Going up against the No. 1 team in the country is a tall task under normal circumstances, but when the Tennessee Volunteers host No. 1 Alabama this weekend, it will be anything but "normal."
Ignoring the obvious Derek Dooley hot-seat question and the fact that he had surgery two weeks ago to repair a fractured hip, the status of leading rusher Rajion Neal is now in doubt, according to Wes Rucker of GVX247.com.
Vols RB Rajion Neal has told teammates he plans to play against Bama, but Dooley calls him "doubtful." So ... who knows.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) October 15, 2012
Neal has 500 yards and five touchdowns on 112 carries, but he injured his ankle in the third quarter of last weekend's loss to Mississippi State.
To make matters worse, Marlin Lane—who ranks third on the Vols with 185 rushing yards behind Neal and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson—is nursing a quad injury suffered in the first half against the Bulldogs.
Dooley: Vols second-team RB Marlin Lane (quad) is probable for Bama, though.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) October 15, 2012
Neal has proven the doubters wrong and established himself as one of the SEC's best—and most underrated—running backs. If he can't go or is limited by the ankle injury, that puts a ton of pressure on the rest of the Tennessee running backs, all of whom are still relatively inexperienced.
Lane has played well when he has seen the field, as has sophomore Devrin Young, who would likely see an increase in carriers if either Lane and/or Neal can't go.
That's not good news any week, but it's particularly disturbing this week as the Vols prepare to take on the mighty Crimson Tide—which currently boasts the nation's No. 1 defense (181.2 YPG).
Tennessee learned last season when it couldn't get the running game going that you can't be successful in the SEC if you're one-dimensional, and that's especially true against a team like Alabama.
If Neal can't go or his ankle injury limits his productivity, the Vols are in even more trouble than initially thought.