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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2007
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Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge (10) with running back Montario Hardesty during the Vols' 35-14 win over Georgia in Knoxville on Oct. 6. Ainge is leading the SEC with a 259-yards-per game average this season. Alabama and Tennessee play in Tuscaloosa on Saturday morning.
AP photo by Wade Payne
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge (10) with running back Montario Hardesty during the Vols' 35-14 win over Georgia in Knoxville on Oct. 6. Ainge is leading the SEC with a 259-yards-per game average this season. Alabama and Tennessee play in Tuscaloosa on Saturday morning.

With a win, Tide closer to title

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

TUSCALOOSA — Imagine the scene:

The cool fall breeze and foliage of Tuscaloosa. Tennessee coming in for the weekend, and a chance for the Crimson Tide to further its national championship hopes.

Oddly, that dream sequence almost became a reality. Think of it: 10 points — a three-point loss to Georgia and seven-point defeat by Florida State — separate Alabama from its current unranked status to having a shot at the national championship.

In the wild world of the 2007 college football season — where not one Southeastern Conference team is undefeated — the Crimson Tide (5-2, 3-1 SEC) is tied for first place in the Western Division and controls its own destiny for the SEC championship.

"We've got one more win, and we're bowl eligible," Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "We've just got to keep building on what we're doing. We think we've been doing some pretty good things."

During the years ravaged by NCAA sanctions, bowl eligible might be something to cheer about, but with Nick Saban as coach, the Crimson Tide has bigger goals. One of those will come closer to being realized with a win Saturday over the No. 20-ranked Vols (4-2, 2-1).

"I feel like the SEC is wide open for whoever," Tide offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell said. "I feel like whoever prepares the most from here on out is going to be able to take it."

For Caldwell and the Tide, preparation will be the key against Tennessee, which on any given weekend can look as impressive as it has mediocre on others.

In their two losses, the Vols allowed an average of 52 points — 45 to California and 59 to Florida.

Meanwhile, Tennessee beat Georgia 35-14 and Mississippi State 33-21. Alabama's lone double-digit conference win came with a 24-10 victory against Vanderbilt. The Tide's victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss were by a combined six points.

"We make games a little bit harder than they need to be sometimes, relative to what we create on the field ourselves in terms of our ability to execute what we do," Saban said. "And this is in all phases of the game."

To stop the Vols, Alabama will look to slow down their offense — resurgent since Birmingham native and Alabama graduate David Cutcliffe was re-hired as offensive coordinator before the 2006 season.

Senior quarterback Erik Ainge has been sacked twice all season.

He has 12 touchdown passes to three interceptions and leads the SEC with 259.0 passing yards a game.

Stopping Ainge involves taking away his receivers, specifically Lucas Taylor, who leads the SEC with 618 receiving yards.

"Anytime I've played them, ever since I've been here, they've had great receivers," Tide cornerback Simeon Castille said. "It doesn't really matter who you're on — you've got to be ready because (Ainge) distributes the ball to them well."

While it may sound cliché, the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry is a game where the statistics get thrown out the window.

The last four times the two teams hooked up, the game was decided by an average of four points. The past two years saw winning margins of three points each.

"You just line up and hit them in the mouth," Tide defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "That's basically what you do.

"Every week is different because it's different teams, and different teams mean different things, but like I said, once you get to SEC (play), it's line up and let's see who wants it the most."

No. 20 Tennessee (4-2, 2-1 SEC)
at Alabama (5-2, 3-1)

When: Saturday, at 11:30 a.m.

Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Line: Alabama by 11/2.

TV/radio: WZDX-54 will carry television coverage. The radio broadcast can be heard on AM-1400, AM-730, AM-770, FM-93.9 and FM-92.5.

Players to watch: For Alabama, it’s receiver DJ Hall. His accomplishments often get lost in some other storyline from a particular week’s game. Hall’s six-catch, 172-yard performance against Arkansas was overshadowed by the Crimson Tide’s fourth-quarter comeback. And his 11-catch, 140-yard game at Ole Miss was long forgotten after Shay Hodge’s reception-that-wasn’t.

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge might be the best quarterback in the SEC not named Andre Woodson, but receiver Lucas Taylor is the guy to look for on Tennessee’s offense. A slick playmaker, Taylor is the Vols’ latest impact wide receiver and leads the SEC in receiving yards a game and overall yards.

Key matchup: Tide defensive end Wallace Gilberry against whoever is blocking him. The Alabama defensive end leads the Crimson Tide in sacks with four — all in his past two games. Tennessee has allowed two all season. You do the math, but we’ll see if the sacks continue to come in bunches for Gilberry.

Weather: Sunny and 71 degrees.

Last meeting: Tennessee 16, Alabama 13, Oct. 21, 2006.

Prediction: Tennessee 31, Alabama 21.

Josh Cooper, Daily Sports Writer

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