Tennessee Stat Book
Four punts, two fumbles and a turnover on downs.
That’s all Tennessee has accomplished on its first drive in seven games this season.
And that’s a trend the Vols must reverse if they’re going to upset No. 2 Alabama tonight in Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, 7:45 p.m.).
“We’ve got to be ready to play from the get-go,” says defensive end Wes Brown, one of three Vols from Alabama, “because we don’t want to dig ourselves in a hole like we have in the past.”
It’s not just opening drives that have plagued Tennessee, either.
Opponents have outscored the Vols 44-14 in the first quarter. What’s more, UT has had only nine first-half scoring drives compared to seven first-half turnovers.
Tennessee (3-4, 1-3 SEC) and Alabama (7-0, 4-0) not only enter tonight’s game with disparate records. When it comes to starting football games, UT is the tortoise. Alabama is the hare.
The Crimson Tide has outscored its seven opponents 95-3 in the first quarter. At halftime, Alabama has led by an average score of 24-3.
What’s more, the Tide has only trailed for 75 seconds this season, and that came after an Ole Miss field goal in the first quarter— the first time Bama yielded a first-quarter point all season.
Those quick starts are more than enough to give Tennessee pause.
“This is not a team you want to get behind two or three scores to,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson.
To avoid their first back-to-back losses to Alabama since 1991-92 and the first consecutive losses to Alabama in Phillip Fulmer’s tenure, the Vols can’t fall behind early.
To do that, Tennessee has to be able to control the ball with its running game and keep the ball away from Alabama defenders.
In last week’s 34-3 victory over Mississippi State, Tennessee picked up steam on the ground with 139 yards rushing and did not turn the ball over for the second consecutive week.
This week, Alabama’s defense, which ranks fourth nationally against the run and 16th in total defense, will be without 365-pound nose guard Terrence Cody (knee injury).
That could help the Vols on the ground, but taking advantage of first-half possessions — and turning those possessions into points — is a must for Tennessee.
“You don’t know how many possessions you’re going to have in this game,” Clawson said. “So you’ve got to take advantage of every possession, and you certainly want to keep their offense off the field as well.”
That’s been tough to do.
Behind tailbacks Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram and one the SEC’s bestoffensive lines, the Crimson Tide leads the conference in rushing offense at 209.3 yards per game. It also leads the SEC in time of possession at nearly 33 minutes a game.
Still, the Tide is far from one-dimensional.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson ranks third in the SEC passing efficiency. True freshman Julio Jones has emerged as a reliable target to replace D.J. Hall, who torched UT’s defense for 185 receiving yards and two scores in Alabama’s 41-17 win last year in Tuscaloosa.
“You look at the film and it’s a little bit scary,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “Kentucky did a great job slowing their run down, but they had receivers behind people all the time. It’s a commitment to commit enough people in the box.”
With Alabama’s penchant for quick starts, Brown said the Vols must be committed from the opening whistle. Perhaps even before then.
“Coming right out of warm-ups, we better be ready. You saw that they got on a really good team in Georgia,” he said, referring to Alabama’s 31-0 halftime lead in a win at Georgia. “That’s just a prime example. They come out and hit you in the mouth from the beginning.”
Despite all their success early in games, though, the Crimson Tide has left the door cracked in the final 30 minutes.
Georgia outscored Alabama 31-10 in the second half. Kentucky pulled within a field goal two weeks ago after trailing 14-0 at halftime, while Ole Miss rebounded from a 24-3 deficit in an eventual 24-20 loss last Saturday.
Still, the Vols would rather stay close early than stage a comeback late.
“It’s hard to play good defense with a big lead,” Clawson said. “I think it’s a credit to how well they’ve started games that that’s even an issue. When that’s your issue, you’ve got a lot of good problems.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.