Fight to the finish

A couple of contenders will meet today in what promises to be a real slugfest.

A pro boxing card at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas? Nope ... an SEC football showdown at 11:30 CST in Tuscaloosa. Don't expect a lot of dancing and jabbing. This one figures to be an all-out war, just like last year's meeting between Tennessee and Alabama.

"It was a fight, a 60-minute fight in the trenches," Vol center Josh McNeil recalled this week. "That's the way it always is between Bama and Tennessee ... who's got the heart? Who's got the will?"

He first became aware of the Vol-Tide rivalry via television during his formative years in Collins, Miss.

"I remember when I was growing up, my dad said, 'This is a big rivalry right here. You need to sit down and watch this.' I knew a little about the history before I got here," McNeil said, "but since I got here I learned even more about it. I definitely know now how big a game it is."

It's an especially big game for Tennessee's offensive line. McNeil and his mates are hoping to continue building momentum, coming off their two best run-blocking performances of the season. Their solid work enabled the Vols to rush for 190 yards in Game 5 against Georgia and 211 in Game 6 last weekend at Mississippi State.

"We've got seven guys right now that could start for anybody in the country," McNeil said. "With the depth we have, that's huge. And also we're rushing the ball better. Coach (Phillip Fulmer) told us we're getting better but we definitely haven't arrived."

Tennessee leads the NCAA in pass protection, allowing just two sacks in the first six games. Now that the run-blocking has been upgraded, Tennessee's offense is finally exhibiting the balance Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe strive for.

"We've protected the quarterback really good all year," McNeil noted. "Two weeks in a row we've rushed it good. That's great, but we've got to do it against Alabama. We've got to do it against South Carolina. We've got to prove that we are a good offensive line."

The Vols already proved that to Cutcliffe, who calls Tennessee's plays. Last weekend at Starkville, the Big Orange rushed for just nine yards in the first quarter. Earlier this year Cutcliffe would've switched to Plan B, an all-out aerial assault. Not this time. Cutcliffe kept calling running plays, and the rushing attack eventually began to click.

"We weren't too good rushing-wise against Mississippi State in the first quarter but the holes were there," McNeil recalled. "Coach Cut knew we could get the job done."

Tennessee ran the ball a season-high 44 times in Game 5 and 42 times in Game 6. Odds are, the Vols will rely heavily on the ground attack again this weekend at Tuscaloosa.

"In close games or when the score is in our favor, we're going to rush the ball more," McNeil said. "The biggest thing is to go out there knowing Coach still has confidence in those (run) calls. He called two draws (at Mississippi State) on third-and-long. That shows confidence in us, and that's the biggest thing. "

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