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Preview: No. 9 Tennessee vs. No. 1 Alabama

Josh Dobbs

No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) vs. No. 9 Tennessee (5-1, 2-1 SEC) 

Saturday, 3:30 pm ET

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


Series Record: Alabama leads 53-37-8

 Setting the table

Tennessee continued to show why it might be the most entertaining and dramatic team in the nation last weekend at College Station. The Vols’ late-game magic ran out in the double-overtime loss, but Tennessee put together another thriller, erasing a late two-score deficit to eventually force OT in a game that A&M looked to have wrapped up multiple times.

That defeat dented UT’s loss column for the first time this year, but all of the Vols’ goals for this season are still very much on the table. To remain a top-10 team and a legitimate playoff contender, however, Tennessee has the extremely tough task of knocking off defending champs and top-ranked Alabama on Saturday in Neyland Stadium. The Tide comes into Knoxville having been truly tested only once this year – a 48-43 win at Ole Miss in Week 3.

Tennessee showed in 2015 that it can compete with Alabama. The Vols have shown this season that they can break streaks and reach heights not seen in recent years. Saturday will be the toughest test yet for Tennessee.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

“Weakness” might be a strong word, but if there’s a spot on Alabama’s defense that has been a bit suspect at times this season, it’s the secondary. Alabama is eighth in the league in passing defense, giving up 223 yards through the air per game. That very well may be because teams regularly fall behind and have to throw it all day to try to catch it up. But at least there’s something UT can look to exploit a bit. Tennessee put up nearly 400 yards through the air against A&M, with most of it coming after the catch. It’s difficult to envision the Vols putting up massive numbers through the air, but if Joshua Dobbs can protect the football, take what’s there and get the ball to his playmakers, UT could have some success. Edge: Even

When Tennessee runs…

Alabama is the best in the nation, and the best in the conference by a wide margin in rushing defense (69.2 yards per game). Even Arkansas – a team that prides itself on running the ball – got nothing going on the ground against the Tide. The Vols have the most talented and diverse rushing attack that Alabama has seen to date, so don’t expect the Tide to completely shut UT down. The Vols, after all, have run the ball successfully to a degree in their last two meetings against Alabama. But the numbers and sheer talent of the Alabama front seven makes this a daunting challenge for Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Dobbs and others. On paper, the edge still goes to Bama. Edge: Slightly to Alabama

When Alabama throws…

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a pleasant surprise for the Tide this year. He’s dangerous with his feet, but he’s surprisingly mature in terms of his decision-making with the ball. It doesn’t hurt that he has arguably the most talented receiver in the conference in Calvin Ridley at his disposal. Tight end O.J. Howard, receivers ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter (who killed UT at Bowling Green last year) are also nice options. Lane Kiffin will work to get advantageous matchups for those guys against a somewhat shaky secondary for UT. There could be some big plays to be had in this area for the Tide. Edge: Alabama

When Alabama runs…

This group of runners doesn’t have the star power of the past few years, but with some help from Hurts at quarterback, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and others make up a very serviceable group for the Tide that is third in the league in rushing yards per game (237). Tennessee has struggled against the run the past two weeks – giving up some big plays in the process. Both Harris and Jacobs average over eight yards per carry, so this will be another enormous challenge for the Vols. Edge: Alabama

On special teams…

Alabama has the edge in both punting average and field-goal percentage, while also featuring one of the more dangerous return options in the nation in Eddie Jackson, who has scored one of Alabama’s two return touchdowns on the year. Tennessee has plenty of firepower in this area as well, however, and can certainly get a big play from Evan Berry or Alvin Kamara that can change the game. Edge: Even

 Best-case scenario for UT 

While the Florida and Georgia wins were huge steps for this program, this would be the next level. The loss at A&M set the Vols back a bit last week, but win this game and they control their own destiny against a very manageable schedule to not only win the East, but for a likely spot in the playoffs.

 Worst-case scenario for UT

A loss would certainly be understandable, and Tennessee would still be in decent shape in the East – only needing to beat South Carolina, Vandy, Missouri and Kentucky, and get one conference loss from Florida along the way, to make it to Atlanta. But Tennessee has shown that it can make this series competitive the past couple years, so a blowout loss, compounded with a few more injuries, would be the worst-case scenario for the Vols on Saturday.

 How we think it’ll play out

It’s tough to pick against the top-ranked team in the nation, no question. The Vols have made this series more and more competitive, and after watching this Tennessee team battle back the last three weeks, it’s also tough to say that Tennessee won’t be in this game. We certainly think it’s possible that Tennessee finds a way to win this game, but I’m not sure any of us would bet on it.

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