Tennessee players might be most concerned about Alabama’s defense and running game. But UT fans might find the Alabama depth chart more bothersome.
Check out the seniors in the starting lineup. All four of them.
The Tide entered the 2010 season as a defending national champion with 24 consecutive regular-season victories, a Heisman Trophy winner at running back, another running back just as good behind him, and the foundation already laid for a Nick Saban statue. That was enough to make it a consensus No. 1 pick in preseason.
That also was enough to obscure the fact that Alabama could be even better in 2011.
I’m not suggesting the Tide is out of the running for the 2010 national title. With unbeaten LSU and Auburn yet to come on its schedule, there’s still plenty of potential for a surge in the BCS rankings. My more distant view is aimed at the competition and the challenge of overcoming the powers that be in the SEC.
The Vols have lost four of six games and are on course for possibly the worst season in school history. But when you peruse a depth chart sprinkled with so many freshmen and sophomores, you can envision better days ahead.
Contrast that with the Tide, which is 6-1 and still in the running for the national title. Yet its depth chart has even more youthful appeal.
Nine of UT’s 24 starters, including the placekicker and punter, are freshmen or sophomores. Alabama’s starting lineup includes 11 freshmen or sophomores, and that increases to 12 if redshirt freshman offensive tackle D.J. Fluker is healthy enough to play.
The senior gap looks wider than the 17-point spread. UT will start 11 seniors against Alabama on Saturday night. The Tide will start four.
I realize a handful of Tide juniors could turn pro early. I also realize NFL personnel directors couldn’t tell you the name of a handful of UT juniors.
So Alabama could lose Heisman winner Mark Ingram and have to scrape by with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy at running back next season. What a hardship, huh?
Aside from the Tide’s depth of talent at running back, its most apparent strengths are in the offensive line and front seven on defense. And it should be even stronger next season when it returns all but one starter and one backup from its first- and second-team offensive lines; the large majority of starters and backups on the defensive front seven return as well.
Another depth-chart discrepancy worth nothing: UT’s starters and backups on the front seven average 245 pounds; Alabama’s average 264 and hardly look weighted down in their pursuit of ballcarriers.
You overcome such disadvantages through recruiting. UT first-year head coach Derek Dooley salvaged a top-10 class for 2010, and his 2011 class has just cracked ESPN’s top 25.
Oh by the way, Alabama’s 2011 class is ranked second.
That’s what the Vols are up against in their comeback. It’s not enough that they do a lot of things right. They also have to hope that something goes wrong elsewhere.
For encouragement, perhaps they should look further east at another runaway rivalry.
A couple of months after preseason polls were touting Florida as a top-four regular nationally and practically giving it the SEC East by acclamation, the Gators are suddenly incapable of beating Mississippi State in The Swamp and have lost three consecutive conference games.
Imagine how different the Gators might look if quarterback Cameron Newton hadn’t transferred, or if former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen hadn’t taken the head coaching job at Mississippi State. But players transfer, coaches leave, things go wrong and the power structure changes.
Just the same, I’m penciling in Alabama as No. 1 for 2011.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.