Tennessee (3-3) at No. 8 Alabama (6-1)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) • Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Line: Alabama by 15.5
Series Record: Alabama leads 52-37-1
Setting the table
The Vols got a much-needed win over Georgia two weeks ago, helping alleviate the pain of what was otherwise an extremely frustrating first half of the season. Tennessee also got a much-needed bye last week, getting some guys healthier and resting a roster that is getting set to face one of the hottest teams in the nation. Alabama, after a surprising loss in Week 3 to Ole Miss, has rolled in the past four games, looking especially sharp in wins over Georgia and Texas A&M in two of the past three weeks. Alabama looks to be returning to championship-contender form, but has also played seven games in seven weeks without a break. Could the Vols be catching Alabama at the right time? Maybe, but it could also be argued that it’s the wrong time since the Tide are playing as well as anybody in the nation.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
Alabama’s secondary might not be the strength of the defense, but it is still extremely solid, leading the SEC in pass-defense efficiency and total interceptions. Look no further than Alabama’s win over A&M last week where the Tide secondary picked off three passes and returned them all for touchdowns. Tennessee’s passing attack, meanwhile, got on the right track against Georgia, but has been a source of inconsistency all year. The Vols come to Tuscaloosa with a little more confidence in this area, but Alabama still clearly has the edge and will make the Vols prove they can move the ball through the air. Edge: Alabama
When Tennessee runs…
Tennessee’s rushing attack has been a strength this year with the Vols ranking second in the league right now on the ground with 222 yards per game. That strength will meet another force, however, in an Alabama defense that is far and away the best rushing defense in the SEC, giving up just 70.9 yards per game on the ground. The Vols have shown they can have a competent rushing attack against just about anybody, including two top-six SEC rushing defenses in Florida and Arkansas already this year. Nick Saban’s defenses have struggled against rushing quarterbacks traditionally, so there could be some opportunities for Joshua Dobbs on the ground especially. It’s hard to see the Vols running wild, but they should have at least some level of success on the ground. Edge: Even
When Alabama throws…
In itself, the Alabama passing attack doesn’t scare too many people. But coupled with its strong rushing game, Alabama has opportunities to burn teams that over-stack the box. Jake Coker isn’t an All-SEC type of player, but give him some time and good matchups in the secondary and he’ll find the likes of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and versatile players such Kenyan Drake and O.J. Howard for some big plays. The Vols currently sit second to last in the league in passing defense, so even though Alabama isn’t elite in this area, the Tide should move the ball through the air at least some. Edge: Slightly to Alabama
When Alabama runs…
Tennessee should and likely will sell out to stop Derrick Henry and the Alabama rushing attack that is fourth in the league. Once Henry hits the second and third levels of the defense, he’s borderline unstoppable at 6-3, 242 pounds. He gets a head of steam and few players in the country can take him down in a one-on-one situation. The Vols need to stop Henry before he gets going on the ground because his runs can be a touch slow developing sometimes, but if they can’t do that, he could easily go for 150+ yards, and with some help from Drake, Alabama has a good chance to hold the edge in this area. Edge: Alabama
On special teams…
This is maybe the only area Tennessee has a pretty decided edge. The Vols have been solid in almost every phase of special teams, while the Tide have struggled. A conceded punt return touchdown and a lost fumble on special teams helped keep A&M in the game last week against the Tide for at least a portion of the contest. UT will likely need to make some similar plays to make this a game in Tuscaloosa. Edge: Tennessee
What Alabama is thinking
We own this series. The Vols have never defeated us with Nick Saban at the helm, and we’re playing as well as anybody in the nation. Tennessee has upped its talent level, so we know we have to take the Vols seriously, but if we take care of the football and play our game, we’ll get out of this one with a multiple-score victory and keep marching towards an SEC crown.
What Tennessee is thinking
This is our year in this rivalry. We’ve shown we can play with anybody in the country, and we have a renewed sense of confidence and purpose for this season after knocking off Georgia and getting a week to rest and improve. The season didn’t start exactly how we hoped, but our goals are still in front of us and a win in Tuscaloosa will show everybody that we are for real. We’ll need to play an elite-level game, create turnovers and big plays, but we can do all that, get this into the fourth quarter and shock the nation.
What RTI is thinking
Tennessee certainly has cut the gap down a bit in terms of overall talent against Alabama. It wouldn’t stun us to see this one be competitive late, but it’s nearly impossible to pick Tennessee to actually win the game at this point.