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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The news continues to get worse for Tennessee's struggling offense.
Tennessee has failed to score a touchdown in its last two Southeastern Conference games and has given up nearly twice as many sacks as any other SEC team. The Volunteers had zero net yards rushing and gave up seven sacks last week in a 34-3 loss at No. 3 Mississippi.
Now the Vols (3-4, 0-3 SEC) must face an Alabama defense coming off a 59-0 shellacking of Texas A&M while three of their starters have uncertain health situations. Various injuries knocked quarterback Justin Worley, guard Marcus Jackson and tackle Coleman Thomas out of the Ole Miss game, though Tennessee coach Butch Jones was optimistic Monday that all three could play against the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1).
"I anticipate all three being available on Saturday, ready to go," Jones said. "But we'll see as the week progresses."
The offensive line can't afford to take any more hits.
Neither can Worley.
Tennessee had to replace all five of last year's starters on last year's offensive line, a group that included three players on NFL active rosters (Miami's Ja'Wuan James, Kansas City's Zach Fulton and Atlanta's James Stone) and a fourth on injured reserve (Minnesota's Antonio "Tiny" Richardson). Left tackle Jacob Gilliam tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Tennessee's season opener, though he hasn't undergone surgery and actually returned to action against Ole Miss.
That leaves Tennessee with a line that has included converted guard Kyler Kerbyson working at left tackle and two freshmen lining up next to each other on the right side. One of those freshmen is guard Jashon Robertson, who opened training camp on defense before moving to the other side of the ball. The other is Thomas, a former high school center.
"I really didn't know what to expect (this season) because none of us really had that much playing time besides Marcus Jackson, but it's a learning experience," junior center Mack Crowder said after the loss to Ole Miss. "We're getting better every week. It's definitely a challenge that I'm excited to continue to take on."
That line's struggles have led to plenty of aches and pains for Worley. Tennessee has given up 30 sacks this season. SMU is the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to allow more sacks this season, though Miami (Ohio) and Idaho also have given up 30. No other SEC program has allowed more than 16 sacks.
"Justin has been through a lot and I think it is a cumulative effect, not just the sacks but the hits that he has been through," Jones said. "He has been gritty. He has been showing great perseverance."
Tennessee isn't getting much help from its schedule. One week after facing an Ole Miss team that leads all FBS teams in scoring defense, the Vols are preparing for an Alabama team that ranks third in total defense and scoring defense. Tennessee has lost its last seven matchups with Alabama and hasn't exceeded 17 points in any of its last 10 meetings with the Tide.
Alabama isn't taking anything for granted. Tide coach Nick Saban noted that Tennessee "could be 5-2 very easily" by citing the Vols' narrow losses to Georgia and Florida. Alabama figures to encounter a hostile crowd as Tide offensive coordinator and former Vols coach Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville.
"Tennessee has a lot of explosive players at receiver, a good young runner," Saban said. "They're very capable offensively of moving the ball and making explosive plays. They made quite a few against us last year. Their offensive line, in my mind, is very capable of being effective."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.