble recovery 92 yards on the final play of the first half, padding Georgia's lead to 20-7, the Vols were dead in the water. They were outscored 21-0 in the third quarter before tacking on a meaningless TD in the final minute of play.
If Tennessee is similarly lackadaisical Saturday, the Vols will get hammered... just as they did in last year's Bama game. A fired-up Alabama team rolled into Knoxville last October and thrashed the Vols 34-14 in front of their home fans. Alabama didn't win because of superior personnel or a superior gameplan. The Tide simply wanted the game more, then went out and played with passion.
The same thing could happen again. Alabama has a decided home field advantage in Tuscaloosa, plus the Tide has the added incentive of being backed into a corner. Alabama (3-5) enters the UT game with five losses for the first time in the history of the series. It's a safe bet that Bama will do everything in its power to avoid loss No. 6.
Alabama has more going for it this weekend than passion, of course. The Tide boasts one of the premier tailbacks in college football in Shaud Williams, who is averaging 110.6 rushing yards per game. Anyone who saw Tennessee's futile attempts to tackle South Carolina's Demetris Summers and Auburn's Cadillac Williams in recent weeks knows the Vols are vulnerable to the ground game.
In addition, Tennessee has been incredibly lucky this fall regarding opposing quarterbacks. Fresno State starter Jeff Pinegar missed the opener against UT with an injury. Marshall's Stan Hill lit up UT for three quarters, then missed the final quarter with an injury. Florida was still rotating Ingle Martin and Chris Leak when it played UT in Game 3. In Games 4 and 5 the Big Orange caught South Carolina's Dondrial Pinkins and Auburn's Jason Campbell, two of the SEC's weaker QBs.
Thus, the Vols have faced just one quality quarterback all season -- Georgia's David Greene -- and he picked them apart (22 of 27 for 228 yards).
Bama quarterback Brodie Croyle isn't quite as good as Greene but he's close. Though limited by a shoulder separation, he has a strong arm, good feet and remarkable toughness.
''You can tell he's smart,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ''He may have the best release I've seen, as far as loading it and getting rid of it. He's pretty accurate, and he's doing all of that while being hurt. For a guy playing with a separated shoulder, I can't imagine what he'd be playing like if he was healthy. I don't think people have enough appreciation for him.''
They may change after Saturday night. Croyle could torch Tennessee's secondary, just as Marshall (294 passing yards), Floorida (281 passing yards) and Georgia (228 passing yards) have done already.
Making the outlook even bleaker for Tennessee is the Vols' avowed determination to run the football this weekend. Alabama has a pair of massive defensive tackles (6-7, 345-pound Ahmad Childress and 6-3, 345-pound Anthony Bryant), plus an outstanding trio of linebackers. They are the main reason Bama ranks fifth among SEC schools in rushing defense.
Conversely, the Tide ranks a lowly 10th among SEC schools in pass-efficiency defense. But that won't matter if the Vols stubbornly try to force the ground game -- as they are wont to do.
If you combine Alabama's passion, its back-to-the-wall mentality, its homefield advantage, its balanced offense and its stingy rushing defense, the Tide has an excellent chance to whip a struggling Tennessee team Saturday afternoon.
Why Vols Will Turn The Tide
Tennessee reaches a pivotial point in a season that started bright with promise but is now shrouded in doubt.
The high point came in the second half against Florida where the Vols won for the second time in the dreaded Swam by totally dominating a Gator team that had pushed Miami to the brink of defeat in the Orange Bowl two weeks before.
The offense struck the big blow on the last play of the first half, when James Banks grabbed a pass deflected by Mark Jones for a touchdown and a Tennessee lead. That set the tone for the second half in which the Vols came off the ball with a surge and established the type of power running game UT is noted for. Meanwhile, the defense swarmed the ball, came up with turnovers and kept enough pressure on QBs Ingle Martin and Chris Leak to keep Florida's passing game from ever finding a rhytmn.
It was the type of play and victory Vol fans have hungered for through a long, dismal, injury-filled 2002 campaign — a season that started with Tennessee forecast as a consenus top 5 team, a SEC champion and a national title contender following it's 11-2 run in 2001 which was capped an impressive rout of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
However the Vols never resembled the 2001 team in 2002, even at its healthiest. Instead it seemed to operate in a myoptic fog of confusion with an offense that was mired in turnovers, penalties and busted plays. Stripped of playmakers at wide receiver, it limped along until the grade of the schedule eased up down the stretch and some of the backs regained their health. Finally, it reverted to its worst form in the Peach Bowl vs. Maryland and doubts about the future took up residence in Big Orange Country through an offseason of discontent.
Optimism was reawaken with the kickoff of the 2003 season and the return of several key players from surgerical rehabilitation. The positive feelings peaked with the Vols victory at Gainesville and it's climb back in the nation's top 10.
A letdown was to be expected when Tennessee returned home to take on South Carolina, and so the overtime victory was largely seen as proof the Vols could come from behind to win a close game against what seemed to be a solid, if not spectacular, SEC team.
Even the loss to Auburn had some bright spots, most notably a passing game that appeared capable of bailing the Vols out of a deep hole on the road. Then came the Georgia game, or more particularly the second half of the game, in which the Vols were thoroughly beaten in every aspect of play. Much like Tennessee's best half of play, it's worst half of play was ushered in by a dramatic turn of events on the final snap of the first half.
After two weeks to absorb that setback and make adjustments, Tennessee comes full circle beginning with archrival Alabama in a game that will largely determine whether the Vols can redeem themselves and their season. If UT harbors any hopes of returning to the top ten, remaining on the fringe of SEC East title contention, landing a quality bowl bid or bettering last season's 8-5 mark, it will have to prevail in this contest.
This Alabama game doesn't carry the significance in terms of national or regional impact as other contests between these prestigious programs during Phillip Fulmer's 11-year era, but it might be more important to his and UT's immediate future than any of those prior 10 meetings.
That's the biggest reason I like the Vols chances in this contest. The strengths and weaknesses of these teams tend to balance out as does the incentive. Some in the state of Alabama feel their current probationary status with the NCAA is somehow the fault of Tennessee for, supposedly, reporting the crimes, when it truth, UT coaches would have had to stand in line to complain about the blatant recruiting tactics employed by Tide in Memphis.
The backlash has been the attempt by some in Alabama to smear Tennessee football and its head coach with allegations, rumor and inuendo of the most outlandish nature. As an end result, a contest that always represented the best in college football has become a border feud filled with antagonistic overtones.
Fulmer has traditionally got his teams ready to play contests of this nature, while Mike Shula is still trying to find his way from his office to the field in Tuscaloosa. Some of Alabama's players are under their fourth head coach in three years and must feel just as lost as Shula. No doubt, the Crimson Tide will come out ready to roll but what happens when the going gets tough and the breaks don't come their way?
The combination of those circumstances makes me believe we'll see the UT team that played the second half against Florida more often Saturday than we'll see the one that played the second half against Georgia. The offense can move the ball through the air and two weeks to overhaul the running game should yield positive results, especially given the quality of UT's O-line components. I also like the advantage Tennessee has in the kicking game.
The Vols will have to avoid some of the mistakes that have puncuated their performances this season and need to progress toward that complete game that has, so far, alluded them. It will have to return to traditional form of John Chavis coached defenses and figure a way to bring pressure on Bama QB Brodie Croyle while showing him a varity of different looks.
I believe we'll see that on Saturday.