October 17, 2006

Tide focused on hitting magic number

Twenty-four points.

According to Alabama coach Mike Shula, that's the Crimson Tide's magic number when it comes to point production in any given game.

"We feel like if we can score at least 24 points that's going to give us a good chance to win," Shula said at his weekly press conference. "But we're going to try and score as much as we can. Defensively, we want to hold teams somewhere in the teens. But if you can win 6-3 or 42-41 we'll take those and worry about the goals later."

A year ago, six was enough for Alabama to clip a Tennessee team that was coming apart at the seams. But with David Cutcliffe serving as Dr. Melfi to quarterback Erik Ainge's Tony Soprano, here's guessing two field goals won't get it done for the Tide at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Come to think of it, even Shula's goal of 24 points might not be enough.

With Cutcliffe back for a second helping as the Vols' offensive coordinator, Ainge is playing with renewed confidence -- and Phillip Fulmer is back to looking like the SEC's top head coach. With Cutcliffe once again calling the shots, UT ranks first in the conference in passing offense and second in scoring.

"I think the thing he's done is what all great quarterback coaches do," UA defensive coordinator Joe Kines said of Cutcliffe. "He's taken what [Ainge] can do and built on it. They've been very good in the short passing game and picking there times to go deep -- and when they do, they cut your throat."

While the efficiency exhibited by the UT offense so far this season is a Cutcliffe trademark, this isn't the I-formation, off-tackle attack we saw from the former Ole Miss head coach in his first stint with the Vols.

"The way they're running the plays are a reflection back to when he was there before," Kines said. "They're also doing some new things that are giving people a lot problems. They're not a vanilla deal. They're going to give us more personnel grouping than any other team we've played in a long time.

"You see a crispness and they're really sharp and precise."

And it's that precision that has some thinking this will be the week that the Alabama defense takes it on the chin. Kines' unit weathered jabs and straight rights in the first half of its last two games before counterpunching effectively in the second half of wins over Duke and Ole Miss.

Luckily for UA, its defense could afford to make the Blue Devils' ground game look like the Denver Broncos' in the first two quarters of a 30-14 win.

And Ole Miss just didn't have enough in the tank last Saturday, despite the performance of a quarterback -- Brent Schaeffer -- who looked nothing like the 3-for-8 passer who was benched against Vanderbilt one week earlier.

Halftime adjustments and strong second half play are great, but if Tide defenders come out this week with their hands down, an early knockout could be in the offing.

Even a good performance from the Alabama defense might not include keeping the Vols from hitting the 20-point mark. That's why getting to 24 -- something Shula's teams haven't done in regulation time in their last nine SEC games -- takes on even greater importance this week.

Alabama will be able to move the football against this Tennessee defense. While the Vols' have overachieved at linebacker, their front four is nowhere near as dominant as it was a year ago.

We'll find out this week if Kenneth Darby and the rest of the Tide ground game has truly made improvement or if Darby's two-straight 100-yard games were products of subpar competition.

If the running game is working, reaching Shields-Watkins Field's checkerboard end zones will be all that much easier. And it would also keep Ainge on the headphones with Cutcliffe.

Darby will get good looks, but they will likely come off of the Tide's passing game, which continues to serve as Plan A for Shula. Speaking of the passing game, if you're wondering if quarterback John Parker Wilson fully understands what Tennessee week is all about UA offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dave Rader will gladly fill you in.

"John Parker was raised an Alabama fan so he understands the history of the Tennessee game," Rader said. "I don't have to go in there and tell him what it means. He knows and he could probably lecture me on it."

Given the enormity of the task at hand, Shula and Kines shouldn't have any problem getting their players excited about what awaits. After all, any athlete with a pulse can sense when it's a big-game week.

"They tell me those horses can tell when it's the Kentucky Derby," Kines said. "They ring that bell and they come out of there running and jumping and hollering and hopefully we can do the same thing."

Question is, once the gate opens, will Alabama have the horses needed to win the race?

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