Tennessee at Alabama
When: Saturday, October 24th, 2015
Where: Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Bryant-Denny Stadium)
Early line: Alabama favored by 10 (per Golden Nugget)
Alabama at a glance:
Head Coach: Nick Saban (86-17 through 8 years at Alabama)
All-time record: 850-325-43
2014 results: 12-2 (7-1 SEC); Lost to Ohio State 42-35 in the national semifinals, held at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
Returning starters: 12: 4 (offense), 8 (defense)
Alabama had yet another great year under Nick Saban in 2015. The Crimson Tide began the season by clearing through West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, and Southern Miss. They then traveled to Florida where they trailed 14-7 early in the game but ultimately throttled the Gators 42-21.
After a bye week, Bama went to Oxford, Miss., and in what was likely the biggest upset of the regular season in 2014, lost narrowly to the Ole Miss Rebels 23-17. From that point forward, the Tide did not drop another regular season game.
Bama subsequently beat Arkansas and absolutely demolished Texas A&M. And after beating Tennessee in a game that saw the debut and emergence of now star Vol quarterback Joshua Dobbs, Bama went on to slip past LSU in overtime in Baton Rouge. After beating the upstart #1 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, the Tide went on to best Auburn in their regular season finale to claim another SEC West title.
Missouri never stood a chance in the SEC Championship game and the Tide made quick work of the Tigers in a 42-13 blowout. Then Alabama entered the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinal, the Allstate Sugar Bowl, as the favorite against Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes, but the Tide were downed by OSU 42-35, ending Bama’s season and crushing their hopes for a national title.
Senior quarterback Blake Sims (3837 yds total offense, 35 TDs) had a surprisingly productive season under much-hated (in Knoxville, at least) offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Star senior wide receiver Amari Cooper (1727 yds recieving, 16 TDs) proved to be one of the best players in America. The Tide’s defense was, as it often is, the top rushing defense in the SEC, but their passing defense left much to be desired finishing as the 11th best pass defense in the conference.
Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:
1. Can Tennessee contain Alabama’s rushing attack?
Jake Coker will likely be Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2015, but he’s not going to matter all that much because most of the Tide’s offense will come from the backfield. The 1-2 punch of Derrick Henry, who ran for 990 yards in 2014 as a sophomore, and Kenyan Drake, who ran for 112 yards before having a season-ending knee injury, is stout and a key to Tennessee staying with Bama will be stopping the run. It won’t be easy, but with the Vols’ experienced and powerful defensive line, it’s very possible.
2. If Tennessee stops the run, where will Lane Kiffin find offensive production?
Lane Kiffin gained a lot of praise in 2014 for supposedly making an offense that should have been bad, fairly good. But, let’s be honest, anyone could run a half-decent offense if they had Amari Cooper at wideout. Cooper is now gone and if the Vols’ stout d-line can contain Alabama’s run game, that could create serious problems for the Tide’s offense. Bama’s receiving core is seemingly talented but completely inexperienced. The four expected starters at receiver have a combined total of 460 receiving yards and three starts for their careers. Not to mention, Jake Coker has never started a collegiate game as a quarterback. It could get dicey very quickly for the Tide if Tennessee finds a way to stifle Bama’s rushing attack.
3. Can the Vols throw on Bama’s secondary?
Alabama’s rush defense will be good, there’s no doubt about that. But their secondary was far from perfect last year, giving up an average of 226 yards per game through the air. Senior Cyrus Jones, who earned 2nd-team All-SEC honors in 2014, will lead the Tide defensive backs, but past Jones, there’s not much to speak of in terms of established players. Sophomore Tony Brown, who will play opposite Jones, had two starts and 10 tackles last year. It’s a crapshoot for Bama’s secondary this year, especially considering they also have a brand new secondary coach in Mel Brown. If Dobbs and UT’s deep set of receivers can make plays against Bama’s inexperienced backs, this could be a tight contest.
How do we expect it to play out?
Tennessee has never beaten a Nick Saban-led Alabama team and the Vols haven’t won in Tuscaloosa since 2003. Will this be the year that the Vols down the Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium? Well, probably not, but it’s the first time in far too long that Tennessee is expected to truly compete with the Tide.
In other words, Tennessee COULD win.
Expect this game to be hard-fought and close for three quarters but in the end for the Tide to pull away late. UT’s best chance at a win against Alabama in a long time might come next year in Knoxville.