KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee and Alabama have being eyeing up one another through social media and headlines throughout the week leading up to this showdown of top 10 teams.
SEC Country’s Marq Burnett has been on the scene in Tuscaloosa covering the Crimson Tide for quite a while, and he has a feel for the team like few others.
Here are 5 questions about this week’s game with Burnett:
1. How confident do the Alabama players seem, and how often do they discuss winning another national title?
MB: “I think Alabama’s players are pretty confident this season. With the players they brought back from last year and the new talent stepping up, Alabama is once again one of the best teams in the country. The players and Nick Saban give the cliche “one game at a time” speech to the media. That’s true to a degree. But everyone around here knows it is championship or bust with this team. Even with a true freshman quarterback, Alabama fans expect the team to run the table. So far, there’s been nothing to suggest that Alabama can’t do that.”
2. Is Nick Saban getting more mellow as the years go by?
MB: “Yes. He’s been kind of trending that way for a couple of years. He obviously still blows up at times, but not nearly as much as he used to. From a football standpoint, I think it started with the 2014 season. That team overachieved by making it to the College Football Playoff. Saban seemed to truly enjoy how hard the players fought for each other, and how much the team rallied around Blake Sims at quarterback. Having a grandchild helped in his personal life as well. Saban is still a fiery coach. He’s just more selective on when he’ll have one of his explosions.”
3. What percentage of Alabama’s success has to do with talent versus how much is scheme?
MB: “Defensively, I would say talent. Offensively, I would say a little bit of both. On defense, Alabama has 5-star players all over the field and a few on the bench. Alabama’s defense is extremely talented, and is always in position to take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes. The scheme obviously helps on defense, but I’d say the scheme is boosted by all the NFL prospects. On offense, I’d give a lot of credit to what Alabama has done to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. He is a master at taking advantage of mismatches. Don’t get me wrong. Alabama has a ton of talent, but it’s Kiffin’s system that has maximized that talent. Look at the three quarterbacks he’s had at Alabama. Kiffin turned Blake Sims into the most prolific passer in school history and won an SEC championship. He won a SEC and national championship with Jake Coker. Now he has Alabama in position to win an SEC and national championship with a true freshman. That would cap a remarkable run if they are able to pull this off.”
4. What needs to happen for Tennessee to pull off an upset?
MB: “Tennessee must protect Joshua Dobbs. Alabama’s secondary showed last week against Arkansas that they’ll give up a few plays at times. But that won’t matter if Dobbs doesn’t have time to find his receivers. Alabama features the best pass rush in the SEC with 24 sacks so far this season. It’s not just one guy either. Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Rashaan Evans and others can all get after the quarterback. Priority No. 1 for Tennessee is keeping Dobbs clean. If they can do that, they may have a chance.”
5. Where would you rank Neyland Stadium among SEC football settings?
MB: “This will be my third trip to Neyland Stadium. I’d say it’s right up there at the top in terms of SEC stadiums. The stands are always packed, and the fans are always loud when Alabama comes to town. It’s one of the best atmospheres in the SEC.”