Ball control looms large

Possession is nine-tenths of the law ... and maybe nine-tenths of the Alabama football team's success, as well.

The unbeaten and top-ranked Crimson Tide ranks No. 1 among the 12 SEC programs this fall in time of possession. Nick Saban's team keeps the ball an average of 33 minutes and 17 seconds per game, compared to the opponents' 26:43 per game.

Obviously, you can't score without the ball, and most teams are having a heck of a time prying the ball away from the Tide. Thus, getting the ball and KEEPING the ball will be a huge key for Tennessee in Saturday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

"They're a balanced team but they can run that ball," Vol linebacker Rico McCoy noted this week. "I think that's what wins ball games - being able to control the clock and produce rushing yards the way they do.

"They've got a stable of backs, so we've got our hands full this weekend."

Time of possession has been a pretty good indicator of Tennessee's success this season. The Vols kept the ball nearly 33 minutes in a Game 1 blowout of Western Kentucky and kept it more than 34 minutes in a Game 6 drubbing of Georgia. Conversely, the Vols lost the TOP battle 32:40-27:20 in bowing to Florida and lost it 34:46-25:14 in falling to Auburn.

Obviously, the problem is that Tennessee's defense becomes overworked and wilts whenever Tennessee's offense fails to control the ball for a reasonable amount of time.

"We've seen that happen in games where we have not done a good job of that," head coach Lane Kiffin said, adding that UT's defense is especially susceptible to fatigue "because, one, we're not very deep and, two, we're small.

"We're a small defense that's more built on speed. We can't stand to play a ton of plays as bigger, more physical teams can. We saw it happen in the Auburn game, when we did a very poor job on third down and kept our defense out there too much."

Of course, Vol defenders must shoulder some blame, too. They can adversely affect the possession time by routinely allowing opponents to keep the ball for long stretches.

"We need to get off the field," McCoy noted. "The more they have the ball, the fewer chances our offense has to make touchdowns or field goals or whatever they're going to do. We need to come into the game planning on getting off the field. Whether it's turnovers or three-and-outs, we need to get off the field and give our offense more opportunities to score."

In general, the key to "getting off the field" is preventing the opponent from converting on third down. Tennessee ranks fifth among SEC teams in third-down defense, allowing its foes to convert 32.6 percent of the time. Oddly enough, Alabma ranks fifth among league teams in third-down success, converting 38.8 percent of the time.

Ultimately, Tennessee will need quality work from its offense and defense to win the clock battle and upset the Tide on its home field Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"We've got to find a way to make first downs versus these guys and keep our defense off the field," Kiffin said. "We've also got to play the field-position game, do a great job on special teams. These guys (Tide) have beaten people by winning the field position game because they manage the game so well and they're so well coached."

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