Although many may not believe it based on how the two teams’ seasons have progressed thus far in 2012, Alabama travels to Knoxville this weekend with its championship hopes hanging in the balance.
Although Nick Saban isn’t particularly prone to throwing away games in which his side enters as favourites, the Tide face a harrowing string of fixtures in the next month or so, and it all starts against Tennessee.
No. 12 Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU and No. 18 Texas A&M are all waiting in the wings, waiting to capitalise on Alabama’s grief should the Crimson Tide fail to see off this weekend’s hosts at Neyland Stadium.
There were suggestions that Tennessee would have a shock or two up its sleeve this season, but while the Vols have regressed in their evolution, ‘Bama has turned a few heads of its own and is leading a march toward championship honours once more.
That said, the SEC leaders are as vulnerable as any team when it comes down to kickoff and need a select few of their football fraternity to stand up and be accounted for against Tennessee as much as ever.
After rushing for 177 yards on 18 carries and scoring three touchdowns against Missouri, it’s fair to say that Eddie Lacy thrived in a rushing-orientated environment last week.
Speaking to the Associated Press (h/t ABCnews.com) after the 42-10 victory, Lacy was unselfish in his comments, saying:
"Basically the offensive line came out and they dominated. I mean, every time we made a big run it was because they made a big hole for us."
It’s refreshing to see a junior with such seemingly genuine candour about him, and Lacy is just as direct when he goes about things on the field.
Since the start of the season, Lacy has done nothing but go from stride to stride, improving from an average of 42 yards in his first three games to an average of 122 in Alabama’s last three games.
With seven TDs already this season, the Vols defence doesn’t look likely to be able to keep up with the talents of the visitors’ running game, and Lacy will be one of two RBs looking to post big numbers.
The other starlet, of course, being T.J. Yeldon.
Lacy’s partner in crime has taken his share of the carries well and is coping with the pressure of his freshman year in emphatic fashion.
In the Crimson Tide’s first six games of the season, Yeldon has run for 436 yards, scoring four touchdowns in the process and averaging 6.4 yards per attempt. That’s pretty impressive for a player taking the minority of the rushing duties.
What’s more, Yeldon is a threat in the passing game and would appear to have a safe pair of hands, averaging more than 13 yards per reception.
A former Alabama Mr. Football winner, Yeldon contributed two TDs of his own in last week’s victory against Missouri and has all the momentum to expose what has the potential to be a poor Tennessee defence.
Tennessee has allowed at least 37 points in every SEC game in which it has played this season, opening an extremely wide window for A.J. McCarron to continue his more-than-decent form this season.
Yet to throw an interception in the 2012 campaign, McCarron is a conservative talent, and while for some that limits the explosive influence that spectators love, to others it means a safe asset in the most critical of places.
The junior is fifth in the NCAA with a 171.9 passing efficiency rating, and while it is mostly due to his nonexistent interception rate, the 22-year-old could let loose against the Volunteers defence.
Despite the importance of the game, this weekend could be a good opportunity for McCarron to really express himself and get away from the line of scrimmage in his passing attempts.
The Tide may be relying on their running backs to see them through the vital stages, but McCarron’s influence may still see the passing areas play a major role in Knoxville.