Tide may get stiff test this year from fast-improving Volunteers
Well, ‘good’ is a relative term. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s been a while since Tennessee has been an SEC power — which is exactly what Alabama has been under Nick Saban since 2008. Thus, the recent one-sidedness of the series.
Want proof? Alabama has beaten Tennessee six consecutive years now with an average margin of victory 34.0 to 10.8. The closest Tennessee has come to upsetting Alabama during the six-year stretch came in 2009 in Tuscaloosa when the Tide needed a last-second blocked field goal by Terrence Cody to survive.
Other than that, it’s been a whole lot of domination for the Tide against its northern rival.
Prior to Oct. 5, this season’s Alabama-Tennessee matchup in Tuscaloosa was shaping up like another mismatch. No. 1 Alabama was rolling — as usual. Tennessee was stumbling — as usual. And when Tennessee wasn’t stumbling — see losses to Oregon (59-14) and Florida (31-17) — it was barely beating inferior foes — see its win over South Alabama (31-24).
But beginning on Oct. 5, it was like Tennessee, under first-year coach Butch Jones, became a different Tennessee. A better Tennessee. A believing-in-themselves-and-
believing-in-their-coach Tennessee. A Tennessee unlike the Tennessees Alabama has been beating up on in recent years.
On Oct. 5, Tennessee had then-No. 6 Georgia beaten, only to let the Bulldogs off the hook late in the game. Georgia eventually won 34-31 in overtime. A one-Saturday fluke? One might think that if not for what happened last Saturday when Tennessee — following an Oct. 12 bye — returned to action for the first time since that gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. What happened Saturday was that Tennessee finished off its upset performance this time — all the way to the final whistle — downing then-No. 11 South Carolina 23-21.
It was Tennessee’s biggest win in years, and it further punctuated what the near-win over Georgia showed — Jones has Tennessee headed up again. And it’s heading up fast.
“Right now Tennessee is emerging as a very good football team in the last two weeks,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said this week. “They had an opportunity to beat Georgia, and they beat South Carolina last week. I think Butch Jones has done an outstanding job there. When a team improves like they’ve improved it’s always a sign that a lot of people are doing a very, very good job.”
Saban knows a thing or two about what Jones is trying to do right now — rebuild a storied program. That first season is rarely an easy one. Alabama finished 7-6 in Saban’s first season at The Capstone in 2007.
“One of the first things you have to do is establish good intangibles in your organization — whether it‘s work ethic, discipline,” Saban said of the rebuilding process. “I see all of those things happening (at Tennessee) because of their improvement as well as the way they play.”
Like Jones, Saban had a big, last-minute win in his first season at Alabama too — back in 2007. It came in September when Alabama posted a dramatic victory over Arkansas, which had beaten Alabama the year before. It wasn’t until a season later that Alabama really got going under Saban, but that first big win over Arkansas in ‘07 may have been a key brick — perhaps the key brick — for the foundation of what’s now become a modern-day dynasty.
It’s hard not to see some parallels with where Tennessee is right now following its first big win of the Butch Jones era last Saturday.
“I think it does a tremendous amount for everyone’s confidence,” Saban said, comparing Alabama’s last-minute win over Arkansas in ‘07 and Tennessee’s last-minute win over South Carolina last week. “When you start to believe that if you do things the right way, the way that it’s presented to you every day that you have the best opportunity to be successful.”
This Tennessee team has been constructed in similar fashion to how Saban has built Alabama — a stout offensive line, a power running game and a physical defense. Rajion Neal (693 yards, 8 TDs) leads the Tennessee ground attack, while Justin Worley (1,119 passing yds, 10 TDs, 6 INTs) handles the quarterback duties. Worley’s top two targets are Marquez North (21 catches, 281 yds, 1 TD) and Alton Howard (23 catches, 251 yds, 3 TDs).
Defensively, Tennessee is allowing 27.0 points per game.
“They’re able to run the ball very effectively on offense and their quarterback has played very well for them,” Saban said of the Vols. “Defensively, they’ve got eight starters back and have played really well so far this year. They’ve got all of their specialists back, so they’re very good on special teams. So this is a really solid team all the way around.”
Tennessee? A ‘really solid team’? After what it’s showed in its last two games, no one’s gonna say otherwise now.
Top-ranked Alabama (7-0 overall, 4-0 in SEC) will host Tennessee (4-3, 1-2) Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium with kickoff set for 2:30 p.m. CDT. CBS will televise the game.
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