Well, last week's 23-10 sleeper over Ole Miss wasn't quite the resounding bounce-back effort I wanted to see following the Tide's loss to South Carolina, but it was a solid, workman-like win that was never really in doubt. The Bama defense answered the challenge in the 1st half, but, perhaps predictably, let up in the 2nd, continuing the trend of not playing 2 consecutive good halves in the same game. (Maybe it was past their bedtime? It was awfully close to mine.) On the other hand, it was the worst offensive showing for the Tide since last year's 12-10 win over Tennessee.
Which brings us to this week's game against the Volunteers, the latest edition of Not Necessarily the Third Saturday in October.
The circumstances leading up to this year's game are almost identical to those that led to 2009's near upset, if not for The Hand of Cody. The Tide enters the game struggling on offense and just plain worn out all over, playing their 8th straight game (5th straight conference game). Meanwhile, the Vols have once again enjoyed a pre-Bama bye week to rejuvenate themselves and draw up schemes to slow the Tide. I actually think Bama is in WORSE shape this year with starting right tackle DJ Fluker out with a groin injury and several more key players like Marcell Dareus and Courtney Upshaw in desperate need of a week to rest nagging injuries. Even Trent Richardson has spent his off time in a protective boot for most of the season. And while he hasn't been listed on any injury reports, you have to imagine Dont'a Hightower's surgically repaired knee is starting to feel the toll of SEC play.
Fortunately, Tennessee is just much worse as a whole than they were last year. The 09 Vols weren't a very good team, but they had enough players to give you a game. But two straight years of coaching turmoil have stripped the cupboard bare of SEC-caliber talent, and the 10 Vols will be lucky to go to a bowl. That they even had a chance to beat LSU was a testament to their coaching staff (even if they did out-think themselves at the the end), and that's my main concern. What have they been dreaming up in Knoxville the past 2 weeks? Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (of Boise State fame) definitely has a reputation for putting extra prep time to good use.
With that in mind, here's my unsolicited advice for the Tide this week...
1. They need to get off to a good start on the road. Particularly the defense. Of the 90 points the Bama defense has allowed this season, 68 of those have come in the Tide's 3 road games. AND of those 68 points, an alarming 51 were scored in the 1st half. To put it bluntly: this young Bama defense has not responded well in hostile road environments. They seem to be easily rattled by rowdy crowds, and they go into a shell when things don't go right early. If an opposing offense gives them a shot or two on the chin in the form of quick scores, they're pretty much going to roll over, at the very least until Saban puts the fear of God into them at halftime. All this serves to put the Bama offense in a hole and take them out of their comfort zone. In the case of the South Carolina game, the quick 21 points given up by the defense forced Jim McElwain to scrap the gameplan and effectively took the ball out of the hands of the Tide's two best players. That's unacceptable. It definitely won't get the job done in Baton Rouge in two weeks. So if they're going to break the cycle, they better start now. Downtrodden Vols fans aren't likely to be as rabid for their 2-4 team as the crowds the Tide defense experienced in Fayetteville and Columbia, but it'll be loud enough early. A good start for the defense will make life much easier for the offense and hopefully short circuit the upset possibility.
2. THROW THE BALL DEEP. Stop me if you've heard this before. If you're a regular reader here, I've been screaming about it for at least 2 weeks now. Apparently, I'm not getting through to anyone. This is the ONLY solution to opening up the running game. Love the quick screens to Julio and Maze. Really, I do. But you're not getting guys out of the box until you throw it over their heads. The consensus on stopping the running game seems to be clear: stack the box and blitz a guy through every hole that opens up. South Carolina did it. Ole Miss did it. You can bet Tennessee will do it. As great as Mark and Trent are, even they're going to fail most of the time against such a brazen scheme. Make them pay. Don't be fooled by Tennessee's 67th ranked rush defense. When 9 guys are in the box, rankings don't matter. THROW THE BALL DEEP.
3. Don't be afraid to blitz. One thing that's struck me in the first half of this season has been the Tide coaching staff opting to "play it safe" with the defense on the road. I saw a lot of straight coverage with a 3 or 4 man rush against Arkansas and South Carolina, and both schools ate it up. They started attacking more in the second half against the Hogs, and won the game, but never really cut it loose in the loss to South Carolina. I understand not wanting to put some of these young secondary players in compromising positions, but it seems to me they're just as likely to bust coverage or get beat playing Cover 2 as they are one-on-one on a blitz call. If anything, the man coverage let's a guy like Demarcus Milliner rely on his natural athleticism and instincts instead of overthinking his assignment. I say, let's go on the road and turn the dogs loose early. The Vols' offensive line is perhaps the unit that's been hardest hit by attrition. They play a lot of freshmen there. I don't think there's any reason to fear their ability to pick up Saban's blitzes, or Matt Sims or Tyler Bray's ability to beat you in a blitz pickup chess match.
4. Be aware of emergent receiver Justin Hunter. All that said, keep an eye on this guy. The freshman's receptions through 6 games don't knock you out (10), but he averages 23.6 yards a catch. He had what may have been his breakout game 2 weeks ago against Georgia when he caught 4 for 110 yards and a TD. At 6'4", he's physically reminiscent of SC's Alshon Jeffery and Ole Miss' Melvin Harris, both of whom were used to make life miserable for Milliner the past two games. You can bet Tennessee will look to take advantage of a similar matchup on Saturday. Some safety help might be a priority.
5. Let's give Ingram and Richardson about 35 combined carries, m'kay? I know we usually don't talk about the running game here, what with that being one of the 3 tenets of the faith (run the ball, stop the run, don't turn the ball over), but seriously. What happened in South Carolina was forgivable considering the circumstances. But only 26 rushing touches against Ole Miss? It's closer to the ideal but still not good enough. These guys are engine of the offense. Put the ball in their hands, running downhill. The screen passes to them and the little check down throws are nice supplements to their touches, but that's not using them to their fullest potential. They need to be rushing the ball about half of the offensive snaps for the offense to be operating at optimal levels. Granted, you'll probably have to throw early to open it up for them (see #2), but once you've put the fear of the pass in their heads, give these guys the ball.
Prior to the season, I had this pegged as a 45-10 win for Bama. It wouldn't entirely shock me if the final score ended up being close to that. In fact, I'd welcome it. On paper, that's how it should play out. It would definitely up my level of optimism about the LSU game. But with the defense's chronic road struggles and the offense's recent woes, I'm going to have to adjust the margin of victory way down. Call it...
Alabama 30, Tennessee 13
Regardless of the score, the important thing for Bama is to just win the game, under any circumstances, and get to the bye week. That sweet, sweet bye week.