Pass defense to get tested

No. 1-ranked Alabama defense gets tall task of stopping Bray, Vols

Updated: October 16, 2012, 1:08 PM ET
By Alex Scarborough | TideNation

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Michigan's Denard Robinson wasn't the one to test Alabama's ability to stop the pass. Arkansas' Tyler Wilson wasn't the man for the job either. Neither he nor Missouri's James Franklin ever saw the field against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.

[+] EnlargeJustin Hunter
Jim Brown/US PresswireJustin Hunter is going to be a tough matchup for Alabama cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue.
In a way, it's been the year of avoiding the big quarterback for Alabama. Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss weren't about to test the secondary and drop back to throw the ball 50 times a game.

Tennessee will.

When Alabama travels to Knoxville on Saturday, the Tide expect a challenge from Tyler Bray and the Vols passing game. Tennessee averages a hair shy of 300 passing yards per game. Alabama hasn't allowed more than 200 yards through the air in a game all season. Something's got to give.

"They have one of the best offensive teams in the country, statistically," said UA coach Nick Saban.

And Alabama has the best defensive unit in the nation, ranking first in pass defense, rush defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Tide are No. 1 in pass efficiency defense and first downs allowed. Just don't tell Saban that.

"I don't look at this like you all look at it," Saban said. "Where we're ranked in defense or anything doesn't really matter to me. I look at how we play, the mistakes we make, the things we need to get better on."

Saban looks at what's next, and that's a Tennessee offense capable of testing the validity of Alabama's numbers on defense.

Bray is 28th in the country in passing with 1,730 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His main targets -- Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson -- are both stars at receiver. Hunter already has 497 yards and four touchdowns. Patterson has 23 catches and three touchdowns of his own. His numbers as the No. 2 receiver are better than any of Alabama's pass-catchers.

"They've put up great numbers this whole year," UA safety Vinnie Sunseri said. "They've scored a lot of points. They have great athletes. Justin Hunter, [Patterson] is a strong wide receiver, a fast wide receiver.

"We're gonna have to bring our A-game because they're a great offense."

Fellow safety Robert Lester said he's excited for the opportunity to face a quarterback like Bray. Combined with the big-play threats in Hunter and Patterson, Lester expects to have his hands full in Neyland Stadium.

"Any time a team wants to throw a ball deep, challenge the secondary, that's a great opportunity for us to go out and make plays and let the world know we can play football," he said.

The man tasked with shutting down Hunter will likely be the Tide's top cornerback, Dee Milliner. The junior leads the country in passes defended and passes the test of a shutdown cornerback in Lester's eyes.

"You couldn't ask for any more," Lester said of Milliner, who has been targeted 25 times this season and surrendered just 77 yards. "He's taken away a portion of the field. That's what you want back there."

Playing opposite Milliner should be a healthy Deion Belue. The junior college transfer injured his shoulder and missed the second half against Ole Miss. He played against Missouri without incident and is tied for first on the team in interceptions.

Saban called Bray a "very, very good quarterback" and credited the Vols offensive line with creating balance on offense, something Tennessee did not have last season. The Vols are averaging 94.1 more yards rushing per game now than they were last season.

"They have a great quarterback and they're very big up front," said UA defensive end Damion Square. All five Tennessee offensive linemen come in at more than 300 pounds. "The guys are probably the biggest O-line I've seen all year. They're real athletic."

For Square and Co., the goal is getting to Bray and disrupting the passing game. Alabama is currently 11th in the country with 19 total sacks.

"I'm going to play at a high level and see if they can match it," Square said.

The Vols enter the game with plenty of incentive of their own. Tennessee hasn't beaten Alabama in five years and hasn't taken down a No. 1-ranked team since 1985. Then-quarterback Tony Robinson threw for four touchdowns as Tennessee beat Auburn at Neyland Stadium.

Twenty-seven years later, a 3-3 Tennessee squad will go up against another unbeaten SEC West rival hoping its quarterback can pull off the unthinkable. Just don't expect Alabama to be taking the task lightly.

"This game is more about the rivalry and less about people's record," Saban said. "Tennessee has a really, really good offensive team. It's always a challenge to play on the road, and this is certainly a challenging place to play."

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter