October 16, 2006

Vols trying to keep SEC title hopes alive

What: Alabama (5-2, 2-2 in SEC) at No. 8 Tennessee (5-1, 1-1 in SEC)
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
When: October 21, 2006
Time/TV: 2:34 p.m. CT/CBS
Series record: Alabama leads, 44-37-7.
Last meeting: 2005: Alabama 6, Tennessee 3.

About Tennessee
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer is in his 15th season as the head coach of the Volunteers. Fulmer has an overall record of 133-38 and a 10-3 mark in games against Alabama.
2006 by the numbers: Scoring offense: 35.2 ppg (2nd in SEC); Pass offense: 291.5 ypg (1st in SEC); Rush offense: 130.0 ypg (9th in SEC); Total offense: 421.5 ypg (1st in SEC); Scoring defense: 19.3 ppg (9th in SEC); Pass defense: 160.3 ypg (5th in SEC); Rush defense: 129.8 ypg (8th in SEC); Total defense: 290.2 ypg (6th in SEC); Turnover margin: +1 (5th in SEC); Net punting: 35.1 ypp (8th in SEC).

How Tennessee's offense operates: Pick a formation and UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe probably has it in his playbook. From the basic two-back, one-tight end set to the empty backfield, five wides, the Vols can go from a standard run formation to the spread in a snap. Quarterback Erik Ainge has flourished under Cutcliffe's tutelage, especially in the controlled passing game. Whether it be out of the shotgun or off a three-step drop, Ainge will look to get the ball to his talented receivers on quick passes. This isn't your typical grinding Tennessee ground game. Instead of I-formation and running the ball between the tackles, both staples of the Fulmer era in Knoxville, the Vols have been most effective when working the passing game with three or more receivers on the field.

Tennessee's best offensive player: Due in large part to his ability to gash opposing defenses after the catch, junior wide receiver Robert Meachem currently ranks first in the SEC and second in the nation in receiving yards (112.5 ypg). Through six games Meachem has piled up 34 catches for 675 yards and six touchdowns. He's already surpassed his previous season-bests for yards and touchdowns (459 yards and four touchdowns in 2004). At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Meachem is extremely difficult to tackle in the open field.

Greatest area of strength for the Tennessee's offense: Led by Ainge and Meachem, UT currently leads the SEC in passing offense. Given the problems he's had when dealing with pressure in the past, blitzing Ainge would seem to be the route to take. However, armed with its quick passing game, the Vols have surrendered just five sacks in six games.

These are the guys Ainge will look to throw to: While Meachem is the star of the group, it's not like Ainge doesn't have plenty of other options from which to choose. Jayson Swain has 22 catches for 378 yards and five touchdowns and Bret Smith has 20 grabs for 225 yards and two scores. Meachem and Swain comprise the second-best receiving duo in Division I-A in terms of average yards per game this season. Alabama's one-two punch of DJ Hall and Keith Brown ranks fourth nationally. Tight end Chris Brown has 16 catches for 108 yards and one touchdown. The Vols have always been a good screen team, so look for at least one of those to running back LaMarcus Coker, who has five receptions for 81 yards and one touchdown.

Where's the weakness on offense?: It's no coincidence that in UT's lone loss of the season (Florida) its ground game was stuffed to the tune of minus-11 yards. Still, with Arian Foster healthy after missing three of the last four games due to an ankle injury and Coker coming into his own, Alabama will see the very best Tennessee has to offer on Saturday.

How Tennessee's defense operates: Long-time UT defensive coordinator John Chavis doesn't stray much from his base 4-3 alignment, but he will employ the ever-popular 3-3-5 against offenses that spread the field. In the secondary, the Vols will go with a double-zone, with their linebackers and cornerbacks playing the short to intermediate zones and two safeties providing deep help. Chavis will also mix in man coverage from time to time.

Tennessee's best defensive player: With defensive tackle Justin Harrell out for the year with a biceps injury, this is a tough call. I'll call it a tie between middle linebacker Marvin Mitchell, the SEC's second-leading tackler with 56 stops, and free safety Jonathan Hefney. Mitchell has 4.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries to his credit. Hefney has interceptions in each of the last three games and is second on the team in tackles with 48.

Greatest area of strength for the Vol defense: Much like Alabama, linebacker was a concern for a Tennessee defense looking to replace all three starters from a year ago. But with Mitchell, Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl ranking among the Vols' top four tacklers through six games, the position hasn't missed a beat. Mayo was honored as the Walter Camp national defensive player of week after posting three sacks in UT's season-opening win over Cal. The sophomore leads the Vols in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (seven). Karl's 37 tackles are fourth-best on the team and his five tackles for loss are third.

Where's the weakness on defense?: The interior of the defensive line was weakened by the loss of Harrell. The Vols' start Matt McGlothlin, who has four tackles in six games at one tackle spot, and the versatile Turk McBride, who slid inside from end to tackle after Harrell went down, at the other.

Kickin' it up a notch: Senior placekicker James Wilhoit has connected on 7-of-8 field goals and 26-of-27 PATs this season. Sophomore punter Britton Colquitt is averaging 47.2 yards per punt, but has a net average of just 35.1 yards. Georgia's Mikey Henderson returned a Colquitt punt 86 yards for a touchdown two Saturdays ago. In the same game, UGA running back Thomas Brown returned a UT kickoff 99 yards for a score. Antonio Wardlow answered the Bulldogs' two special team scores with a blocked punt and recovery in the end zone for a touchdown. The Vols rank eighth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0 yards) and 12th in kickoff returns (16.16 yards).

Odds and ends: Despite ranking ninth in the SEC in rushing, the Volunteers rank third in time of possession…Tennessee is converting a league-high 59.5 percent of their third downs…UT ranks first in the league in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 17 of its 23 opportunities…Conversely, opponents are a perfect 13-of-13 inside the red zone against the Tennessee defense, scoring nine touchdowns and kicking four field goals.

2006 Schedule
9/2/06 California (W, 35-18)
9/9/06 Air Force (W, 31-30)
9/16/06 Florida (L, 20-21)
9/23/06 Marshall (W, 33-7)
9/30/06 at Memphis (W, 41-7)
10/7/06 at Georgia (W, 51-33)
10/21/06 Alabama
10/28/06 at South Carolina
11/4/06 LSU
11/11/06 at Arkansas
11/18/06 at Vanderbilt
11/25/06 Kentucky

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