When: Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. Time TBA.
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Alabama at a glance:
Head coach: Nick Saban (6th season at Alabama; 50-12 record)
All-time record: 814-320-43
Record vs. Tennessee: 48-38-17 (Alabama has won the last 5)
Returning starters: 6 (offense), 4 (defense)
2011 overview: Led by a defense described as “one of the best in the modern era” by Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, Alabama overcame a regular-season loss to LSU and got revenge on the Tigers with a 21-0 victory in the Superdome to claim the BCS National Championship. Other than the slip up against LSU, Alabama was one of the most dominant SEC teams in recent history. It finished No. 1 nationally in total defense — giving up nearly 80 yards less per game than the next closest team — didn’t allow any opponent to score more than 21 points and won its 12 games by an average margin of 30 points. The Tide made easy work of its rivals Tennessee and Auburn, beating them by a combined total of 79-20. The Tide had five players — Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower — selected in the first 35 picks of the 2012 draft. In total, eight Crimson Tide players went in the draft.
Three matchups to watch:
1. Alabama running backs vs. Tennessee rushing defense
Alabama has big shoes to fill with the departure of Heisman finalist Trent Richardson. The Tide will attempt to do it with as many as four pairs of feet. Eddie Lacy (220 pounds), Jalston Fowler (242), T.J. Yeldon (215) and Dee Hart (190) bring a wide range of size and speed to the running back position. Lacy, who ran for 674 yards as a backup in 2011, is the likely starter. That doesn’t mean Saban will forget to include the speedy Hart, the powerful Fowler or the elusive Yeldon in his running plans.
The Vols didn’t exactly shut down the Tide’s rushing attack in 2011, but they were respectable against one of the nation’s best units. Richardson ran for only 77 yards, while Alabama as a team only finished with 143 yards, 71 yards short of its season average of 214 per game. Dooley will count on defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, an assistant for the Tide in 2011, to draw up a game plan that can contain Lacy and company in 2012.
2. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron vs. Tennessee secondary
In the midst of the Vols containing the Alabama run game in 2011, quarterback A.J. McCarron had a field day for Alabama in 2011. He will hope for similar numbers in 2012 after completing 17 of 26 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and one interception last season. Some of his top targets — receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, along with tight end Brad Smelley — have departed. He should still have options such as speedy wide receivers Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood. Senior tight end Michael Williams will also be a big target for McCarron at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds.
The deep ball killed the Vols in the 2011 matchup against Alabama. McCarron found Bell for a 39-yard touchdown and hit Maze for a 69-yard bomb that set up a field goal. Getting more pressure is one solution to limit McCarron’s ability to throw deep, but Alabama returns four starters on an offensive line that only gave up 17 total sacks in 2011. The Vols may have to pick their poison to some extent when it comes to the option of limiting McCarron or the running game.
3. Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray vs. Alabama secondary
This will be Bray’s first true shot at Alabama. He saw limited action against the Tide in 2010 — completing five of 14 passes for 39 yards and one interception — but missed the 2011 game with a broken right thumb. One of the question marks about Bray heading into 2012 is his lack of experience against big-time defenses. A good day against Alabama would silence many critics on that topic and perhaps help his draft status.
Alabama’s secondary lost two first-round draft picks in safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Returning are cornerback Dee Milliner and safety Robert Lester from a secondary that gave up the lowest completion percentage in the nation (49.1 percent) in 2011. Junior John Fulton and Deion Belue, a junior college transfer, are competing for the other cornerback spot. Vinnie Sunseri, son of Sal Sunseri, is the likely starter at the other safety spot.
How will it play out?
Despite two lopsided defeats, Dooley has done some things right against Alabama. The Vols have run the ball better than most have expected in both matchups, they’ve minimized their turnovers and they’ve stayed competitive in the early part of each game.
The second half has been their undoing against Alabama.
Saban’s squads have outscored the Vols 59-0 during the second half of the last two games. It could be a result of Alabama being more physical, better conditioned or Saban making better halftime adjustments. Regardless, that will have to change drastically for the Vols to have a chance in 2012 in Knoxville.
Bray and his receivers should be able to move the ball some against an Alabama secondary that should be slightly less impressive than the 2011 version. If the Vols can run the ball and cause some turnovers, they could make things interesting.
In the end, Alabama probably won’t be as dominant defensively in 2012, but its offensive balance and overall size and athleticism on defense make it a clear favorite to beat Tennessee for the sixth straight year.