Tennessee couldn’t have lined up a better matchup to honor former coach/offensive lineman Phillip Fulmer and his 1997 SEC championship team.
The Volunteers (0-3, 3-3) host No. 1 Alabama (3-0, 6-0) tonight at 7 (ESPN), and Fulmer, Peyton Manning and company will get to watch two quality offensive lines while driving down Memory Lane.
Of course, Alabama complements its with the nation’s top-ranked defense, which is why the third Saturday in October looks like a third-and-long opportunity for embattled third-year UT coach Derek Dooley to break the chains of skepticism.
The Volunteers are a 20-point underdog despite possessing what Alabama coach Nick Saban described as the best offensive line his team has faced this season. Tennessee is averaging 183 yards rushing per game, more than double its 2011 average.
Dooley sounds as if he’s unwittingly lobbying for patience for himself while describing the maturation of his offensive line, which is led by first-year coach Sam Pittman.
“Well, I think it’s a good example that if you’re fortunate enough to sign quality size, athletic players who are very good at their position … and then you give them time to develop, that good things are on the horizon,” Dooley said. “And you know, this was the same group that was criticized and beat down pretty hard last year. And to their credit, they’ve stayed the course, they’ve kept their focus on what they can control and they’re starting to get the kind of results that we knew they would get over time.”
The result the Tennessee administration needs to see from Dooley is a win against a ranked opponent. He’s 0 for 13 thus far, and if an upset doesn’t come tonight or next week at South Carolina, you wonder if one will ever materialize.
Tennessee will finish the regular season with four straight unranked opponents.
Upsetting Alabama obviously isn’t likely, but stranger things have happened. The Vols have the game’s two most dynamic receivers in Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and the most physically gifted quarterback in Tyler Bray.
So lightning can strike, although the thunder of Alabama’s offense looms loudest. Most opponents have stormed through UT’s defense without offensive lines featuring Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, two potential first-rounders in the upcoming NFL draft. Tackles Cyrus Kouandijo and D.J. Fluker should play on Sundays in the future, too.
“They’ve absolutely annihilated everybody they’ve played,” Dooley said, “physically and on the scoreboard.”
Alabama’s offensive line anchors the brute will of a program that’s experienced no turbulence despite replacing many key components from last season’s national championship team.
“Well, I think every team that plays Alabama gets geeked up, because they’ve been the standard of college football,” Dooley said. “The important thing is keeping a level of belief and keeping a level of mental and physical stamina during the course of four quarters, because what makes them so good is they will try to wipe out that belief that every team has when they play them by how they play, how physical they play, how consistent they play and the discipline they play with. So the big thing we’ve gotta do is control what we can control, and that is our psyche, that’s our preparation and that’s our effort for four quarters.”
Fulmer, 62, always relished the third Saturday in October, a matchup which adorns autumn with yet more orange and crimson flying through the air and tumbling to the grass. And many UT fans will enjoy Fulmer being on the field for part of the scene, a specter which will seem even odder if Dooley, who is recovering from hip surgery, isn’t able to coach on the field for the second straight game.
Notes: Alabama assistant Lance Thompson spent the previous three seasons at Tennessee. He returned to Alabama after Dooley didn’t promote him to defensive coordinator, and actually filled the spot of Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri, who did get UT’s defensive coordinator position.
“You always feel more comfortable hiring somebody that you know, uh, that’s worked for you before, that knows the system,” Saban said. “Lance is a good coach. He does a good job of working with the players, developing players. He’s an outstanding recruiter.” … Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil became the first true freshman to start for the Vols this season when he did during last week’s 41-31 loss at Mississippi State. Senior linebacker Herman Lathers said he thinks McNeil could become an All-American. … Alabama junior linebacker C.J. Mosley was this week’s SEC defensive player of the week after making 12 tackles (nine solo) and a sack in a 42-10 win against Missouri. Alabama’s closest outcome was a 33-14 win against Ole Miss.