It’s here. We’ve had months to process the return of Lane Kiffin to Knoxville and this city’s most hated son is now on his way back. That’s the massive side story, but there’s a game to be played on the field.
It’ll be a tough one for Tennessee, there’s no doubt about that. The Vols have struggled to block anybody this year and Alabama’s defensive front is among the best in the nation at stopping the run and can get after the passer as well. Speaking of the passer, we don’t even know who that will be at this point. Justin Worley is questionable, at best, and some combination of Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs could hold UT’s chances in their hands. Maybe that’s a spark for this offense, especially after some of Worley’s struggles this year, but that’s also a scary proposition for Tennessee. Dobbs, especially, showed some flashes last year, but neither have proven that they can hold onto the ball consistently. UT must do that to have a chance in this game.
Alabama has been a tale of two teams at times. The squad that rolled Texas A&M 59-0 last week looked almost unbeatable. But the team that went to Arkansas and won 14-13 the week prior did not. The Vols will be hoping that some of those road struggles come with Alabama to Knoxville.
The biggest question I have is if Tennessee can move the ball with any consistency. They’ll need at least a couple scoring drives, but the Vols also have to do more to help the defense out. That means less turnovers, less short fields and more time of possession to give the defense a chance to rest and regroup on the sideline. The defense has overachieved this year, but the Ole Miss game was a classic example of the issue with this team. The defense held it together for awhile, but the dam finally broke in the late third/early fourth quarter when turnovers and overall fatigue finally got to them and the Rebels were able to take complete control. I could see a similar situation playing out Saturday.
For Tennessee to have any shot to win, the Vols will have to get some time to throw, find some holes in Alabama’s secondary, which has been done some this year and not the turn the ball over. They’ll then have to lean on their defense, which must key in on Amari Cooper and the run game and try to make the other skill players on offense win the game. That’s all just too much to ask this Tennessee team at this point.
There are winnable games coming. The Vols are still in play to make a bowl game – they just have to find a way to get three more wins. I just don’t think one of them comes this weekend. Pick: Alabama 31-10
MVP: Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper
Cam Sutton will keep him from going off. But I think Kiffin finds a few ways to get him matched up with other players either via motion or maybe by running some form of pick play that gets the coverage switched up. Cooper, who truly might be the most talented player in the nation, will make a few catches on Sutton and then he’ll break a big one of two when he’s matched up on somebody else. I expect him to get to 100 yards receiving and score at least once.
I have gone back and forth on this game all week. On one hand, Alabama is extremely talented, extremely deep, extremely well coached and appeared to hit their stride last week against Texas A&M. On the other hand, they do not appear as dominant on defense as they have in recent years, they have had some struggles running the football at times and their offense has all but disappeared in road games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. The Ole Miss game made sense – Ole Miss’ defense is fantastic – and the game in Fayetteville was played during a steady rain, so perhaps it was just a coincidence. However, CBS commentator Gary Danielson seems to think that Alabama may be having some communication issues on the road between offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and quarterback Blake Sims…I guess we will find out tomorrow.
If Kiffin and Sims can’t communicate properly tomorrow, then I would look for Tennessee’s defense to have a big night. Kiffin is very good at recognizing defensive alignments and signaling in changes to Sims based on what he sees, but if he can’t do that then I think John Jancek will throw in some wrinkles to confuse Sims and force him into some poor decisions. If Tennessee can limit Sims’ ability to escape the pocket and extend plays with his feet, then I think they can have success when Alabama throws the football. Cam Sutton will likely be lined up against Alabama’s Amari Cooper all night and while nobody in the country could shut Cooper down, Sutton is among the best cornerbacks in the league and should perform well against him. Tennessee will likely use one safety over the top of Cooper to help Sutton while putting the other safety closer to the line of scrimmage to help out in run support, so other cornerbacks will need to play some of their best football of the year. Alabama also has two very talented running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry but their young offensive line hasn’t been very consistent in their run blocking, so it’s difficult to know what they will get out of those backs in this one. The Vols’ defensive line has gotten better each week and I think that they will come out prepared and execute well in this game.
The real question in this game for Tennessee will be whether or not they can muster any type of production on offense. Their offensive line – which wasn’t very good to begin with – is banged up and it looks like starting right tackle Coleman Thomas won’t be able to play. Senior Jacob Gilliam (playing on a torn ACL) will take over for Thomas. At quarterback, the Vols will likely be without the services of Justin Worley who suffered a shoulder injury in last weekend’s loss to Ole Miss. That means that Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs are both likely to see extended action in this game according to Butch Jones. Both of these quarterbacks are more mobile than Worley and may be better suited to avoid pressure, but are they advanced enough to recognize the variety of coverages and blitzes that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will send their way? Again, we will find out Saturday night.
I think this game will be similar to Tennessee’s game against Florida. I see a close game that features a lot of defense, a lot of punting and a lot of each team playing safe and hoping for field position. Can Tennessee make the plays in this game that eluded them against Florida and can the Vols protect the football? In all of Tennessee’s losses this season it has been ill-timed turnovers that have given their opponent the opportunity to put the game out of reach. If Tennessee can take care of the football then I think they can be in this game in the fourth quarter, but, unfortunately, I don’t think that they can make enough plays on offense to win. Alabama knows that if they can protect the football and not give Tennessee anything cheap, then they will leave Knoxville with a win. I think they do just that. Pick: Alabama 20-13
MVP: Alabama Quarterback Blake Sims
It wouldn’t surprise me if Sims struggles throwing the football in this game, but ultimately makes enough plays with his feet to win the game. Tennessee has played a bunch of mobile quarterbacks this year, but none have possessed the skill set that Sims will bring into this game. He is big, he is physical, he is fast and he has an absolute cannon of an arm. He isn’t the most accurate passer, but his ability to buy time with his legs and allow receivers to get open downfield helps open up bigger windows for him to throw through. I think Sims will be under 200 yards passing in this game, but I also think he will make three or four big plays with his feet that will keep drives alive and allow Alabama to put up enough points for the win.
I ranked this game as the second-toughest on Tennessee’s schedule before the season and, after what Alabama did to Texas A&M last week, that may have been too low. Alabama has signed the No. 1 class in the country four consecutive years and will undoubtably be the most talented team in the nation. They return over 70% of their production on both sides of the ball and are heavy favorites for a reason.
There are reasons to believe the Vols have a shot in this one, though. We’ve seen Tennessee play top-10 teams well at home under Butch Jones. The Vols took top-10 Georgia to overtime and knocked off South Carolina, who ranked 4th in the final AP Poll, in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium last season. But this is Alabama. In the hierarchy of the SEC, there’s the Crimson Tide and there’s everyone else. The Vols will have to put forth their best game in ages to win this one.
Alabama has struggled a bit away from home this season, especially on offense. Tennessee’s defense has been a bright spot this year and it’ll be up to that unit to not only slow Alabama, but force some turnovers and help the offense out with some short fields. If the Vols can win the turnover battle, this one will be close. Blake Sims has thrown just three interceptions this season, so that won’t be an easy task. Alabama has an unquestioned edge in talent and at the QB position. I doubt Worley plays, but after two straight SEC games without an offensive touchdown, things can’t get much worse for the Vol offense.
If the combination of Dobbs and Peterman can at least protect the football, they have the talent to give the offense a spark with their mobility and arm strength. In the end, the Vols have too much to overcome with either an injured and struggling veteran at QB or two QBs playing their first significant snaps of the season. Alabama leads the SEC in yards per play on offense and ranks second in yards per play allowed on defense. They’re too good and too balanced to lose this one. The game is close for a while, but Alabama blows it open late. Pick: Kiffin 33-13
MVP: Alabama Quarterback Blake Sims
Sims is the top rated passer in the SEC and he will really test the Vol defense. He’s the most dangerous QB the Vols have faced this season and can shred you with his legs if you miss an assignment or a tackle. Sims has been excellent on third down as well, ranking just behind Dak Prescott on third downs this season. He’s a big reason Alabama ranks second in the SEC in third down conversion percentage. Whether with his legs or arm, Sims makes a couple of eye-popping plays that ultimately grab momentum for Alabama and put this game away.