Alabama-Tennessee: Tide's Second-Half Struggles Could Hurt in Knoxville

Mike DockeryCorrespondent IOctober 23, 2008

Alabama has established itself as the best 30-minute team in college football. Unfortunately for Nick Saban and the Tide, the games still last 60 minutes.

Perhaps there was a misunderstanding about the “new clock rules” in Tuscaloosa. Just to clear things up for the Tide: The new clock rules do not allow a team to stop playing after the end of the second quarter.

If one had turned off the TV at halftime in each of Alabama’s games this season, you may perhaps be wondering how it is possible that Alabama is only ranked second in the country. Without a doubt, ‘Bama has looked spectacular in the first half.

In fact, the first half of the Georgia game was the best 30 minutes of football that has been played this season, if not this decade. (What about USC at Washington State? –Ed. Come talk to me when they’ve done it against a top five opponent. –Doc)

Unfortunately, though, the rules still require that the teams come back out after the band finishes up.

Despite having outscored its opponents by a whopping 171-23 in the first half, the Tide has limped along in the second half, being outscored 78-55. In SEC play the Tide has lost the final two quarters 68-27.

Will this trend continue against Tennessee this weekend?

What Happened This Week?

Against Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide once again jumped out to a huge halftime lead, only to struggle to hold on in the second half. The second-half struggles this week can be attributed to the play of senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, the loss of big man Terrence Cody to a ACL sprain early in the third quarter, and yet another Glen Coffee fumble. (Sound familiar?)

It’s not that Wilson played poorly. Indeed, he threw two deep passes for touchdowns, both on the types of long touch passes that have been scarce for 'Bama this season.

In fact, Wilson has been given the game ball by media outlets all over the country based on his first half performance. The dominant narrative is that Wilson took over for a sputtering rushing attack, taking the offense on his shoulders and leading them to victory.

In reality, however, Wilson's good passes were often followed by drive-killing misfires, especially in the second half. As a result, the Tide's offense was never able to establish a rhythm.

In fact, Alabama’s sputtering running game had more to do with Wilson’s inability to stretch the field than with Alabama’s backs or offensive line. Someone in Oxford must have been watching the Kentucky game, because the Rebels, like the Wildcats, played man-to-man coverage from the start, stacking the box and daring the Tide to pass.

Yet again, ‘Bama failed to take advantage. Wilson threw some good completions early, mostly ropes that allowed the big freshman Julio Jones to simply out-position his defender. But the Tide never really stretched the field, and Wilson once again managed to miss a few wide-open receivers.

The most worrying aspect of Wilson’s performance, however, was the second half. On more than one occasion, Wilson looked desperate in the pocket, throwing wildly off his back foot in the face of pressure. The Tide's offensive sputters allowed Ole Miss to slowly build momentum.

When combined with the loss of Cody and yet another Coffee fumble, the result was one more game in which ‘Bama built a big lead, only to struggle to finish.

Only a Matter of Time?

For the third week in a row, Alabama has allowed its opponents to mount second-half rallies to keep the games close. Strikingly, they've only been getting closer as the weeks go on.

Against Georgia, the outcome was never really in doubt.  By the time the Bulldogs showed up in Athens, the game was just too far out of reach. Leigh Tiffin’s 32-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter pretty much sealed the deal.

Against Kentucky, things got a bit more interesting. Even after Tiffin hit a field goal with just over two minutes to play, giving Alabama a two-score lead, Kentucky managed to score on a big pass play late, pulling the game to within three points. It wasn’t until Kentucky’s onside kick sailed out of bounds that ‘Bama fans could finally celebrate.

Then there was Ole Miss. Down 24-3 at halftime, the Rebels posted 17 straight unanswered points on the Tide, including a Joshua Shene field goal from 35 yards out with just over six minutes left to play to pull within a single score.

‘Bama’s offense sputtered again, and after a P.J. Fitzgerald punt, Ole Miss took over with just under four minutes on the clock. The momentum was completely with the Rebels, as 90,000 ‘Bama fans could feel a National Championship season slipping away.

Instead, Jevan Snead threw an incomplete pass on fourth down with a minute left on the clock, and the Tide escaped with a far more interesting win than 'Bama fans had hoped for.

Rocky Top Flop?

With Alabama steadily inching its way towards the losing end of a huge come-from-behind performance, could this week be the week in which the Tide finally falls?

Let’s face it: Tennessee has been all sorts of bad this year. While the two losses in the SEC East could perhaps be forgiven, Tennessee also managed to be a bright spot on a couple of very disappointing seasons, dropping games to Auburn and UCLA. 

Things are so bad in Knoxville that Phillip Fulmer’s former boss Johnny Majors recently called Fulmer’s hiring the worst coaching decision he ever made. Ouch.

If there is a bright side in Knoxville, however, the Vols are coming off a 34-3 victory against Mississippi State, and a big win against a highly-ranked and always-hated Alabama could perhaps calm the orange hoard.

Fulmer is 10-6 on the field against the Tide, though the record books have him “officially” at 11-5. (Alabama forfeited the 1993 game due to NCAA sanctions.) Fulmer’s seven-game winning streak against Alabama between 1995 and 2001 remains the Vols’ longest winning streak against the Tide.

Add the fact that rumors are spreading that the Alabama game is Fulmer’s last chance to save his job, and this could, quite literally, be the “game of Fulmer’s career.”

Alabama’s young team is walking into by far the most hostile environment it has faced all year. With all due respect to Fayetteville and Athens, Knoxville on the Third Saturday in October is an experience like no other. (Fourth Saturday? –Ed. Metaphorically. –Doc)

It will be interesting to see if 'Bama can shrug off 102,000 orange-clad Tennessee fans going insane in Neyland Stadium, and perform as they did at Georgia and Arkansas.

‘Bama will be walking in without its most dominant defensive player, and on the heels of three steadily-worsening second-half performances. Add to that the hostile environment, the general animosity between the schools, and a coach’s job on the line, and one must think that the Tide is on upset alert this weekend in Knoxville.