Knoxville, TN – The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide continue a two-game trek through the SEC, as they take on the Tennessee Volunteers this weekend at Neyland Stadium.
The defending national champions have made light work of the competition in 2012, posting six straight lopsided wins, including last weekend's 42-10 drubbing of new SEC member Missouri in Columbia. With the win, Nick Saban's squad has moved to 3-0 in SEC action, sitting atop the SEC West heading into the second half of the season, tied with nationally-ranked Mississippi State, which comes to Tuscaloosa next week.
It has been a tale of two seasons thus far for Derek Dooley's Volunteers. Tennessee has won all three of its non-conference games, but has lost all three SEC affairs, including a 41-31 shootout against Mississippi State last weekend. The team will close out a four-game gauntlet against top-25 foes with next week's showdown with South Carolina in Columbia.
The Volunteers are just 2-9 all-time against number one ranked programs and haven't won against the top-ranked team in the country since 1985. The Crimson Tide hold a 48-38-7 edge in the all-time series with Tennessee, including wins in each of the last five meetings.
The Crimson Tide are fueled by their devastating defense, leaving the offense with the task of simply managing things. The unit has done much more than that in 2012 though, with Alabama averaging 40.5 ppg, with great balance between the run (217.2 ypg) and the pass (205.8 ypg).
Gone are All-Americans Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but the team has continued to run the ball well, thanks to a concerted effort, led by Eddie Lacy (491 yards, 6.0 ypc, seven TDs) and T.J. Yeldon (436 yards, 6.4 ypc, four TDs).
The passing game is under the steady hand of QB A.J. McCarron, who has completed 67.4 percent of his passes, for 1,170 yards, with 12 TDs and no interceptions. Amari Cooper is far and away the top target in the passing game, leading the team with 21 receptions, for 263 yards and three TDs.
Defense is the name of the game in Tuscaloosa and despite several All- Americans departing for the NFL from last year's squad, the Crimson Tide still boast of the nation's top defense. Alabama leads the nation across the board, ranking No. 1 in scoring defense (7.5 ppg), rush defense (55.3 ypg), pass defense (125.8 ypg) and of course, total defense (181.2 ypg). In addition, the team has recorded 19 sacks and 19 takeaways.
Despite Alabama's success on defense, Saban sees room for improvement.
"Well it's been a hard-working group, and they've had a really good attitude about what they want to try to do," said Saban at his weekly press conference. "I still think there are a lot of areas that we need to improve on. We're going to be challenged in a way that we've never been challenged by the quality of offensive team that we're playing this week and their capabilities in the passing game as well as the balance they have in running the ball, so we're going to need to continue to improve. They're going to need to continue to improve and play well as a group to be able to have success against this kind of offensive team."
Linebacker C.J. Mosley is playing at an All-American level, leading this team in tackles (51), with 2.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. Fellow LB Nico Johnson is a distant second in tackles (26).
The Volunteers have had plenty of offensive success this season, but continuing it against the Crimson Tide is easier said than done. Tennessee is averaging 38.0 ppg and has the ability to move the football both via the rush (183.3 ypg) and the pass (299.0 ypg).
Quarterback Tyler Bray has played well for the most part, completing just over 60 percent of his passes, for 1,730 yards, with 16 TDs, against seven INTs. Justin Hunter has been the top target downfield, with 35 receptions, for 497 yards and four TDs.
Tailback Rajion Neal is a workhorse in the backfield, responsible for 112 carries thus far, amassing an even 500 yards and five TDs.
Defensively is where Tennessee has struggled most. The Volunteers are allowing a generous 31.5 ppg, while opponents have generated strong numbers on the ground (178.8 ypg) and through the air (251.0 ypg). In addition, big plays have been scarce, with just nine sacks and 12 forced turnovers to date.
Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson is starting to assert himself as one of the SEC's best, after posting 21 tackles against Mississippi State (the most by a Vol in 24 years). Johnson has now posted double-digit stops in three straight games and leads the team with 63 stops overall. Junior free safety Byron Moore (46 tackles, four INTs) has played extremely well in the secondary.
Dooley knows the task ahead for his team and doesn't see any weaknesses for Alabama at this time.
"No. There really are none. They have absolutely annihilated everybody that they have played. Physically and on the scoreboard. They are deep, they are talented, they just change jersey numbers every year but the guys all look the same."