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October 22, 2009There's a new sheriff in Tennessee, they call him "The Kid."
Lane Kiffin and his defensive coordinator father Monte have changed the way the Volunteers do a lot of things, but when it comes to the "Third Saturday In October," the University of Alabama football team is expecting a lot of the same from what it's experienced before.
Specifically, another grind-it-out physical game that the rivalry is known for.
"I'm sure it is," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "We've watched a lot of film on these guys, and they have a lot of physical players.
"It's kind of fortunate we have a week off after this one because we're probably going to need it. That's usually how the Tennessee game goes."
Although the transition in Knoxville hasn't been without it's bumps and bruises, not to mention off-field distractions, Tennessee has managed a 3-3 start, 1-2 in Southeastern Conference play. The Vols played No. 1 Florida tough in the Swamp and rebounded from a narrow loss to Auburn with a 45-18 thrashing of Georgia before last week's bye.
Regardless, though, the No. 1 Tide (7-0, 4-0) believes it will get nothing less than UT's best shot.
"You always know when it comes around," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said about the rivalry. "You just get that feeling.
He also added: "They're going to try and run you over. That's their style.
"It's a grind. They aren't going to try and do that fancy stuff to try and tick you around, they're going to try and run it at you and challenge you the whole game. If that doesn't work they're going to keep coming at you, test your manhood out."
When Tennessee runs
Senior running back Montario Hardesty is fourth in SEC rushing with 672 yards on 125 carries, which works out to an average of 112 yards per game and 5.4 per carry. Although he came close to recording 100-yard performances against each opponent (his worst showing was 89 yards against UCLA), the only two times he reached that marked was against Western Kentucky and Ohio. However, he has one touchdown in all six games. Tennessee will have no choice but to double-team senior tackle Terrence Cody because senior center Cody Sullins is only 6-foot-1, 260 pounds. Overall, the talented offensive line is one of the smaller units as Alabama has faced and Tennessee has had trouble against bigger, physical defensive lines. Senior end Brandon Deaderick is back to his disruptive form before being shot mere days before the season opener and senior Lorenzo Washington maybe playing his best yet. "They have a good offense," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said "They run the ball very well, but we pride ourselves on stopping the run. Even though we're going to respect our opponent, at the same time we're just going to do what we do and try to stop the run." An interesting sidenote, true freshmen backups Bryce Brown and Trent Richardson were touted as the top running back recruits in the nation last year. Brown has 250 yards on 55 carries for UT, while Richardson had 359 yards on 66 carries.
When Tennessee passes
Thing appeared to click for senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton against Georgia after having eight interceptions the first four games. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns against the Bulldogs. "They sort of did a lot of things different in the Georgia game," Coach Nick Saban said. "I'm sure with the bye week they'll do some things different in our game. They moved the pocket a lot with a lot of boots and sprint-outs, things like that. He did a nice job of executing those things, but it really complemented their running game. Those plays were kind of misdirection plays, so it really got the defense moving in one direction and they made a lot of plays against Georgia with play-action passes. Obviously that works best when you run the ball effectively, which they have been doing all year long." Junior tight end Luke Stocker has six catches for 114 yards the last two games and leads all UT receivers by averaging 14.7 yards per catch. Junior Gerald Jones has also been coming into his own, with 12 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns the last two games. "You can see the confidence building in the passing game," Lane Kiffin said. "Hopefully, it's good enough to carry over against the best pass defense team in the country." Tennessee hasn't give up a sack the last two games, but this will be its toughest challenge. "We're going to prepare like he's Tim Tebow, or whomever you want," McClain said.
When Alabama runs
The Vols have been hit-or-miss when it comes to stopping the run. For example, they yielded just 85 rushing yards to UCLA and 89 to Georgia, but 208 to Florida and 228 to Auburn, both losses. But while Georgia's running game ranks 103rd in the nation, Alabama's is ninth. Senior Wes Brown from Athens, Ala., moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, but has been having knee trouble. Senior linebacker Rico McCoy is the leading tackler (53), and junior defensive end Chris Walker has four sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss. However, this is the smallest line Alabama has seen in quite a while. Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams is 6-3, 327 pounds, but the other three starters average just 243 pounds. Of course, the player to watch is junior safety Eric Berry, who will line up at numerous spots. Many tout this game as featuring the SEC's two best defensive players. "It's hard not to see the guy, he's making so many plays on TV," McClain said. "He's obviously a great player." Said Saban: "Eric Berry is maybe the best player in our conference, defensive player, in terms of his play-making ability and all the things he does. He is an absolutely phenomenal football player. He is one of the best."
When Alabama passes
Although Berry's 50 tackles are second on the team because he's playing the run more than in the past, he only has one interception. Expect him to cheat toward the line of scrimmage until junior quarterback Greg McElroy gets out of his recent passing funk. Monte Kiffin's scheme is zone-heavy and considering the size disadvantage expect the Vols to come out aggressive. The way to beat it is with screen passes, quick hits (including in the slot) and play-action. Last week, Tennessee didn't allow Georgia into the red zone, but overall the defense has been susceptible to big plays, and could be prone to wearing down if Alabama can control the clock. "It's a tremendous defense," Saban said. "Tennessee is always going to have superior athletes. They're in the SEC, they have a great defensive coordinator in Monte Tiffin, and they have a defensive candidate for Heisman in Eric Berry with the way that he plays and the intensity that he brings to their defense. They're going to be a very tough team to play against, but at the same time if you want to play top-caliber football then you want to play against the best."
Despite problems in kickoff coverage, where Alabama may make some more changes Saturday, the Tide figures to have a huge advantage, especially if senior Javier Arenas (bruised ribs) plays as expected. Tennessee is last in the SEC in kick coverage. Incidentally, Berry leads the Vols in special teams tackles with seven, but second is kicker Chad Cunningham with five.