48 hours before kickoff, we're in the last stages of rational mode before the full blown hatred and blind optimism kick in...allow me to submit that objectively, you can't look at this Tennessee offense and this Alabama team through seven games and pick the Vols. But...this is why we play the game. So if the Vols are going to make a little magic on Saturday night, here's what would help us along our way...
- A Running Game
The performance the Vols got from the running game against Georgia was totally unacceptable, and will lead to a similar outcome this week. I still believe that Tennessee has the talent in the backfield and the experience up front to put a dent in Alabama's defense, especially playing without Cody in the middle. But they're running out of opportunities to prove me right. This part also includes whatever combination of Foster, Hardesty and Creer is most conducive to success - Fulmer seems to suggest that they're going to play in that order on the first three drives again this week, and then we'll go from there. If the Vols can't run, we're going nowhere.
- Who makes the big play?
Gerald Jones is slowed. And no matter how outmazing Eric Berry may be, you can't pencil in a pick six every week and his offensive potential is just that. So who will provide the offensive spark when Tennessee needs it? Will it be Denarius Moore on a deep ball again? Will one of the backs break a big run? Will Brandon Warren finally be a factor? When the Vols have beaten Alabama under Phillip Fulmer, there's always been one big play: Joey Kent, Jay Graham, Peerless Price, Travis Stephens, Casey Clausen, Parys Haralson...the Vols need a name to join that list, especially in an offense that struggles on a team that needs something good to happen, against an opponent that's never played from behind. It's going to take a big play. Who's it gonna be?
- The trenches: Alabama's o-line vs. Tennessee's d-line
The most important matchup of the game. Alabama's offensive line is the real deal. If Tennessee's d-line would like to be in that conversation, they have to get some push against the Tide. Ayers, Bolden, Williams, Brown and the reserves - all of whom have improved and played well this season - must slow down/shut down Alabama's multiple rushing options, put pressure on John Parker Wilson, and thus make JPW beat you. If the Tide can find room and time behind the line, the same way they did last year in Tuscaloosa, and the same way Georgia did two weeks ago, then it's going to be a long day for the Vols.
The most important stat in any football game, and the one to give Vol fans the greatest sign of hope: Tennessee's secondary leads the nation in interceptions and have plenty of athletes to make something happen. Alabama has some talent at WR, but it's nothing the Vols haven't seen already this season. Conversely, Tennessee is yet to recover a fumble this season - the only team in FBS with that distinction here in late October - so it's more of a push situation at this point. Nick Stephens has gotten away with some bad/forced decisions but is yet to throw an interception, and Vol backs haven't fumbled in the last several games too. Something's gotta give in the turnover battle, and it needs to turn the Vols' way. The defense must give the offense opportunities, and the offense can't be any better to Alabama than we've already been with a sputtering scheme and an inexperienced quarterback combined with two high ankle sprains. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes our way score.
- Sixty minutes of that old Phillip Fulmer magic
And you're welcome to come back here and make a sarcastic comment about what Fulmer's magic is if we lose. But we've been waiting all year for that back-against-the-wall, out-of-nowhere performance that the Vols have turned in numerous times before under Fulmer. That combined with his success against Alabama, which currently stands at 10-4-1, a number you really won't hear anything positive about again if the Vols fall, because it'll be replaced with the more relevant 1-4 against Nick Saban. If the Vols have a special game in them, this is the last chance to see it. The stage won't be any bigger all season, nor will there be a better chance to keep the direction of this program going forward and build towards something substantial in 2009. All Vols, including Mike Hamilton, aren't so much looking for a magic number like 8-4, but moreso evidence for hope that things will get better. The Vols provided a hint of that last week against Mississippi State. No better chance to do it again than this week. If Fulmer's got anything left, now is the time.
The most relevant question: how many points will it take to win? Is this a game the Vols can win 13-10? Or will the offense need to get in the 20s? While I'd love to see this defense put all the clamps down in another 6-3 showdown, I think Alabama is too good and the Vol defense isn't quite what it was in 2005, despite the similarities. So I think you're going to need to see something with a 2 in front of it on the scoreboard if the Vols are gonna win.
If that's going to happen, starting with these things would be good. Find a running game. Find a big play. Don't let Alabama's offensive line dictate the pace of the game to your defense. Win the turnover battle. And give your all for Tennessee today, so that one more time under Phillip Fulmer, the Vols come off the deck and hit the opposition in the mouth.
And there's no one - absolutely no one - we'd rather deck than the Crimson Tide. If we can't be champions...there's nothing better I can think of than making sure those lying, cheating, need to be put in their place like only Tennessee can Bammers watch their dreams die at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.