Not many teams play a legitimate national-title contender in any given season, and most don’t do it twice.
But Tennessee will do it in consecutive weeks when they travel to face No. 2 Alabama on Saturday.
“It’s his (Alabama coach Nick Saban) best team, probably as physically a dominating defense as I’ve seen in the modern era of football and I know that is a strong statement, but I believe it,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “You catch yourself watching them, not studying them. They’ve given up seven points a game, 38 yards rushing a game, 184 total yards a game. And in this era, doing something like that — it’s a combination of everything. Incredible talent at every position, great coaching and just a relentless, physical dominating style of play.”
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3) lost to No. 1 LSU 38-7 last week after trailing 17-7 at halftime.
Tennessee brings the SEC’s No. 10 scoring offense and defense to Briant-Denny Stadium to match up against the league’s top scoring offense (39.7 points a game) and defense (seven).
“Definitely the best team in the country, to me,” said Tauren Poole, who rushed for 70 yards against LSU and led Tennessee to its first SEC game this season with positive ground yards.
Matt Simms will start his second game of the season for UT after Tyler Bray fractured his thumb against Georgia, and try to break the current trend of Alabama holding UT to 17 or less points in their last seven matchups. Simms went 6-of-20 passing for 128 yards and two interceptions against LSU, the SEC’s second best defense, behind Alabama.
“Just looking forward to it really,” Simms said. “You can’t pick and choose who you play against. Hey, the first week it was rough for my first start, the No. 1 team in the country, but like I said, just looking forward to playing the No. 2 team in the country.”
With the loss of Bray and receiver Justin Hunter (ACL tear), the running game, ranked last in the SEC and 114th in the nation with 89 yards a game, knows it has to step up against one of the toughest defenses in the nation.
“With some key guys down in the pass game, it’s definitely important to get that first and second down to get an efficient run and efficient play,” fullback Ben Bartholomew said. “This defense is very, very good. They’re very strict on their rules, so out-hitting them and getting a few yards every play is really important to get that third down to third and short, not third and long.”
Tennessee’s last visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala. in 2009 provided one of the more exciting games of the year when the Vols lost 12-10 to the top-ranked Tide, which went on to win the national championship. Alabama’s Terrence Cody blocked Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard field goal attempt in the final play of the game.
It was the closest game Alabama played that year.
“Two years ago we went down there and we had our chance and it kind of slipped right out of our fingers,” linebacker Austin Johnson said.
The Vols are tasked with stopping Trent Richardson, who has rushed for 912 yards and 15 touchdowns so far in his first season as Alabama’s first-choice running back. His 1,091 yards account for 34 percent of Alabama’s offense.
“There’s a lot to say about that guy,” Johnson said. “He’s a great back. Heisman Trophy back. He’s a hard, downhill runner. He’s physical. He’s hard to bring down. It’s something that I kind of look forward to this week. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Richardson rushed for 119 yards on 14 carries in the Crimson Tide’s 41-10 win at Neyland Stadium last season.
“This is a big stature game at every position,” Dooley said. “These guys are big, fast and strong from top to bottom. If you’re little, weak and slow, you’re going to have a tough time Saturday night.”