KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Alabama's defense gets most of the credit for the Crimson Tide's dominance. Tennessee knows to compete with the second-ranked team in the nation, the Volunteers will need to have their best defensive performance of the season.
"It's going to be a fun game, and we've got to keep that passion and energy the whole game," Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "With a team like Alabama, they're going to hit some big plays. They've got too many good players not to do something like that."
Before the season began, all the talk surrounding the Volunteers defense was about how young and depleted its ranks were.
The defense had lost reliable senior linemen Chris Walker and Gerald Williams and linebackers Nick Reveiz, Savion Frazier and LaMarcus Thompson. Expected starting linebacker Herman Lathers suffered an offseason ankle injury that's kept him out of the lineup, and coach Derek Dooley kicked star safety Janzen Jackson off the team for ongoing personal issues.
What was left was a squad with a few familiar faces like tackle Malik Jackson and defensive back Prentiss Waggner surrounded by some rising young stars and some unknowns. After six games, the Vols (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) have given up 350.3 yards a game, ranking them 43rd among 120 nationally — but eighth in the SEC.
The defense seemed to improve last week, holding No. 1 LSU scoreless in the first quarter to end a 31-quarter scoring streak. But the Vols couldn't contain backup quarterback Jordan Jefferson in the second half, and LSU finished with 237 yards rushing and 383 total yards in its 38-7 victory.
"I liked how we came out and played with emotion and sustained it for both quarters, and in that first half against LSU we controlled the run well," said Hood, who picked up his first career sack in the second quarter against an LSU offensive line that had only allowed four all season. "We did a lot of things right. We had a couple of mistakes that were pretty obvious. In the second half we didn't do as well, but I liked how we had everybody playing with that passion that you see in the great Tennessee teams in the past.
"Now the challenge is having that same passion for four quarters."
That passion, Hood said, includes players getting excited about each play and making stops with physical hits and gang tackling — the kind of things that inspire the Tennessee band to play "Rocky Top" over and over.
"Execution is what it boils down to," Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "We were in the right places for the most part, our line assignment was good, we just didn't execute as well in the second half as we did in the first half. That's what this game is about, especially when you play good teams. You have to get the guy on the ground when he is in your gap and in the pass game we have to compete for the ball when it is in the air. That's essentially what it was."
While its defense has earned most of the praise, Alabama (7-0, 4-0) has become the top rushing offense in the SEC (361.3 ypg), top scoring offense (50.2 ppg) and second-best total offense (603.7 ypg). The Tide ranks third nationally with four drives of 90 yards or longer.
"I think some people kind of overlook our offense because our defense is playing extremely well right now, but there is no part of me that's ever doubted the offense at all," Alabama linebacker Don'ta Hightower said. "Those guys are always helping us out and giving us breathers, having 86-yard drives or getting three or four first downs before we punt. Our offense is playing really well and maybe the best it has played in a couple years."
The Crimson Tide has gotten a huge boost from junior running back Trent Richardson, whose 130.3 yards rushing per game lead the SEC and rank fourth in the nation, but has also benefited from sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron's improved game management abilities. McCarron has thrown 151 passes without an interception, and he threw for a career-high four touchdowns Oct. 8 against a stingy Vanderbilt defense.
"He is very efficient and he does exactly what they need him to do," Wilcox said. "He can throw the ball down the field and is very accurate with intermediate routes. They do a very good job with the screen game as well to try to slow your rush down. You have to be disciplined in the screen game or they can bust one of those and split you. As a complete offense, they are very well rounded and very well coached."
Alabama coach Nick Saban thinks Dooley has done a good job with the challenges he's faced on defense.
"Defensively I think they are much improved from where they were a year ago," Saban said. "They are a year older and they have some young guys playing, but those guys are really good players and they've done a really nice job on special teams. We have a lot of respect for this team and what they can do. We need to take care of our business so that we can take care of business."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this story.