KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee coach Derek Dooley had it all figured out. Freshman running back Devrin Young was going to return the kickoff against LSU, then carry the football on the first play from scrimmage.
"This is where coaches jinx themselves," Dooley said Monday, "because I wanted another play ready just in case."
Just in case, Coach?
"You know, in case something happens to him on the kickoff, he gets shook up or something."
Sure enough, Young returned the kick and LSU turned him every which way but loose. As he attempted to rise to his feet, fellow UT running back Tauren Poole asked Young if he was OK.
"I've never been hit that hard in my life," responded Young, a freshman.
Over on the sideline, Dooley could see his concerns coming true. He asked Poole about Young's physical condition following the hit.
Poole replied, "Coach, he isn't OK."
Dooley considered calling a timeout or changing the play, but by then the play clock was nearing zero. Young carried the ball. Young lost 8 yards. The Volunteers ultimately lost 38-7.
Now the kicker. Said Poole of the Alabama team the Vols visit Saturday: "Bama's more physical. I think they're going to hit even harder."
And, remember, LSU's No. 1 nationally while Alabama remains No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll.
Not that Dooley necessarily sees it that way.
"[Alabama's] probably as physically dominating on defense as I've seen in the modern era of football," he said at his weekly media luncheon. "They don't go to tackle you. They go to punish you."
Before one seeks to define Dooley's "modern era of football," he was in the Superdome stands on Jan. 1, 1993, when the Crimson Tide buried Miami to win the national championship. Many veteran SEC observers have ranked that Bama bunch as the best SEC defense since the Tide's national-title teams of 1978 and 1979.
But this Tide team could be better. Consider, for instance, that they are No. 1 nationally in overall defense (184 yards allowed a game), scoring defense (7 points a game) and rushing defense (38 yards an outing).
"They have size, speed and athleticism at every position," Dooley said of the Bama defenders. "They're also all juniors and seniors, so you're not going to fool them."
Nor does it end there. Bama is second nationally in fewest penalties per game (3.14) and third in penalty yardage (28.29 yards a contest).
And if that's not enough, the Tide lead the SEC in rushing offense by nearly 45 yards a game and are 24th nationally in total offense, gaining nearly 461 yards a game.
"I think this is Coach [Nick] Saban's best team," said Dooley, who worked on Saban's LSU staff for a national title in 2003 and admired Saban's 2009 national champions.
Not that the Vols have no hope in this one, despite their current 0-3 SEC mark. After all, two years ago in Tuscaloosa they lost 12-10 to the eventual national champs when a Daniel Lincoln field-goal try was blocked at the buzzer.
Then, as now, the Tide had not had their off week. Then, as now, it was tough to see the Vols hanging around at the game's beginning.
Yet even Poole said it might be a reach to compare that scenario with this one.
"It's two different teams," he said. "It looks like this team knows what you're going to run before you do. And it looks like that almost every snap."
So is there no way to shake up the Alabama defense?
"You can try throwing over their heads," Dooley said. "But you run the risk of getting your quarterback splattered."
There is at least one bit of good news in all this: No matter what happens Saturday, Alabama almost assuredly is the Vols' toughest test the rest of the season, which should be good for Big Orange kick returners and quarterbacks alike.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.