If you can't stop the run you are essentially defenseless. You can only hope the offense self-destructs via turnovers and penalties. Otherwise, it becomes a case of pick your poison: a slow death of five-yard runs and long drives, or a quick death caused by fatal failure of an overtaxed secondary.
The principles of running the ball and stopping the run have been the bedrock foundation upon which Tennessee football was founded before Robert Neyland ever had the title of General before his name. They've been embraced by every head coach to follow Neyland and were nearly perfected during at the apex of Phillip Fulmer's stewardship of Big Orange football.
As former Tennessee offensive lineman, Fulmer knows that an offense can't dictate terms in a game without the ability to run. As a former Tennessee defensive lineman, John Chavis knows that stopping the run is the first priority of any sound defense.
The Vols have been able to do both at times this season but haven't been able to either in the last three games which included two losses and an overtime victory. That's why it's no secret what we can expect Saturday when Tennessee takes the field. The success of either depends on a well conceived game plan, sharp execution and adept adjustments.
Within those parameters Tennessee can also be creative in regards to its approach. For instance, while the Volunteers will make establishing the run a priority, they don't have to throw themselves head first into the teeth of Alabama's defense, which is its huge defensive tackles and athletic linebackers. With twin condos topping a combined 700 pounds inside, the Vols may want to force them to chase the ball with screens, misdirection, reverses and sprint draws. It also seems UT might make better use of motion as well as backs as receivers — think of it as a long handoff. And if the Vols are going to waste a down, they might as well waste it throwing to a tight end. Even an incompletion would make future opponents take notice.
The defense will have its work cut out given Bama's balance and high-caliber quarterback, Brodie Croyle, and tailback, Shaud Williams. The Tide also has a solid front line that will pose a challenge to breach. At the midpoint of the season with more defensive tackles gaining valuable playing time and Justin Harrell back in action, the Vols should start to show some improvement at defensive tackle and there's not enough drop-off to make depth a problem. Chavis can keep fresh troops on the field with Mondre Dickerson, J.T. Mapu, Justin Harrell, Greg Jones, Tony McDaniel, LaRon Harris and Eric Young to work with. There's not a lot of experience among that group, but there is some talent that will eventually synthesize in the heat of SEC competition. And it doesn't get any hotter than Tennessee V. Alabama.
Tennessee's offense and defense can do a lot to help each out and that underscores football as the ultimate team sport. If the offense can control the ball, move the sticks, burn some clock and score some early points, the defense will be given more rest and play at a higher level of intensity. If the defense is better rested and more aggressive it will translate to more three-and-out possessions and more scoring opportunities for the offense. It would also enable UT's stop troops to put Bama in the type of down-and-distance situations that are fertile for turnovers.
"For us, the goal is to get back on track, play well, go to Tuscaloosa and get a win," Fulmer said. "Who knows what's going to happen (down the stretch) if we play like we're capable of playing. And I don't think I'm blind — I think we've got a good football team. We just haven't played well all the time.
"We've got a chance to be right back in the middle of the SEC race. If we play well the rest of the way, who knows what's going to happen."
Fulmer is right on both counts, given Florida's return to form and the Vols' win over the Gators, who could force a three-way tie in the East with a win over the Bulldogs. He's not blind either, the Vols do have talent, but they aren't playing anything like a good football team. Things would look much brighter with a win over Alabama, especially with the development of young talent at wide receiver, defensive line, secondary and running back.
Cedric Houston could be challenged by Gerald Riggs for the feature back role and respond with the best ball of his career. Or Riggs could come on and win the job by finally reaching the potential that made him the nation's No. 1 high school tailback in the minds of many analysts two years ago. Either way the Vols win. Jabari Davis can help the team immensely when running like he did in the second half against Florida. Tennessee's backs are better than they've shown to this point and so is the offensive line. The receivers are improving with James Banks and Jayson Swain both appearing ready to breakout big time.
Add it all up and it looks like a game the Vols should win, although nothing has come easy to this team and probably won't on Saturday.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Alabama 20.