It’s not easy residing atop ol’ Rocky Top these days.
One week after playing host to No. 1 LSU, the Volunteers travel to Tuscaloosa this weekend to face No. 2 Alabama. Making matters worse, Tennessee is still without starting quarterback Tyler Bray as the result of a broken thumb, and wide receiver Justin Hunter has been lost for the season to a knee injury.
Sans so many key players on offense, does Derek Dooley’s team stand a chance against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide?
For Tennessee, it all starts on defense.
Without Bray and Hunter, the Volunteers aren't going to win any shootouts. If Tennessee is going to hang with Alabama on Saturday—let alone walk off the field with a win under their belts—they need to keep the high-powered Tide offense in check.
Unless the Vols can force some turnovers, that’s not going to happen.
Tennessee’s defense has been solid this year, but they've come up with just four takeaways all season, and they are dead last in the nation with only one INT. Their inability to make the big play on defense ruined any chances they had of upsetting LSU last weekend, and the same will ring true if things don’t change against the Tide. Forcing turnovers is a big part of keeping the opposing team’s offense off the field, and the longer Alabama lines up with the ball on Saturday, the worse it’s going to be for Tennessee.
Alabama tailback Trent Richardson is a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, and he’s also a beast. In seven games this season, Richardson has 15 TDs while averaging nearly seven yards per carry. If the Tide can win the possession battle and wear down the Volunteers’ defense, Richardson is going to run absolutely wild.
Matt Simms has filled in okay for Bray, proving to be a solid game manager last week against the Tigers. But he is just that: a game manager. Tennessee cannot rely on Simms to outshoot the Tide and win the game for them.
What Derek Dooley’s team needs is a physical slugfest, complete with a handful of Alabama turnovers that will swing momentum the Volunteers way and keep Trent Richardson and Tide offense on the sideline.