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Why Tennessee Beats Alabama

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By BJ Bennett
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Picking against Alabama isn’t smart. But, as is the case with any team, it’s only a matter of time before one final finally reflects such a projection.

There are many reasons why Alabama should beat Tennessee this Saturday night in Knoxville. Most notably, the Crimson Tide are the best team in the country and have the credentials to prove it. Alabama is ranked number one in every football poll around. They lead the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, rush defense, pace BCS conference football in turnover margin and have the most balanced, efficient offense in the SEC. In review, the Crimson Tide have won 19 of their last 20 games. A tilt with a .500 ball club that is 1-10 in their last eleven league games should, on paper, be nothing more than a mere pit stop.

Alabama is the measure for excellence in college football today and you can’t watch their games and not come away with an overflow of admiration and respect for the athletic tenets they represent. Nick Saban has built a program that is the modern day version of Miami in the 1980s and Florida State in the 1990s.The defending national champions are physical on offense, overwhelming on defense and play with a confidence and poise that is most often found at the professional level. Simply put, the Crimson Tide are the closest thing to perfection we have in a sport where every inch is constantly measured. With that in mind, at some point, they have to come up just short.

Lou Holtz once said that you can’t win every game, just the next one. It’s a quote dripping in coachspeak, narrowing the focus to the task at hand. In context, however, it cracks open the door to the bafflingly logical yet rarely discussed notion that all teams must lose. The inevitability of disappointment is what makes consistent success so stunning. No person, no team, can look failure square in the eye and always stand his ground. Recent history suggests, though, that the last foe plight hopes to meet stands all of 5’6” with a mid-scalp hair-part and an argyle sweater. Saturday night, Smokey will have to bring his mean face.

Cling to the law of averages and grab an old playbook from Eddie Cochems, here are seven reasons why Tennessee will beat Alabama Saturday night.

1. Both Teams are Due — It seems trite to say, but as mentioned above, no team can win them all. That sentiment has long been the case in the SEC and is especially true when you are the top-ranked team in the game. It’s fair to acknowledge that Alabama, more often than not, gets their opponent’s best effort. At some point, parity’s pull will prove too much for even the defending national champs. Each game they win only increases that likelihood moving forward. This is the most physically-talented UT team of the Derek Dooley era and the Volunteers the Crimson Tide will see will be much closer to the bunch that beat NC State, not the squad that squandered away Kentucky late last fall. Just as the outliers are working as hard as they can to drag Saban back towards the middle, the much-maligned coach of the ‘Vols has got to catch a break at some point. Tennessee was leading Florida towards the end of the third quarter, was near a game-tying score with just a few minutes left at Georgia and trailed Mississippi State by one score late in the fourth. As unlikely as it may seem for both teams, something has to give. This may be the circumstance where the stars align.

2. Psychology — A lot of emotion goes in to each and every football game and this weekend’s primetime showdown will be no different. The overriding factor at play here is Derek Dooley’s job security. After he lauded his team this pre-season, Dooley’s players have yet to hold up their end of the bargain. This is their chance to make it all right. Some pundits have stated that a loss to Alabama could nullify the rest of the season from a coaching perspective and guarantee the fact that Dooley will not be in Knoxville next year. His team feels that pressure. Moreso, it’s gut-check time for a program that has desperately been trying to get back to where they once were. The Volunteers held a players’ only meeting earlier this week, a much-needed self evaluation of a team that is more talented than it has played. While this series is a hotly-contested one between fans, it’s reasonable to question even a team like Alabama’s intensity as they have won their last two games against Tennessee by a combined score of 78-16 and face nationally-ranked divisional foes Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M in consecutive games after UT. Predicting an upset here doesn’t make much objective sense. That, along with the other reasons on this list, might be what actually makes it viable.

3. Tyler Bray — Untimely turnovers have hurt him in the past, but Bray remains one of the most talented quarterbacks in the game. He has at least two touchdown passes in every outing this season and paces an offense averaging over 482 yards per contest. To score on Alabama, you must have a signal caller capable of making every throw. In terms of his physical abilities, Bray can do just that. NFL scouts consider him to have all of the tools. We still have not seen the UT junior fully take on the Crimson Tide. Bray was injured and did not play last season and he came in off the bench for Matt Simms in 2010.

4. Hunter, Patterson and Company — Alabama corner Dee Milliner is the premier defensive back in college football. His coverage skills lack any flaws, which is why he will soon be a high selection in the NFL Draft. Milliner currently leads the nation with 14 passes defended. To have any hope of throwing the football versus the Crimson Tide, you have must two elite receivers to overcome Milliner’s reach. The Volunteers have that in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter, who averaged 18.5 yards per catch last season, leads the team with 35 grabs. The JUCO transfer Patterson scored touchdowns against both Florida and Mississippi State. Milliner’s impact on the game will be hard to limit. That said, UT is one of the few teams nationally that bring a pair of professional-level upperclassmen to the perimeter. Beyond those two, Tennessee has the personnel to stretch the field in an attempt to isolate their playmakers in space. The Volunteers have five different receivers with at least 15 receptions on the season. Alabama is loaded with talent all over the field. But, in Hunter and Patterson, the hope is that a favorable matchup can occasionally be found.

5. Front Five Physicality — To have any chance to move the football on a defense that hasn’t allowed over 14 points to an FBS opponent since 2010, you must get great play up front. So far this season, Tennessee has gotten just that. The Volunteers have allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC in 2012, three, a total that only Air Force, Texas-San Antonio and Oklahoma State can top nationally. That same line has produced an unforeseen running game that is averaging a respectable 4.8 yards per carry on the ground. Tennessee’s offensive line experienced great success against the lone 3-4 scheme they have seen this year. The ‘Vols compiled 44 points against Georgia, their highest FBS total this year and ran for just under 200 yards.

6. Ballhawking Backfield — Tennessee’s defense has been bad. Quite bad, actually. The Volunteers rank 12th in the SEC in pass defense, 11th in rush defense and are allowing an only-better-than-Kentucky 31.5 points per game. Needless to say, that’s hardly the recipe for success to slow down the Crimson Tide. One thing UT does well, though, that you must do against Alabama: they intercept the football. Tennessee has recorded 12 interceptions so far this year. One of the keys to the Tide’s offensive consistency in 2012 has been the pristine play of A.J. McCarron, who has yet to be picked off. The ‘Vols will need one of their athletic defensive backs to accomplish such. Byron Moore currently leads the conference with four interceptions on the year. Prentiss Waggner has eight career picks and Eric Gordon has six. Should Darington Sentimore, a former Alabama player now with Tennessee, continued to progress as an edge rusher, that only helps the cause.

7. Neyland Stadium at Night — One of the truly special venues in all of college football will be eye-wincing orange for the nation to see, with an 7pm ESPN kick primed and ready to showcase what SEC passion is all about. It’s been said that a homefield advantage can be worth ten points. That won’t win the Volunteers the game, but it sure does get them a bit closer. Just as the players themselves will have to be at their best if UT has any chance to knock off the nation’s best team, the fans in the stands will have to be as well. This venue hasn’t been quite what it was at the height of the Phillip Fulmer era. A game against a top-ranked foe, though, might be able to bring that championship-energy back.

Picking against Alabama isn’t smart. But, as is the case with any team, it’s only a matter of time before one final finally reflects such a projection. With the circumstances at play, the few schematic advantages Tennessee may have and the benefit of a primetime setting, this very well may be the Crimson Tide’s lone bump in the road.

BJ Bennett – B.J. Bennett is’s founder and publisher. He is the co-host of “Three & Out” with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports

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