While leading Alabama back to a No. 1 ranking, running back Mark Ingram has pushed himself into the Heisman Trophy picture. His candidacy would take a substantial hit if Tennessee can contain him again.
Ingram and the top-ranked Crimson Tide look to continue their quests for the Heisman and the national championship Saturday when they host the SEC rival Volunteers.
After beating No. 22 South Carolina 20-6 last Saturday, Alabama (7-0, 4-0) jumped Florida to claim the top spot in the poll for the first time since Nov. 30 - six days before a loss to the Gators in the conference championship game ended the Tide's five-week run at No. 1 and kept them out of the national title game.
Though Alabama's ranked first in the poll, it's still second behind Florida in the initial BCS standings.
The Tide won't face the Gators unless they meet in the SEC championship game Dec. 5 in Atlanta. Alabama has to like its chances of making it to the Georgia Dome thanks to Ingram's recent success.
The sophomore piled up 246 yards in the win over the Gamecocks to register the third-best rushing performance in school history and set a career high for the second time in as many weeks.
"Mark did as fine a job today as anybody I've ever been around, and that includes Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown and some really good ones," coach Nick Saban said. "He was fantastic."
Ingram, who scored the game's only offensive touchdown last week, had 172 yards at Mississippi on Oct. 10. Those performances have boosted his rushing average to 129.3 yards, fourth best in the Football Bowl Subdivision and tops in the SEC.
Ingram has run for at least one touchdown in each of Alabama's seven games while compiling 905 yards, 173 more than he had in 14 games as a freshman. Ingram also hasn't lost a fumble in 304 career touches.
"He's just as good as anyone in the country," quarterback Greg McElroy said. "I wouldn't trade him for anyone."
While he had a night to remember last week, Ingram was held to a career-low 1 yard on four carries last season against Tennessee (3-3, 1-2). He also nearly had a fumble returned for a 47-yard touchdown, but he was ruled down.
Despite Ingram's struggles, the Tide beat the Volunteers 29-9 in Knoxville. Alabama has outscored Tennessee 70-26 to go 2-0 in the series under Saban after losing 10 of the previous 12 meetings.
The Crimson Tide are seeking their first three-game win streak over the Volunteers since winning seven in a row from 1986-92.
They will likely earn that victory if their defense continues to excel. Alabama gives up the second-fewest scrimmage yards per game in the FBS at 228.7 and the fourth-fewest points per game at 11.6. It also leads the SEC with 21 sacks and 10 interceptions.
The Tide haven't allowed a touchdown since the fourth quarter of a 38-20 win at Kentucky on Oct. 3. That was the only time in the last five games they've allowed more than seven points.
Alabama, however, has three defensive players dealing with nagging injuries in cornerback/return man Javier Arenas (bruised ribs), defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick (back spasms) and nose guard Josh Chapman (abdominal strain). Arenas and Chapman missed last week's win.
The Crimson Tide will face a Tennessee team that's well-rested after a 45-19 rout of visiting Georgia on Oct. 10, its first SEC win under first-year coach Lane Kiffin.
Jonathan Crompton led the way by completing 20 of 27 passes for a career-high 310 yards and four touchdowns. The Volunteers finished with 472 yards, their highest total since they put up 657 in a season-opening win over Western Kentucky. They've gained more yards in each game since totaling 208 in a 19-15 loss to UCLA on Sept. 12.
In the past three games, Crompton has averaged 264 yards with eight TDs and two interceptions after averaging 93 yards with no touchdowns and five picks in consecutive defeats to the Bruins and Gators.
"That's winning football," Kiffin said. "It's good to see him making good decisions. We just have to make plays for him."
Until Crompton's breakout performance, Tennessee's most reliable offensive threat was senior running back Montario Hardesty, who has run for a touchdown in each game this season and totaled 694 yards.
Hardesty ranks 12th in the FBS and fourth in the SEC with 112.0 yards per game.
Tennessee is 2-7 all-time against No. 1 teams, and Kiffin doesn't doubt that Alabama has earned that distinction.
"I think one poll got it right," said Kiffin, who has antagonized the Gators several times since taking over at Tennessee in the offseason. "If you watch football and pay attention, I don't think there's any doubt who the No. 1 team is. Alabama has a great team - very well-coached, extremely talented, great special teams, great on offense, great on defense."
The Tide lead the series 46-38-7.