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Prediction Panel: Tennessee at No. 8 Alabama

Josh Dobbs-1Daniel’s Pick:

I’ve covered two games in Tuscaloosa and have seen the Vols lose by an average of 33 points, so hopefully you can understand my skepticism about Tennessee’s chances in this game.

Yes, I do believe Tennessee has the overall talent to compete against the Tide, but unlike some of the previous matchups this year, I’m not at all willing to say that this is a game that Tennessee should win. Tennessee has narrowed the gap some, but Alabama is just plain better, playing at home and is arguably playing as well as anybody in the nation after that surprising loss to Ole Miss a few weeks back.

I think Tennessee needs to do five things primarily to stay in this game into the fourth quarter: 1. Limit Derrick Henry by stopping him before he gets his momentum going into the second and third levels of the defense 2. Don’t let the focus on stopping the run get to a point where Alabama is able to lob easy touchdowns over the top 3. Get a big performance from Joshua Dobbs that includes at least 300 total yards of offense 4. Win the turnover battle and 5. Create a huge play off a turnover and/or on special teams.

Those are types of things that teams that have stuck with Bama the past few years have been able to do. UT needs to do most – if not all – of that list well to make this one interesting. And if Tennessee can make it interesting and get it into the fourth quarter? Sure, anything can happen, but the Vols are batting .250 on the year in one-possession games, so even then, I would like Alabama’s chances to finish this one off.

All-in-all, as Butch Jones said this week, it’s going to take an elite-level effort from UT on Saturday to get this win. I think the Vols are better than last year and have played like a good football team during stretches of this year, but they certainly haven’t shown me that they’re elite. A win in Tuscaloosa would be a massive step for Butch Jones and this program, and at that point, all bets are off for the SEC East race and on almost everything else I thought about this team after its 2-3 start to the season.

I predict the Vols will show glimpses of elite potential and I think they have enough to get this game into at least the third quarter and maybe enough to cover the spread too.

In the end, Alabama will show why it is a championship contender and that the Vols haven’t closed the gap all the way yet. The Tide, perhaps just when it looks like Tennessee has a chance to make it a real game, will have one of those soul-crushing, 85-yard-type drives that will put them up two scores late and essentially end the game. It’ll be enough for the Vols to show that they’re a good team that will at least have a chance to win out down the stretch, but not elite enough to pull off this type huge win on the road.

Pick: Alabama 31-17

MVP: WR Calvin Ridley 

I have a feeling the talented freshman receiver may be an honorary “Cooper” by the time this game is over. Ridley has really come into his own the past three weeks – catching 21 passes for 312 yards to help lead the Tide to three straight SEC victories. I think, and I hope for UT’s sake, that the Vols do focus on stopping the run to the point that they force Alabama to try to win the game through the air. That seemed to be a big part of the gameplan against Georgia, and it ended up working, but largely because of an unexplainable drop by Reggie Davis late in the game that would’ve tied that game up. I don’t think Ridley drops an opportunity like that. If you’re UT, you’d rather take your chances with Jake Coker and the receivers than with Henry, but I think, if given the opportunity, the Tide passing game will be able to step up just enough against a UT defense that is stacking the box to make the needed plays to win the game.

Houston’s Pick:

If you’ve listened to any national analyst this week, the Vols have no shot and you shouldn’t even waste your time watching this game. Tennessee fans, however, know that the 3-3 record thus far is not truly indicative of the type of talent that this team will be taking into Tuscaloosa.

The Georgia game featured the worst start by a Tennessee team since…well, since last year’s game against the Crimson Tide that saw Alabama jump out to a 27-0 lead with 12:03 left in the second quarter. In both cases the huge early deficit appeared to wake Tennessee up. Tennessee would outscore Alabama 20-7 last year after the Tide’s fast start, and, two weeks ago, the Vols outscored Georgia 35-7 after trailing 24-3 during the second quarter.

This should tell you that Tennessee has the fire-power to score points against talented defenses. That, alone, gives the Vols a shot in this game tomorrow. The key, in my opinion, is winning the turnover battle. In Alabama’s lone loss of the season they demolished Ole Miss in every statistical category – with the notable exception of turnovers. Alabama turned the football over five times against the Rebels and Hugh Freeze’s team was able to capitalize early and often, building a 20-point lead in the third quarter and holding on for a 43-37 victory.

I don’t believe that the Vols will need to win the turnover battle by five in order to win, but I’ll say that a minimum of +2 will be necessary.

Offensively, the Vols don’t need to do anything too crazy. They need to do what they did against Georgia for two-and-a-half quarters, which is find balance and allow Joshua Dobbs to do what he does best. If the coaching staff will give Joshua Dobbs the freedom to use his legs and get Alabama off guard, then the Vols will have the opportunity to put points on the board. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara need to be involved in both the pass and run, and the receivers and tight ends need to make tough catches when Dobbs gives them an opportunity. There aren’t a ton of matchups that you love if you are Tennessee, but isolating tight ends and running backs against Bama’s linebackers could allow them to consistently move the chains.’

Defensively, the plan is simple, but the execution is the tricky part. Tennessee has to stop Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake in the running game and force Jacob Coker into 3rd-and-6 or longer. Once they get Coker into obvious passing situations, they have to pressure him quickly and force him to make decisions before the play develops. Coker is talented, no doubt, but he doesn’t play well when things aren’t perfect. If Tennessee’s defensive backs can jam Bama receivers and the defensive line can get pressure, then Coker will make bad decisions and turnovers are likely.

I think this is going to be a great game from start to finish, and if this Tennessee team was a little healthier I’d be extremely tempted to pick them to win. But injuries have not been kind to the Vols in 2015. The secondary hasn’t been very good at times (Rashaan Gaulden’s absence really hurt), and the losses of Curt Maggitt and Shy Tuttle are going to make things difficult for the defensive line – especially this week. The Vols can do enough to hang around in this one, and probably will, but until they prove they can compete and win against the truly elite, I can’t pick them. Derrick Henry leads Bama on a late drive to kill the clock and put the game out of reach.

Pick: Alabama 34-24

MVP: Alabama running back Derrick Henry

Limiting Henry is one thing, but stopping him is something else entirely. He is deceptively fast and extremely hard to tackle, and the Tide offensive line – while not elite – is good enough to create some gaps for him to run through, and you can bet that Henry will break a tackle or two. I don’t think he has a “Heisman” type of day, but 100+ and two touchdowns will be enough for MVP honors.

Reed’s Pick:

Tennessee is good enough to make this a ballgame. The Vols have exactly the type of offense, and quarterback, that has given Alabama’s dominant defense some problems the last few seasons. Joshua Dobbs certainly looked like he found his stride against Georgia two weeks ago (430 yards, 5 TDs) and it’ll probably take a similar performance from Dobbs to pull of the upset. He moved the ball on Bama last year in relief of Nathan Peterman and helped the Vols score 20 points. For perspective, Tennessee hadn’t scored 20 points in regulation against Alabama since 2003.

Here are some Vol QBs who failed to put up 20 points against Alabama in their careers: Justin Worley, Tyler Bray, Erik Ainge, Rick Clausen, Nick Stephens, Jonathan Crompton, Matt Simms and Heath Shuler.

The Vols also put up 383 total yards on Bama last season, the most for UT in the series since 2003. Dobbs accounted 267 of those yards without playing the whole game. Tennessee’s offensive line is better this season than last and I expect Tennessee to put up some points as long as turnovers aren’t a major factor.

Tennessee’s defense will have to play its best game for the Vols to win this one. Alabama doesn’t have Amari Cooper to fall back on this season, but they still have one of the best rushing offenses in the nation and they’ve shown a knack for hitting a big play when they need one.

I expect the rested Vols to battle and build a lead but ultimately succumb to Alabama’s physical rushing attack late in the game.

Pick: Alabama 38-24

MVP: Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker

If there’s one thing we know about Lane Kiffin, it’s that he knows how to put QBs in a position to succeed against defenses with notable holes. The Vols have such a defense and have a bad habit of surrendering career days to opposing quarterbacks. Coker hasn’t been great this year, but he’s made a few big plays. I expect Tennessee to have a lead early in this game and for Coker to lead Alabama back to a comfortable win in the second half.

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