KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has, undoubtedly, made strides as a team the past two games.
A 34-31 loss to Georgia in overtime and a 23-21 win over South Carolina are evidence of a team that is growing and improving coming off a 5-7 season in 2012 and a couple of tough losses earlier in the season.
That progress will be tested at the highest level this week when the Vols travel to No. 1 Alabama, a team that has defeated Tennessee six consecutive times, including three straight wins of exactly 31 points over the Vols.
“It’s a great challenge,” said coach Butch Jones, who is coming off his first win over a ranked opponent at UT. “There are no weaknesses [for Alabama]. They have depth across the board – special teams, offense and defense. They have great effort and they’re fundamentally sound.”
And even though Tennessee was on the right side of the scoreboard against South Carolina, that won’t help the Vols going forward, Jones said.
Jones noted missed tackles, (15 to be exact), pre-snap penalties and some lapses in kick coverage as some of the fundamentals that Tennessee must improve upon this week in practice.
“Everything that occurred last week is not going to help us win this week,” said Jones. “What we’ve done, that’s in the past. It’s time to move on and you have to rely on your maturity and your leadership. Our players understand now what’s at stake. If anything, it’s how do you handle success? Does it drive you to want more? Do you want to continue to get better and better? Or do you become complacent?
“Alabama doesn’t care what we did last week. We have to reprove ourselves.”
Alabama presents an array of challenges. As has been the norm under coach Nick Saban, it starts with the defense. Alabama is first in the SEC in scoring defense by nearly a full touchdown – giving up just 9.7 points per game. Alabama is second in the league in total defense and pass defense and is first against the run, giving up under 100 yards per game to opponents.
But much like its last two national championship squads, this Alabama team is dangerous offensively as well. Heisman candidate quarterback AJ McCarron leads a balanced unit filled with playmakers in the run and passing games. Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake form a formidable backfield duo.
Eight players have also contributed at least 100 yards in the receiving game so far in 2013.
“They just don’t rely on their abilities,” said Jones. “They are fundamentally sound. You have a quarterback who can make all the throws, he is a control, big imposing offensive line. I think where they have really taken great strides offensively is they have great perimeter skill and speed. So yes, it is a great challenge. It is really hard to simulate it in practice.”
Palardy honored: Kicker/punter Michael Palardy was honored as the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week and was named one of three national stars of the week by the Lou Groza Award.
Palardy hit 3-of-4 field goal attempts, including a 20-yard game winner, against South Carolina. He also had six punts downed inside the 20 and two touchbacks.
TV time update: The Vols will play Missouri on Nov. 2 at either 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2 or 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. ESPN is in the process of deciding between UT-Missouri and Arkansas-Auburn as to which game it wants to put in which slot.
Consequently, Tennessee’s basketball exhibition game against Florida Southern will be played at 1 p.m. ET in Knoxville on the same day.
.Jones said that wide receiver Josh Smith (hamstring) will likely play against Alabama. The true freshman receiver didn’t play against South Carolina.
. Jones also said the decision to not start left guard Alex Bullard on Saturday was both injury and discipline related.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga