Tennessee's top rusher could be sidelined with an ankle injury when the Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) play host to No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.).
Rajion Neal, who has helped lead the Vols' running attack to unexpected heights in 2012, is unlikely to play this week, coach Derek Dooley said Monday.
Neal was one of two Tennessee running backs to suffer injuries in a 41-31 loss to Mississippi State. Backup Marlin Lane (quadriceps) is probable for the Alabama game, Dooley said.
Propelled by Neal and a rejuvenated offensive line, the running attack has been a bright spot in 2012.
But when Tennessee's top two rushers went down with injuries on Saturday, the stats didn't change much.
The Vols gained 213 yards on the ground, their most in an SEC game since 2009 against Kentucky. UT is averaging 183 yards per game, an impressive accomplishment for a team that sometimes struggled to escape negative territory last year.
But repeating the feat against one of the nation's best defenses will be tough.
"I feel like we can run
against anybody," said sophomore Devrin Young, who got the bulk of the carries after Neal and Lane exited on Saturday. "Alabama has a great defense obviously, but if we execute our game plan it's going to show."
The most productive night of Young's career (13 carries for a team-high 58 yards) was marred by a fourth-quarter fumble that stopped Tennessee's momentum and led to Mississippi State's first score of the second half.
"It was really disappointing for me," Young said. "I personally felt like I might have lost the game for us with that key fumble. It hurt me real bad. I was real sad about that loss. We're given 24 hours to be sad about it, and then it's time to move on."
If Neal is out and Lane is limited, Young will once again be the top back. That's why it's especially important for him to shake any lingering disappointment from Saturday night.
"Good things happen and bad things happen. It all just depends on how you respond to it," he said. "I feel like I'm going to respond well to it."
In addition to Young, freshman Quenshaun Watson, and receivers Alton "Pig" Howard and Cordarrelle Patterson also got carries against the Bulldogs.
Of Tennessee's 1,100 yards rushing this season, Neal has accounted for exactly 500. Next up? Patterson, with 214.
"I'm just going to hope there are more opportunities for me to showcase myself," Patterson said.
Without one or possibly two running backs, there might be.
"(Offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney has a big playbook," Patterson said. "I wasn't surprised (when I went in to run). I had been begging them all week to give me a little toss or something to show what I can do."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.