The Tide ranks among the NCAA's top teams in turnover margin at plus-7, thanks to 15 takeaways and just 8 giveaways. Bama doesn't just force mistakes, however. It EXPLOITS mistakes.
Trailing just 13-6 with less than a minute left to halftime, Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline dumped the ball to Derrick Locke, who was stripped and fumbled. Bama's Courtney Upshaw scooped up the loose ball and rambled 45 yards for a touchdown that ballooned the Tide lead to 20-6. UK never recovered.
Last weekend South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia made just one mistake - an ill-advised first-quarter throw over the middle that was intercepted. He paid dearly for it, though, as Mark Barron returned the pick 77 yards to give Bama a quick 7-0 lead it never relinquished.
The Tide ranks No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency defense, so throwing the ball against Bama is a losing proposition. Consider how poorly SEC quarterbacks have fared against Bama this fall:
- Arkansas's Ryan Mallett 12-35, 160 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception
- Kentucky's Hartline 17-31, 168 yards, 1 TD, 3 interceptions
- Ole Miss' Jevan Snead 11-34, 140 yards, 0 TD, 4 interceptions
- South Carolina's Garcia 20-46, 214 yards, 0 TD, 1 interception
Those four QBs combined to complete just 41.1 percent of their passes vs. the Tide with 2 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
Given all of the above, you figure Tennessee will try to run the ball every down Saturday in Tuscaloosa. There's a problem with that strategy, though. Bama allows a paltry 63.29 rushing yards per game, ranking third nationally in that category.
Like it or not, Tennessee will have to throw the ball occasionally to loosen up the Tide's run defense. When the Vols go to the air, however, they'd better pick their spots carefully and throw the ball accurately.
After admitting that "you've got to find ways" to open up Bama's stingy rushing defense, Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin added: "Does that mean you take chances at times? Sure, but you've got to take calculated risks.
"Other teams have hung with 'em for a little bit, then they screw it up because they take some chances and all of a sudden here goes one of their great players with an interception return for a touchdown and now the game's out of hand."
Saturday's game will test Tennessee's ground attack and its passing attack. Most of all it will test Tennessee's patience. The Vols must be content to mount methodical, time-consuming drives against a Bama defense that surrenders precious few sizable gains.
"You have to find ways when you're playing a defense that does not give up big plays," Kiffin said. "Most of the yards they've given up were in the fourth quarter when the backups are in. These guys have been a phenomenal first-half defense when their starters are in. Nobody really moves the ball on 'em."
And, when you try throwing the ball on the Tide, you risk throwing the game away, as well. Just ask Mike Hartline and Stephen Garcia.