KNOXVILLE — Coming off perhaps their best defensive performance this season, the Tennessee Volunteers hope to carry momentum forward on the football field.
Against this week's opponent, the importance of that can't be understated.
The Vols had seven sacks and forced three turnovers in a 20-10 home over Mississippi State last Saturday, and they held the Bulldogs to their fewest points and yards (267) this season.
And on Monday, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt noted the defense played well but also pointed out the team needed to get better.
"Defensively, it probably wasn't as clean as I was expecting on Saturday," Pruitt said. "We have to be cleaner when it comes to execution. I thought our guys played hard. The effort and toughness were not an issue. They played hard and found a way. Getting three turnovers was really, really good. We probably had an opportunity to get a couple of more. Defense did a nice job controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."
It was finally a step in the right direction for a unit that has struggled both in generating quarterback pressure and covering in the secondary.
Tennessee gave up 213 rushing yards against Georgia State in an eight-point loss to open the season, and the following week the secondary had a couple mental mistakes that led to a busted coverage and resulted in a long gain on the way to a 29-26 double-overtime loss to BYU. Two weeks later at Florida, there was no pressure from the defensive front, which led to quarterback Kyle Trask passing for 293 yards in a 31-point win.
Georgia dominated the line of scrimmage and racked up 526 yards to beat the Vols 43-13.
But against Mississippi State, that changed.
"I think we just played physically all day and we ran to the ball," senior linebacker Darrell Taylor said. "We made a lot of plays. I think that helped our back end. Our back end covered us really well, and that's how we were able to get seven sacks — because those guys did well in the back end. I give credit to those guys, 100%, because we wouldn't have gotten those sacks without them."
Now the task is to try to stop No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern conference).
The Crimson Tide's offense ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (51.0 points per game); second in total offense (536.8 yards per game) and second in passing offense (366.0 yards per game). Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 27 touchdowns with just one interception this season, and the Tide have arguably the best receiving corps in the country, led by Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, who have a combined 80 catches and 15 touchdowns.
Smith has to miss the first half of Saturday's game, which kicks off at 9 p.m. EDT and will be televised by ESPN, after throwing a punch in the second half of last week's 47-28 win over Texas A&M.
Tennessee safety Theo Jackson calls Alabama's offense "explosive," while senior linebacker Daniel Bituli said the Vols (2-4, 1-2) will have to follow up one of their best defensive performances with one that is equal or even better.
"Don't beat yourself. Don't give them easy plays," Bituli said. "They're going to take what you give them just like any team in this league will, and that all starts with communication and how serious we take it in practice. The better we do in practice, the better we're going to do in the game. We just have to make sure we communicate as much as possible and start taking today seriously so we can win on Saturday."