Three questions for top-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0) as it heads into Saturday's meeting (6 p.m. CT/ESPN) with Tennessee (3-3, 0-3) at Neyland Stadium.
Will Christion Jones' ankle sprain affect the Crimson Tide return game?
So is it time to worry about the kicking game?
Seeing as how Alabama went largely unchallenged through the first half of the season, you're in need of something to be concerned about, right? Well, given UA's dominant performance on offense and defense in a 42-10 win over Missouri last week, you'll have to settle for special teams.
On the same day the Crimson Tide kickoff team gave up a 98-yard return for a touchdown, Tennessee's Corderrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score in the Vols' 41-31 loss to Mississippi State.
So, there you go. You can officially shudder at the thought of Patterson igniting the Neyland Stadium crowd with a house call Saturday night.
Thing is, Alabama's coverage unit had been pretty good up until Marcus Murphy's touchdown return. Not that it necessarily needed to be, with most of the Crimson Tide's kickoffs finding the end zone. In SEC play, Cade Foster has converted 18 of his 24 kickoffs for touchbacks. Even with Patterson's long return mixed in, UT is averaging just 20.7 yards per return on 12 attempts in league games.
So, yeah, I think UA will kick the ball deep this week. If there are some adjustments they will likely have more to do with personnel than approach, with a few more frontline players covering kicks, especially early in the game.
UA, on the other hand, leads the SEC in kickoff returns, averaging 36 yards per return in league play and 28.4 in all games. Hitting those numbers this week might prove difficult if Christion Jones' ankle isn't 100 percent on Saturday night.
As far as placekicking goes, Foster and Shelley have combined to make a very tidy 11 of 13 field goal attempts this season. Meanwhile, UT kickers Michael Parlardy and Derrick Brodus have connected on 9 of 11 field goal attempts, but the Vols' have also missed four extra points.
Assuming UA punter Cody Mandell handles Carson Tinker's snaps cleanly, the Alabama kicking game should be fine against Tennessee special teams that haven't exactly received the Frank Beamer stamp of approval through six games..
How much, if it all, will AJ McCarron's bruised knee affect his performance?
What it won't affect is his ability to hand the ball to Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon, who will go to work against a Tennessee defense that has allowed 6.2 yards per carry and nine rushing touchdowns in three SEC games.
From there, UA will look to take shots off play action against a pass defense that has surrendered seven passing touchdowns while making just one interception in league play. McCarron will do all of this while going against a Tennessee pass rush that has recorded three sacks in three SEC games.
With McCarron hobbled, it's possible that UA's boot package could be limited. Everything else, though, should be in play.
Will the Tennessee offense expose specific area of the Alabama defense?
In other words, is the Crimson Tide pass defense as good as its numbers (first nationally in pass defense and pass efficiency defense) or are those numbers more about missing guys like Tyler Wilson and James Franklin, both of whom were sidelined by injuries sustained the week before their respective meetings with Alabama?
While I think these guys are that good, let's be honest: UA hasn't seen a complete passing attack like the one it will take on Saturday night.
Are Tyler Bray and his receivers good enough to beat the Crimson Tide by themselves? History tells us some semblance of a running game is needed to take out UA. Well, that and a defense that can occasionally get off the field.
We've covered the struggles the UT run defense has had against SEC competition and when you combine those problems with the fact that the Vols' starting tailback, Rajion Neal, is doubtful for Saturday's game, the double-edged task of stopping the run and running successfully against the Crimson Tide becomes even more daunting.
Still, it will be interesting to see how Alabama cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue matchup with Patterson and Justin Hunter. Meanwhile, will Vinnie Sunseri be able to keep Zach Rogers under wraps and how will UA go about defending tight end Mychal Rivera? Will the Alabama pass rush be able to get to a pure pocket passer who operates behind an experienced and talented offensive line?
It took until the third Saturday in October, but every aspect of the Alabama defense will be under the gun this week. You get the feeling those guys can't wait to validate what they've done to date.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Tennessee 17.
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