The 86th meeting in this series finds both teams greatly in need of a victory. No. 19 Alabama wants to end a seven-game losing streak to Tennessee while continuing its rise under second-year head coach Dennis Franchione. The Vols need a victory to arrest an abrupt turn in fortunes. Entering the season off an 11-2 campaign that ended one step short of the national title game, Tennessee was favored to win the SEC and to again compete for NCAA's brass ring. However mounting injuries, a self-destructive offense and problems in the kicking game have derailed the Unfinished Business express and now Tennessee is simply attempting to get back on track and save the season. On NCAA probation for an assortment of recruiting violations, Bama can't go to a bowl game this season or next. Tennessee has been accused by some in the Crimson Tide camp as being the school that blew the whistle on Bama, but in truth the Vols would have had to stand in line to complain given the overt nature of the infractions. Regardless, the loss of scholarships means this may be Alabama's last best chance for revenge and to end the streak over the next four years. Put all those elements together and it figures to be a taunt, tense, emotional encounter. But the same could be said for virtually any contest in this tradition-rich series. After all, it's Tennessee vs. Alabama.
Tennessee's offensive line vs. Alabama's talented defensive front figures to be where this game is decided. Despite crippling injuries to the defense, Tennessee¹s stop troops have managed to hold their own with solid albeit shallow units across the board. Even in the embarassing 30-13 setback at home to Florida, the Vols defense was victimized by Tennessee turnovers, bad field position and unfavorable calls. It would be surprising to see a letdown against Alabama. The biggest questions surround the offense, particularly an offensive line that has talent, but hasn't found rhythm or consistency. If the extra week helped the O-line solidify, the Vols will have a much improved chance of victory. Not only does Tennessee need to provide protection for an injured Clausen, but also needs to establish a running game much as Georgia did in its 27-25 triumph in Tuscaloosa. The Vols must be able to mix the run and pass to provide Clausen the time he needs to maximize the passing game especially the play-action phase. The return of Cedric Houston could also be a boost, but a running back with a hand cast may carry as many risks as rewards. Alabama's defensive line is experienced, explosive, imposing and leading the SEC in sacks and rush defense. It will be the Vols greatest test until the Nov. 9 match against Miami. Tennessee may need a 400-yard game with 150 yards coming on the ground to prevail in this struggle. Even the best D-lines wear down because it takes more energy to play on the defensive line than the offensive line. Tennessee needs to pull Bama's defensive front into the deep waters of the fourth quarter and hope to drown it.
This category plays a much larger part of the equation than usual. Alabama will no doubt come out breathing fire, but it's difficult to maintain that type of energy. Tennessee must come out slugging from the opening bell to neutralize an early Alabama emotional advantages. Keeping the Neyland Stadium crowd engaged and loud is critical, and the Vols can't afford to spot the Tide a double-digit lead and be forced to play catch-up. Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, who comes into this game looking for his 100th career victory, knows what it's like being on the short end of this streaky series and he knows that carrying the emotional baggage of the losing side can create its own problems in the heat of battle. There were numerous times in the past, through 11- and 8-game losing streaks, when Tennessee had superior personnel, but played below its potential. This is one of the few ocassions in recent memory that Alabama is equal to if not superior in starting talent to UT, though at full strength Tennessee still has better over all material. So it will be interesting to see if Bama collapses under the pressure of wanting to win too much. Strange as it sounds, it can and has happened.
This is a contest in which Tennessee has to show it has a stomach for warfare. The Vols haven't looked the part in falling behind Florida 24-0, Georgia 18-0 and blowing a 10-point lead to Arkansas in the fourth quarter. The six-overtime victory proved the Vols have resiliency, but questions linger about their resolve to win. Saturday's game should answer a lot of questions in that regard. Additionally, we should see if the return of place kicker Alex Walls means a return to sanity for a Tennessee kicking game that has seen five field goals blocked and only an 8-of-15 performance otherwise. Tennessee is a 2 1/2 point favorite and this is a game that could well be decided by a field goal. The Vols will have to make adjustments on defense going away from its down hill style to play more assignment football. Likewise Bama's straight-up defensive approach could work in Tennessee's favor since the Vols have struggled with multiple, blitzing schemes. How Tennessee uses its array of offensive weapons will also be a major factor. Also, with a week off, look for some of UT's freshmen to be more ready to step up and contribute. Although they haven't nearly played their best game yet, you still have to like Tennessee's chances. Fulmer hasn't compiled a 99-22 by not being able to make adjustments or bringing out the best in his team even when things are at their worst.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Alabama 21