Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee wide receiver Gerald Jones jumps into the end zone to score in the first half of the game against Georgia at Neyland Stadiun in Knoxville. Tennessee won 45-19.
KNOXVILLE -- One of the Southeastern Conference archrivals taking the field this afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country.
The other is 3-3 and fighting to avoid missing a second consecutive bowl season at home.
But other than the ubiquitous words of caution from coach Lane Kiffin, it's been tough to tell which one of those teams is Tennessee.
A blowout win over Georgia and a bye week to heal bumps and bruises has left the Volunteers (3-3, 1-2) with good vibes heading into their annual clash with Alabama (7-0, 4-0).
"We've kind of had glimpses of what we could really do on the field, and I think that has helped us a lot," UT junior All-America safety Eric Berry said. "We're not going in there saying, 'We're definitely going to beat them,' but we do know what we can do as a team if we play together. And I think that's what we're putting our belief in."
The Vols' second road game of the season will be their second against a top-ranked opponent. They defied one of the largest predicted point-spread deficits in program history by losing 23-13 at still-undefeated Florida in September, and their confidence has risen from that point.
"Even when times aren't as good as we want them to be, even when we lost a couple of games, I don't think the whole vibe of the locker room declined at all," UT junior receiver Gerald Jones said. "But you can tell it has improved since the victory over Georgia. Everybody's got a smile on their face, and everybody loves the feeling of winning.
"Everybody's working hard to keep that feeling."
That will be a tall task this afternoon against Alabama's vaunted defense and prolific ground game. Kiffin admitted UT will have to pick wisely its times to attack the nation's top-ranked defense, and that it would be crucial for the Vols to corral Tide Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram short of the first-down marker.
Alabama's impressive size and depth generally suffocate the opposition before pounding it down the stretch.
Still, the Vols claim eagerness to test their newfound offensive success against a top-ranked defense. And the Vols' speedy defenders seem excited about today's physical encounter.
"It leaves the ballgame a little bit more in our hands, in the front seven's hands, with them trying to grind the ball out and stuff like that," senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy said. "I'm loving it. I'm looking forward to it. It's like Georgia, who came in wanting to run the ball with a lot of two-back and double-tight formations. ... Me, my linebackers, my defensive linemen, we have a lot to do with the outcome of this ballgame, and I'm excited. This is more man-on-man football -- you know, line up, fullback on linebacker, and who makes the play?
"There's no trickery, and that's what I like about it. I'm not out there worrying about who's getting the reverse handoff or the flea-flicker and stuff like that. It's man-on-man football, and I'm up for that challenge. And my team is, too."
McCoy said "the feeling is in the air again" in Knoxville.
"Guys are excited," McCoy said. "Guys are back into it ... and we're on a roll."
But whether Kiffin's infant program is ready to roll the Tide in Tuscaloosa is another matter.
"They've got a ton of (stars)," Kiffin said. "We're not there yet. We've got a long ways to go before we're at that talent level."
But that was the case at Florida, too, and UT made things a tiny bit interesting in the Swamp -- with nowhere near the confidence they've shown this week.
"Florida, it seems like it was a long time ago, and we've played a few games since then," Berry said. "I think it's a natural thing that as you go through the season, you gain confidence and you figure out what type of team you are, what type of defense and offense you are. I feel like our confidence has been building, especially since the Georgia game, along with the bye week. We know that if we play together, we can do some big things.
"When you're playing an Alabama or a Florida, you can't go in there scared or worried about what could happen. You just have to be confident in what you can do as a team, and what you can do as a player to help your team."
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