Devil's Advocate: Vols vs. Tide

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of point/counterpoint — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart take opposite sides of the field to make their case for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.

Vols will stem the Tide

By: Randy Moore

No one seems to have noticed, but Tennessee's defense has been just about impregnable the past 10 quarters.

Since Auburn shredded the Vols for 333 first-half yards on Oct. 2, Tennessee has been one of the stingiest defenses in all of college football. Here's a statistical recap of what John Chavis' troops have done since then:

Auburn (2nd half): 3 points, 12 passing yards, 55 rushing yards, 67 total yards.

Georgia: 14 points, 209 passing yards, 56 rushing yards, 265 total yards.

Ole Miss: 10 offensive points, 168 passing yards, 89 rushing yards, 257 total yards.

For those keeping score at home, Vol defenders have allowed a mere 27 points and 589 total yards over the past 2 1/2 games. That breaks down to less than 3 points and less than 60 yards per quarter, which equates to 11 points and 235 yards per game.

The Vols have been especially stingy against the run during the past 10 quarters, allowing just 200 yards. That equates to 80 rushing yards per game against two top-10 foes (Auburn and Georgia) and an improving Ole Miss squad.

Simply put, Tennessee has learned how to stop the run. And that does not bode well for Alabama, this Saturday's opponent at Neyland Stadium. The Tide has virtually abandoned the pass since star quarterback Brodie Croyle suffered a season-ending Game 3 knee injury, and that plays right into Tennessee's hands.

''Early in the season we really had some problems with (run) support,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis concedes. ''We didn't tackle as well as I thought we should have. But we've improved in that area, and our support scheme is better.

''When you talk about stopping the run, you start with the front seven. Unless your corners and safeties do a great job, though, you can look pretty bad against the run. I think that's where we've really improved the most the last couple of weeks. Our front four certainly has improved but our support has been A LOT better.''

It's a safe bet Bama will come out running Saturday afternoon. It's an equally safe bet Tennessee's vastly improved run defense will stop the Tide. This will force Alabama to put the game in the hands of backup QBs Mark Guillon and Spencer Pennington. Game ... set ... match.

Guillon is completing 46.5 percent of his passes, Pennington 46.4. Each has thrown three interceptions and only one touchdown. Guillon's passer-efficiency rating is 77.5, Pennington's 84.5. By comparison, UT's Erik Ainge checks in at 137.9.

If Tennessee stops the run and forces Alabama to throw, the Tide is in deep trouble. And, based on what Vol defenders have done the past 10 quarters, they WILL stop the run.

Here are five more reasons Tennessee will win handily:

• A huge homefield advantage.

• The Vols have more at stake. With a 5-1 record and a No. 11 national ranking, they're in the hunt for a BCS bowl game and a top-five finish.

• Tennessee is battle-tested. The Vols already have played two of the NCAA's premier teams (Auburn and Georgia), going 1-1. Alabama has played three midlevel SEC teams -- beating Ole Miss 28-7 but losing to Arkansas 27-10 and to South Carolina 20-3.

• Bama's imposing defensive stats were compiled against teams that have virtually no passing attack -- Utah State, Ole Miss, Western Carolina, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky and Southern Miss. The Tide hasn't faced an offense anywhere near as explosive or as versatile as the Vol attack it will see Saturday afternoon.

• Alabama fans (and Alabama lawyers) have been insulting UT head man Phillip Fulmer for two years. Don't expect Fulmer to show any mercy if this game starts getting out of hand.

It all adds up to a big win for Tennessee and a big disappointment for Tommy Gallion.

High Tide A Danger To Vols

By: Jeffery Stewart

As often as Alabama has faced NCAA probation and sanctions over the years, you'd think there are certain shadowy individuals, i.e. boosters and recruiters, that believe cheating and breaking the rules are simply an inalienable right.

Take the most recent probation the Tide has served, which was its second in eight years, and it's remarkable to note there's no sense of shame within the fan base over buying players, just outrage at being caught.

That's where Phillip Fulmer appears as the villain in their melodrama, as some allege he reported Alabama to the NCAA in exchange for immunity for UT violations. In truth, Fulmer would have had to stand in a long line to report Alabama. The stories of brown paper sacks filled with filthy cash, and shiny SUVs mysteriously appearing in driveways were common knowledge. Coaches from several colleges found out there was a price to pay just to get a visit from some of the high school stars involved and passed that information along to the NCAA.

Worse yet, most of the prospects involved were from the Memphis area and Fulmer was hearing plenty from his own fan base for the Vols inability to sign top in-state players from the Bluff City. If the situation was reversed would Alabama have even hesitated to drop a dime?

The answer is: of course not. But since accountability isn't a quality many in Alabama are familiar with, they've chosen to shift the blame to Fulmer. And who would be a better choice than the head coach who owns a 9-2 record against the Crimson Tide? (Yes, the Big Orange and Crimson tied 17-17 in 1993, but that game was later ruled a forfeit as was every Alabama win that season due to NCAA violations — Imagine that.)

The point of this background and editorial slant is to illustrate that Fulmer and Tennessee have become public enemy No. 1 in Alabama and the Crimson Tide will come in wanting nothing more than to upset the Vols and ruin their title chances.

As correctly pointed out by my counterpart, Tennessee has plenty of incentive of its own, not the least of which is the chance to champion its head coach. It adds up to a high-intensity battle with a lot more rancor than usually surfaces in this series.

The downside of such a struggle is that this is the third straight game in which Tennessee has had to draw deeply on its emotional reserves, beginning with the Auburn game in Knoxville, followed by the road wins at Georgia and Ole Miss. The letdown against the Rebels may well have been the direct result of that emotional toll. The comeback took a little more out of the Vols who have the added pressure of playing for the SEC East Division title against every conference opponent.

Injuries have also began to mount and two areas UT most needs to control the game — the offensive and defensive lines — are the units most impacted. The loss of Jesse Mahelona is particularly damaging to the Vols rush defense while the suspension of Brandon Johnson is a blow to their run support.

Alabama is the top rushing team in the SEC and it's easy to envision a scenario in which the Crimson Tide control the ball, clock and field position while wearing down UT's thin D-line. That will place more pressure on an offense that has misfired too often in the last three games to be counted on to carry the load, especially going up against the SEC's No. 1 team in total defense.

Another concern: Tennessee has been fortunate to keep its backfield healthy and intact, but the thought of losing any of its No. 1 players at tailback, quarterback or fullback can't be comforting. Outside of Gerald Riggs, Tennessee hasn't had a steady ground gainer. Cory Anderson has been heaven sent at fullback but there's no other established lead blocker behind him. Erik Ainge has had his freshman moments, but, for the most part, he's been remarkably consistent. The same can't be said for Brent Schaeffer. It's just a thought as we pass the midseason point and head into the home stretch.

Speaking of that turn, Tennessee has had a bye week before playing Alabama the last seven years, but it won't have its second bye this season until after the Notre Dame game. Playing eight consecutive weeks is a real test for Tennessee's depth as there's often a correlation between fatigue and injuries.

Another victim of fatigue is emotion and football is most certainly an emotional game - maybe the most emotional of games. That's plenty of reason to worry when playing a team that is coming off a decisive win over a top 25 opponent. A team that beat Ole Miss by three touchdowns. A team that had rather beat Tennessee than any team on its schedule, including Auburn. A team that is better than the one that took Tennessee five OTs to beat last year.

The Vols may well beat Bama but it will take good execution, a few breaks and perhaps more emotion than they have at their disposal.

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