'Bama-UT buildup as plenty of gusto
There's always something about the third Saturday in October.
Only this year, it'll be the fourth weekend when the Alabama Crimson Tide (5-2, 2-2) and the Tennessee Volunteers (5-1, 3-1) renew their storied gridiron rivalry for the 87th time.
Last season's five overtime 51-43 thriller combined with the off-season grumblings between Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and the opposition makes this a highly-anticipated Southeastern Conference battle.
Alabama enters the game with the top rushing offense in the SEC, having gained 1,703 yards off 321 carries with 16 scores. In the last two weeks, the Tide have gained 566 yards on 114 touches.
As powerful as their run game seems, their defense is much better.
The defensive unit is ranked third nationally and first in the SEC, allowing 225.57 yards-per-game this season.
Its pass defense leads the nation with an 81.92 pass efficiency defense rating.
The Alabama defense has allowed just 103 passing yards per game, compared to 217.7 yards per game last year, an improvement of more 100 yards per game.
"It is a team that is number one in rushing in the (SEC), averaging more than 30 points per game and has the top defense in the conference, holding people to a little over 13 points per game," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
"They have the top pass defense, are first in third down defense and have forced 17 turnovers."
Alabama also leads the SEC in punting average (41.8) and leads the NCAA in kickoff returns, grabbing 34.14 yards-per-return this season.
"It's a very, very fine football team with an excellent kicker, punter and return people," Fulmer said. "They have the number one kickoff return team in the country. It's a great challenge for us."
As far as Tennessee goes, Alabama coach Mike Shula complimented the 11th ranked Vols' overall efforts thus far in the season.
"This will be our biggest challenge defensively all year," Shula said. "They have a good running game, good speed, and good speed at wide receiver. Even though their quarterbacks are young, they have guys that can throw it, probably better than what we have seen all year."
Shula particularly complimented Tennessee true-freshman quarterback Erik Ainge, whom ESPN2 analyst David Norrie said was the most impressive freshman quarterback he's seen since John Elway.
"(Ainge) has done a nice job of coming in," the son of NFL Hall of Famer Don Shula said. "As we know, it's a monumental task to come in and play as a freshman at that position. He has good size, a good throwing motion, has shown to be very accurate and can move around in the pocket."
"Last week was a good example," added Shula. "They lost the lead and you watch him and his demeanor, and he never loses his composure. It didn't faze him and he did a nice job with that touchdown drive to get the lead again."
Defensively, Tennessee ranks among the SEC top five in five different categories.
The Vols lead the SEC with 20 sacks and are tied for second in red zone defense. The team's rushing defense ranks fourth in the conference, while tying for third in fourth down conversions and five in first downs allowed.
"They are solid defensively," said Shula. "They can rush the passer and have a real good change of direction. They have done a nice job for freeing up plays for the linebackers. They do a real good job of mixing their coverages."
This week, also look for Cedric Houston to break into UT's all-time rushing top ten. Houston is six attempts shy of cracking the Vols' top ten, while needing 35 yards to pass Aaron Hayden to become the tenth best rusher.
The game will kickoff at 3:30 Saturday, and will be broadcast by CBS.
Alabama holds a 43-46-7 series lead over the Vols dating back to the 1901 season.
Tennessee has won eight of the last nine meetings, while Volunteer coach Fulmer has a career mark of 9-2 against 'Bama, who won the last outing in Knoxville by a margin of 34-13.
For the first time since 1992 and 1994, the Tide will be aiming for its second straight Neyland Stadium win.
"I personally, and I think our team does, too, have a great respect for the series," Fulmer said. "As I always do, I spent some time yesterday talking about the history of the series. It's always a tough and hard-fought football game. It took everything we had to get a win last year."
"I have such great, fond memories of the rivalry, going back to my playing days (1969-71)," he said. "Back then, it was always our biggest rivalry. It still is, even though our Eastern Division schedule has great significance. It's always been a hard-fought series, clean and revealing of two standout teams."
"We need a victory Saturday to keep our position in the division race."
Trouble In Knoxville
One thing that Tennessee will have to overlook is Sunday night's arrest of starting strong safety Brandon Johnson, who had two interceptions in the Vols' 21-17 victory at Ole Miss on Saturday.
According to The Tennessean
, the safety fired a handgun outside the apartment of Tennessee's starting tailback, senior Cedric Houston.
He faces felony reckless endangerment charges and has been placed on non-participant status with an indefinite suspension on the squad.
"We had an incident Sunday night we will not be distracted by," Fulmer said. "Their focus and the staff's focus will be on the game we have to play."
"Irresponsible behavior will, although there was no malicious intent in it, will not be acceptable. I prefer to talk about the other players on the football team and the good things they're getting done."
Tennessee safety Chris Heath owned the gun and was arrested on misdemeanor charges for the unlawful carrying of a firearm. He remained at Tennessee on a medical scholarship and was permanently dismissed from the team.