published Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Sunseris to be on opposite sides of field tonight

Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Can Tennessee beat Alabama?

No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) at Tennessee (3-3, 0-3)

7 p.m. * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * ESPN/106.5 FM

The matchup

As broad as it may be, Tennessee's offense, fourth in the SEC in scoring (38 points per game) and third in yards (482.3), faces Alabama's top-ranked defense. The Crimson Tide have allowed more than 20 points just once in its past 20 games, when Georgia Southern scored 21 with the help of a kickoff return touchdown. The Vols scored 17 points or less in all but one game against Alabama (the 2003 five-overtime thriller in Tuscaloosa) since a 35-24 win in 2001.

Since Nick Saban became Alabama's coach in 2007, the Tide have held Tennessee to just 52 total points in their five-game win streak.

"We feel like we're pretty good on offense, and that's the best defense in college football," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "I think all our guys are really excited about seeing if we can go toe-to-toe with them. If we can go out there and play to our capacity for 60 minutes, we can find ourselves right in that position we've been in every week, and I believe that."

One to watch

Behind one of the nation's top offensive lines and a stable of four- and five-star recruits at tailback, Alabama's bruising run game is averaging 217 yards per game. Yet it's quarterback A.J. McCarron who could give Tennessee's ailing defense its most concerns. The junior leads the SEC in passing efficiency and has yet to throw an interception this season. Moreover, when Tennessee played Alabama to a 6-6 halftime tie in Tuscaloosa last season, the Tide came out throwing early in the second half of a 37-6 runaway win.

McCarron finished with a career-best 284 yards passing, and the Vols defense, ranked 13th in the SEC in yards allowed, must be wary when picking its poison with Alabama's efficient offense.

"We don't want to bow down to these boys," Vols cornerback Justin Coleman said. "We want to go out there and play our best."

In the end

The fan unrest and chatter about Dooley's future have been unable to keep Tennessee's spirits down in practice this week, as the Vols have been energized in anticipation of hosting the country's No. 1 team and a rival on their field in primetime. That could get zapped pretty quickly if Tennessee digs itself another early hole against an Alabama team that simply doesn't beat itself with turnovers and mistakes while suffocating their opponent's hopes. The Tide program right now simply is a machine built on talent, size and speed of its players.

Even if the Vols, who likely will be without starting tailback and leading rusher Rajion Neal (ankle) can move the ball consistently on Alabama, its defense has allowed 43 points and 522 yards per game to three SEC opponents. Should the Tide maintain their 40.5-point average, it'll be the first time in the program's long history the Vols have allowed 40 points in three consecutive games.

Prediction

Alabama 41, Tennessee 21

KNOXVILLE — Vinnie Sunseri already made one trip from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville this fall.

The visit featured wings, some home cooking from his mother, football on the television and time with the family he'd not seen since the Fourth of July.

The Alabama safety's second visit will have a very different kind of emotion.

His father, Sal Sunseri, is Tennessee's defensive coordinator. Father and son will face off from opposing sidelines tonight when the Volunteers and visiting Crimson Tide renew their longtime rivalry.

"It's not that difficult because he's a defensive coach and I'm a defensive player, and we're not playing against each other so much," Vinnie said last week in a phone interview. "It's going to be a little hard. I probably won't talk to him as much [this week] just so he can focus on everything and not have to deal with all the media stuff going into this game with me and him playing each other.

"I told him I was going to see him before the game and I was going to definitely talk to him and hug him after the game. No matter what, I love the guy so incredibly much. Nothing can ever change that."

The thought of facing his son changed Coach Sunseri's tone drastically during his weekly Wednesday post-practice interviews. Typically a fiery individual with a booming voice, the 53-year-old former NFL and Alabama assistant was somber and quiet when discussing this game.

"It's been very, very hard this whole week, especially for both of us, to go and do what's going to be done," Sal said. "He's done a great job, what he's done all the way to this year. But emotionally for the family it's been really, really, really tough.

"I didn't think it would be this hard. I didn't imagine would be this hard, but it is very, very, very tough. We're both going to be professionals about it, we're going to do what we have to do and we're going to go out there and play our best football."

Vinnie, who signed with the Tide in 2011, said his father wasn't able to see him play much in high school, and the relationship and chance to play for his father was a big factor in his choice to play at Alabama. As a freshman last season he finished ninth on the team in tackles, made 11 special-teams tackles and earned a selection to the Southeastern Conference's all-freshman team.

Through six games this season, Vinnie is Alabama's fourth-leading tackler, and he's intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble in his increased defensive role.

"Vinnie's a very instinctive player," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He's a very bright guy. I think football is really important to him, so he works hard at it all the time.

"He loves to play, but he's actually playing a new position here. He had never played defensive back before, and he's really worked hard at becoming the kind of disciplined, eye-controlled player that you need to be when you play in the secondary. I think that's one of the things that he's made the most progress on, and I think that's helped him continue to develop and play well for us."

The development nearly continued at Tennessee. When his father took the Vols' job in January, Vinnie considered following him to Knoxville. He decided to stay, and the communication between the two has remained steady.

"It was really difficult," Vinnie said. "I had to think about whether I wanted to stay here or go up there, but then I weighed the positives and negatives. I just decided to stay here and finish out my career at Alabama.

"We talk every day, just to see how we're doing. I ask him about how his practice goes, he asks me how my practice goes and we just kind of talk, mostly about each other. There's not much about football."

With Sal's coaching endeavors, the Sunseris have moved multiple times across the country. Roxann, Sal's wife and Vinnie's mom, now lives in Knoxville, where the youngest of their four children, Ashlynn, is a freshman on Tennessee's volleyball team. Tino is a fifth-year senior at Pittsburgh, Sal's alma mater where he met Roxann, as a third-year starting quarterback, and Jaclyn is working in North Carolina, where Sal worked for six years as an assistant with the Carolina Panthers.

"The family is extremely close," Sal said. "You guys don't know how hard it is when you're a family that had to move from Pittsburgh that left its immediate family and you've taken these kids and you've taken them to seven different areas. Every week, every day, it's just you and your kids ... it was tough."

Vinnie said he and his siblings keep up with group text messaging.

As much as Sal enjoyed seeing his son two weeks ago when both Tennessee and Alabama had their open dates, he'll find it equally tough emotionally tonight.

"It was fantastic," Sal said of Vinnie's visit. "It was great to be with him. It was great to see him. It was great to see his smile.

"It's going to be hard on Saturday night when that kid walks on the field and he hugs me."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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