Alabama-Tennessee. Not only is it arguably the top rivalry on the schedule, but the opportunity to knock off the top-ranked team in the land is added motivation.
"It's the Third Saturday in October," Volunteer junior tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Everybody's looking forward to it. Alabama fans…I feel like a lot of them come. I remember when I was a freshman, I saw a lot of them there (at Neyland Stadium). It's just going to be a great SEC atmosphere."
If the Big Orange wants to snap its five-game losing streak in the series, reaching or adding to its average of 38 points per game would be a quantum leap toward accomplishing that.
Nearly every Tennessee assistant coach spoke highly of the attention to detail and the stature of the Crimson Tide players.
Fourth-year Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's reply to being asked if Alabama's defense has any weaknesses was as honest as it gets: "No. I'll be looking until Saturday at 7. Take that back, I'll be looking Saturday at 11, I'll still be looking. They're very talented, and they're well-coached."
Chaney's Pro-Style attack is putting up gaudy numbers against top-flight competition. Much of that credit goes to getting the ground game going. Tennessee is averaging 93.2 more yards per game now than it did in 2011.
The offensive line graded out better against Mississippi State than it had all season and is resembling the front that fans hoped it'd be when three Vols (James, Zach Fulton and James Stone) were forced to start as freshmen in 2010.
The mood around Haslam Field has hardly been uptight this week as it's hard to tell if the Vols are 6-0 or 3-3.
It's nearly impossible to tell that the defending BCS National Champions are coming to town Saturday with bad intentions in mind. If the Orange & White is feeling any pressure, it's masking it quite nicely.
"They've got a little pep in their step in practice," said Vol running backs coach Jay Graham, whose top two backs are banged up. Marlin Lane has practiced this week after sitting out much of the contest in Starkville, Miss., last weekend but starter Rajion Neal is, at best, a game-time decision.
A key cog to the interior of the Tide defense is senior lineman Jesse Williams. In a similar fashion to how Tennessee uses Daniel McCullers, Williams doesn't pile up gaudy statistics, but his role of occupying multiple offensive linemen is the same. Don't let the earrings, mohawk or tattoos fool you, the Australian is an immovable object practically and his bench pressing 600 pounds is well documented.
Tennessee has some work to do up front between Stone and guards Fulton and Dallas Thomas if they want to open holes for backs.
"Better double him," Vol offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "Better put two on him, and you better play with leverage, you better play fast, cause that sucker is strong, man. You can just see it…he's strong and he's athletic. It's one thing to be strong and stiff — this guy is athletic. They've got it going on."
|If starting tailback Rajion Neal can't go Saturday, sophomore Marlin Lane (pictured) must have his best game as a Volunteer if Tennessee is to upset No. 1-ranked Alabama.|
What Williams does spills over to the second level of the Alabama defense, allowing linebackers like leading tackler C.J. Mosley to move freely. Mosley, who is projected to be an early-round NFL Draft selection in April, averages 8.5 stops per game. Mosley also has 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. That type of behind-the-line-of-scrimmage production takes place when the O-line can't get a hand on him.
The pressure their linebackers place on offenses means less time defensive backs have to cover and more errant passes, which is partially why DBs like former FOX Sports NEXT five-star cornerback Dee Milliner are able to make plays.
Milliner is another likely first-round draft pick. He joins players like North Carolina State's David Amerson, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Akron's Avis Commack as elite players at their position that UT has or will see.
"He's really good," Vol wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. "He's really, really fast, big, strong, over 200 pounds, very similar to Banks, very similar to Amerson. He's definitely in that group. He does a great job. He makes plays. He's really physical. He will stick his hands on you. When you're on your route, he will re-route you very quickly; he does a very good job of that."
The Bama pass defense ranks No. 1 in the country and tied for fourth in interceptions (11). It's also fifth in the land in shutting down third-down conversion attempts, allowing chains to move just 26.5 percent of the time.
The Big Orange hope to get single coverage on their two highly-touted edge players — Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Both must get the ball more often if the home team is to have a chance at pulling off the upset of the year.
Patterson had 195 all-purpose yards in the 41-31 loss to Mississippi State last weekend.
"(Patterson)'s a talent out there on the field. We'll find ways to get him the ball," Chaney said.
To see more of what these assistant coaches had to say on Robert E. White Field on Wednesday, as well as what a pair of Vols said earlier this week, check out the videos from InsideTennessee below: