LSU coach Les Miles has been extremely vocal about ending the SEC’s longstanding tradition of maintaining annual, cross-divisional rivalries. His SEC West foe, Nick Saban, however, has long held that they are good for the conference.
Each are expected to feel the way they do, of course: Miles’ Tigers must play Florida every year, while Saban’s Tide takes on Tennessee. But will a win against the Volunteers be quite as easy to come by this year?
It certainly wasn’t for fellow SEC powers Georgia and South Carolina. The Bulldogs managed to head into Neyland Stadium and scurry on out of town with a hard-fought, overtime victory. The Gamecocks were not so lucky in their trip to Knoxville. In front of more than 100,000 Rocky Top faithful, Tennessee pulled off the upset of coach Steve Spurrier, who has been a devil to the program for decades.
Can first-year coach Butch Jones keep the upset train rolling, only this time on the road? And against the two-time defending national champions, no less?
A victory would end a six-game Alabama winning streak in a series that dates back to 1901 (when the two squads played to a 6-6 tie in Birmingham). It would give the Vols their 39th in this series overall.
It will not be easy keeping the mighty Tide from their 50th win over Tennessee, however. Not with star seniors, quarterback A.J. McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley, playing lights-out.
McCarron is having another solid year under center in Tuscaloosa, most recently shredding Arkansas with three touchdown passes and a passer rating of 190.57. One of those TDs finally went to hyper-talented sophomore Amari Cooper. It was Cooper’s first scoring reception of the year, as he has opened the season far more slowly than most expected.
In the meantime, McCarron has developed a fantastic rapport with juniors DeAndrew White (20 receptions for a team-leading 300 yards and three scores), Christion Jones (26, 275, 2) and senior Kevin Norwood (17, 236, 2).
All of this is before we even mention the running game, which is once again the crux of Saban’s offensive attack. As expected, sophomore T.J. Yeldon has carried the load with 657 yards and seven touchdowns on 100 attempts. However, there is just a silly amount of talent at this position. Fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake has tallied 402 yards on 49 attempts and another seven touchdowns himself, while freshman Derrick Henry has amassed 196 yards on a paltry 18 carries and a score.
And who said the team’s offensive line was struggling? The Kouandjio brothers and Anthony Steen up front will have to plow the way against a Volunteers defense led by the elite A.J. Johnson.
After leading the conference with a whopping 138 total tackles a year ago, Johnson has picked up right where he left off as a junior this fall. His 55 total stops lead the team, but at least this year he has help. Senior Dontavis Sapp has looked great alongside Johnson at linebacker, a pair of sophomore defensive backs are looking like future stars and the defensive line is stepping up in a big way.
Brian Randolph is not only second on the team with 46 tackles, but he also leads the way with three picks. LaDarrell McNeil will also be tasked with slowing down Alabama’s plethora of weapons in the passing attack.
Can their offensive teammates make Mosley and the rest of Alabama’s stout defensive front sweat enough to keep Saturday’s game competitive?
The Tide is only allowing 9.7 points per game defensively, the best mark in the entire country. Volunteers quarterback Justin Worley did not throw any interceptions against Georgia or South Carolina, and maintaining his turnover-free play may be key in pulling off a miracle upset. Especially with All-American safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix patrolling the defensive backfield. At the very least, Worley will not have to worry about his star teammate, Vinnie Sunseri, who unfortunately suffered a torn ACL against Arkansas and will miss the remainder of the season.
If Clinton-Dix and the rest of the ‘Bama DBs keep Woley from finding his star freshman receiving trio of Marquez North, Josh Smith and Jason Croom, however, he will be forced to lean upon his running game. Luckily, he has Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane to hand the ball off to. They have combined for 1,028 yards and 12 rushing scores through the first half of the year.
Will they be able to break through against the best defense in the nation?
If not, will Worley be able to outgun McCarron and pass his Vols to a massive upset of the defending champs?
Or will Saban’s Tide continue to roll like the seemingly upset-proof team we have seen all year?
We have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but perhaps you do.