August 16, 2007

Countdown to Kickoff: Tennessee

Countdown To Kickoff: A Preview of Alabama's 2007 Opponents
Game Eight: Tennessee at Alabama
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
When: October 20, 2007
Time/TV: TBA
Series record: Alabama leads, 44-38-8.
Last meeting: 1999: Tennessee 16, Alabama 13

About Tennessee
2006 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in SEC)
Head Coach: Phil Fulmer is 137-41 in 15 seasons at UT. After a 5-6 season in 2005 followed an offseason wrought with player arrests, Fulmer found himself on the shakiest ground of his Tennessee tenure. However, he rebounded with nine wins in 2006 and appears to have the program headed back for the fast lane.
Returning Starters: 13 (Offense: 7, Defense: 5, Specialists: 1)
2006 by the numbers: Scoring offense: 27.8 ppg; Pass offense: 264.5 ypg; Rush offense: 108 ypg; Total offense: 372.5 ypg; Scoring defense: 19.5 ppg; Pass defense: 180.8 ypg; Rush defense: 146.7 ypg; Total defense: 327.5 ypg.

When Tennessee has the ball: It's hard to pick a frontrunner for the tailback spot based on 2006, when Montario Hardesty, Arian Foster and LaMarcus Coker each failed to separate himself from the other two. Tennessee's tendency under Fulmer has been to let one back handle most or all of the rushing load, and it's unlikely UT will get to Oct.20 with the carousel still turning. The Wide receivers are equally tough to project due to inexperience. With the exits of Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, playing time will be wide open for the returners in fall camp. Sophomore Quintin Hancock, whose role last year was largely on special teams, may be on his way to being a three-year starter. What is certain is that Alabama will be dealing with an accomplished, confident quarterback in Erik Ainge, and a pair of capable tight ends in Chris Brown and Brad Cottam. In fact, if the young receivers don't develop as hoped, the "best 11" personnel axiom could demand more two-tight end sets. That would help improve the running game at a minimum.
Up front, UT must replace tackle Arron Sears, a two-time All-SEC pick. Eric Young will likely move from the right side to fill that hole. An early-season opponent for Tennessee - Florida, for instance - may be able to take advantage of Young's adjustment there. By late October, however, he should be much more difficult to pick on.

What will Tennessee do offensively?: Tennessee's offense was uncharacteristically out of balance last year as quarterback Erik Ainge enjoyed his best season despite a struggling rushing attack. UT coaches will look to rectify that problem long before reaching Tuscaloosa. Considering the Vols have used a second-half power running game to finish off several wins over Alabama of late, don't look for the game to be placed on Ainge's shoulders unless absolutely necessary. Despite Ainge's vast improvements, conservative play-calling is standard procedure when the road team has a second-half lead in this series. Given the uncertainty at the skill positions, watch for Ainge to spread completions in multiple directions. His 67 percent completion rate last season suggests he can move the chains even without a dangerous, go-to threat like Meachem provided.

Match-up to watch: Tennessee center Josh McNeil vs. Alabama defensive lineman Brian Motley.

The big question: Will UT's tailbacks have their way with an Alabama run defense that is expected to struggle?

When Alabama has the ball: Tennessee replaces key personnel on defense, especially in the secondary. The top three performers returning on defense are safety Jonathan Hefney and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl. The star-caliber player Tennessee usually has along the defensive line may not be there in 2007. End Xavier Mitchell is an impressive talent, but he is not on a level with some of the greats Tennessee has lined up with in the past. More importantly for Tennessee, tackles J.T. Mapu and Demonte Bolden will look to take their games to a higher level.
At linebacker, Mayo and Karl will lead a unit that will be called on to lead the entire defense. Mayo has battled injury problems but is a top-notch talent and could be primed for a big season. Rico McCoy is an impressive young player who was named to the Freshman All-SEC team a year ago. With an additional six games of experience by the time the Alabama game comes around, McCoy should be an even better player.
In the secondary, Hefney's job is the only one that looks secure entering the season. A pair of junior college transfers were brought in to compete with cornerbacks Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines, a sure sign that the UT staff isn't thrilled with the status quo.

What will Tennessee do defensively?: Watch for Tennessee to bring more pressure than usual. With question marks in three of four spots in the secondary, the Vols can ill-afford to give Alabama's passing game much time to throw. A solid game from safety Hefney, the top returner in the defensive backfield will be necessary. Hefney will be asked to clean up whatever mistakes are made by the UT cornerbacks, and catching Hefney out of position will be Alabama's best chance at some big plays in the passing game. Against the run, Mayo and Karl will be counted on to contain an Alabama running game that, like Tennessee, is looking to rediscover itself.

Match-up to watch: Tennessee cornerbacks Johnson and Gaines vs. Alabama receivers D.J. Hall and Keith Brown.

The big question: Can the Volunteers bring heat on UA quarterback John Parker Wilson quickly enough to protect an inexperienced secondary?

Tennessee special teams: Replacing standout kicker James Wilhoit will be a familiar face: punter Britton Colquitt. Double-duty is no easy task, but if anyone can handle it, leave it to a Colquitt. Daniel Lincoln will serve as Colquitt's primary competition for the kicking job in fall camp, but the smart money isn't on him. If Colquitt is anywhere near as impressive kicking field goals as he is booming punts, the Vols should bring an edge in this matchup to Tuscaloosa.
Hefney gives the Vols one of the league's top punt return men, and of course Colquitt returns as one of the league's elite punters.

2006 Results
9/2 California (W, 35-18)
9/9 Air Force (W, 31-30)
9/16 Florida (L, 21-20)
9/23 Marshall (W, 33-7)
9/30 @ Memphis (W, 41-7)
10/7 @ Georgia (W, 51-33)
10/21 Alabama (W, 16-13)
10/28 @ South Carolina (W, 31-24)
11/4 LSU (L, 28-24)
11/11 @ Arkansas (L, 31-14)
11/18 @ Vanderbilt (W, 39-10)
11/25 Kentucky (W, 17-12)
12/29 Outback Bowl vs. Penn State (L, 20-10)

2007 Schedule
9/1 @ California
9/8 Southern Miss
9/15 @ Florida
9/22 Arkansas State
10/6 Georgia
10/13 @ Mississippi State
10/20 @ Alabama
10/27 South Carolina
11/3 La.-Lafayette
11/10 at Arkansas
11/17 Vanderbilt
11/24 at Kentucky

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