Preview: Tennessee vs. No. 4 Alabama

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    Todd Kelly Jr-1-3Tennessee vs. No. 4 Alabama

    Saturday, 7:30 pm ET

    Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.

    TV: ESPN2

    Series Record: Alabama leads 51-38-7

     Setting the table

    The Tennessee-Alabama rivalry is always big. This one is massive as former UT head coach Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville as the offensive coordinator of the Vols’ most bitter rival, Alabama. The teams still aren’t on level footing. The Vols are in the middle of what feels like a perpetual rebuilding job while Alabama remains near the top of the college football mountain. It’s hard to consider this an “off year” for Alabama, considering they are very much in the hunt to make the first annual College Football Playoff. But this Alabama team has shown a few flaws and this is the lowest they’ve been ranked coming into the Tennessee game since the 2010 season. Still, Alabama is the heavy favorite coming into this one. The Tide’s defense is still top notch and the Vols have really struggled to move the ball against strong defenses. It should be an interesting evening at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.

    Who has the edge?

    When Tennessee throws…

    Three issues have plagued Tennessee in the passing game, especially in the past few games: 1. Offensive line failing to protect 2. Justin Worley either holding onto the ball too long or turning it over via interception or fumble and 3. Receivers failing to get open on a consistent basis. The o-line, again, should struggle to protect against an Alabama defense that brings a lot of various looks and blitzes and averages nearly three sacks per game. Worley, or whomever the quarterback might be, simply must protect the football better. Anything over two turnovers would likely end any chances UT has in this one. And this will be a good test for the receivers against a secondary that is talented, but has given up some big plays this year. Alabama is fifth in the conference in pass defense, giving up an average of 198.7 yards per game through the air. Arkansas threw for 250 on this secondary, so it can be done. But until the Vols show they can protect a little better and not turn the ball over through the air, it’s tough to say that they’ll have a big day in this area. Edge: Slightly to Alabama

    When Tennessee runs…

    The Vols were historically bad last week, rushing for a net of zero yards, becoming the first SEC team since Florida in 2011 to not hit the positives on the ground. Alabama won’t help them at all. The Tide leads the SEC in rushing defense, giving up just 64.4 yards per game. The offensive line hasn’t given much help, but injuries in the backfield have certainly taken a toll as well. Marlin Lane (ankle) hasn’t been himself and Jalen Hurd, who’s found the most success this season, has been battling a bad shoulder. There’s not much depth behind them. UT’s best chance in the run game is to pick their spots with Hurd, try to get him a little bit of space on a draw play or maybe get him to the corner and let him do some damage if he can reach the second and third levels. Much easier said than done. It could be another long day in this area for the Vols. Edge: Alabama

    When Alabama passes…

    Blake Sims hasn’t been perfect, but he’s done an admirable job taking over at quarterback this season – something few people predicted. Alabama is averaging 290.9 yards per game through the air and Sims has a strong arm and does a great job of extending plays with his feet and then looking for Amari Cooper on the deep ball. Cooper is among the best pure players Tennessee will see this year at any position. The Vols will try to match Cam Sutton up with him as much as possible, though Alabama will move him around and try to create mismatches. The good news for Tennessee is that if they can limit Cooper in any way, they don’t have a stable of other proven targets. Nobody else on the roster has over 200 yards of receiving on the season, while Cooper had 908 with seven touchdown. Again, limiting Cooper is easier said than done. Look for him to make a few big plays that could spoil an otherwise good effort from this bunch. Edge: Alabama

    When Alabama runs…

    Though not quite as dominant statistically this season, Alabama can still get it done on the ground. Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry comprise one of the best duos in the nation and, in total, Alabama rushes for 223.7 yards per game on the ground. Tennessee’s run defense has been solid, though not spectacular, checking in at ninth in the league by giving up 159.5 yards per game. The two big backs can just wear out a defense and that’s a concern for a UT unit that is a touch short on depth and will likely be on the field a lot, especially if the offense can’t sustain many drives. The key for Tennessee will be to get Yeldon and Henry stopped before they get started. Both are downhill runners that are tough to bring down in space. Edge: Alabama

    Special teams…

    Tennessee has been a little more accurate on field goals, though Alabama holds the advantage in punting average. Alabama’s Christian Jones and Cyrus Jones are both dynamic in the return game. The Vols will likely return to freshman Evan Berry in the kickoff return game despite his costly fumble last week at Ole Miss. He’s dynamic as well, though he has to take care of the ball. Cam Sutton is a threat on any punt return where he can get some space. The Vols actually have put up slightly better coverage numbers overall on both punts and kickoffs. Nothing really stands out as a huge advantage for either team. Edge: Even

    What Alabama is thinking

    This won’t be the same Tennessee team that we’ve rolled the past four years. Their defense is better and we’ll have to battle a little more than normal on Kiffin-at-Spring-PracticeSaturday. That being said, this is still our series and our game. We’ve hit our stride. Texas A&M is a better team than Tennessee and we named our score against the Agggies. The last time Tennessee made this game competitive it was 2009 when Lane Kiffin was their head coach. Guess what. He’s on our sideline now and he actually roasted John Jancek and Willie Martinez when they were at Georgia that year. We’ll have the tactical edge and we are going to blow that offensive line up and cause havoc. We don’t have to score 40 ourselves on offense, just take care of the football, get at least 24 points on the board and we’ll get out of there with no problems.

    What Tennessee is thinking

    We can’t get hung up on what Alabama did to A&M last week. We’re thinking more about Arkansas the prior week and how the Hogs stuck with Alabama all day and had a chance to beat them. If they can put up 250 through the air on Alabama, we can too. We’re going to help our defense more this week. No costly turnovers, more first downs and better field position for four quarters. That will give our defense the energy to play four quarters and we’ll stick in this game down to the wire. We’ll do everything we can to stop Cooper and make the other receivers beat us. If we do all that, there could be some magic at Neyland on Saturday night.

    What RTI is thinking

    Another tough one for Tennessee. The Vols are outmatched in this one and need to play their best game and get some help. The fact that Alabama has been shaky on the road a couple times is the one thing UT can hold onto as a sign that maybe the Vols can hang in this one. But if Alabama clicks like it did last week against Ole Miss and the Vols self-destruct with turnovers, it’ll be a long night. It’s been a crazy year in the SEC and anything can happen. And this one is especially intriguing with the Kiffin storylines. The safe bet, however, remains Alabama and it looks like the Vols will to wait longer to get some revenge on their former head coach.