If we’ve learned just two things in college football this year, they are that Alabama is really good and Tennessee is extremely resilient. That sets up a fun matchup on Saturday afternoon in what will be the first top-10 game played in Neyland Stadium since 2005.
It’s no secret that this is the most talented team Tennessee has, or will, face this year. Alabama is stacked with NFL-level talent at virtually every position, and outside of a late flurry by Ole Miss, this team hasn’t truly been tested this year despite facing a few talented teams.
Love him or hate him, and it’s the latter for most UT fans, Lane Kiffin is one of the best offensive coordinators in college football. Nick Saban is the top defensive mind in the game. That’s a lethal combination for any program, especially one that is so loaded with top talent.
So there’s no doubt that it’s a significant challenge for UT. That would’ve been true with a perfectly healthy team – something Tennessee clearly doesn’t have.
The Vols have shown they can move the ball in spurts against virtually any team. I have confidence in them putting some points on the board. But can they stay out of their own way when it comes to turnovers? That’s a very fair question for a team coming off the worst performance in school history in that area last week that’s getting set to face a team with a +5 turnover margin on the year. And the offensive line, which has been noticeable better in recent weeks, will have its biggest test of the season with multiple first-round caliber players awaiting in the Alabama defensive front.
I think the biggest challenge comes for the UT defense, however. Alabama’s offense is as dynamic and balanced as there is in the nation. Two running backs average over 8.0 yards per carry, and Jalen Hurts is mature beyond his years at quarterback. He’s a true dual threat with an impressive list of weapons at his disposal. He’s turned what people thought would be a weakness for Alabama into a strength. Tennessee simply must create big plays that get Alabama off the field. If not, the Tide will put up too many points for UT to keep responding to.
It’s foolish to count UT out in this game after all the resiliency that Vols have shown this year. But I also can’t say it’s smart to pick the Vols to get the win either. Look for another exciting afternoon, but Alabama will show why it is the best team in the nation on Saturday.
Pick: Alabama 31-21
MVP: Alabama RB Damien Harris
Harris doesn’t have the name recognition of some of Saban’s past running backs, but he can be just as effective. He’s coming off a performance at Arkansas where he needed just 15 touches to produce 182 yards. Tennessee’s run fits and tackling have poor at times the past couple weeks as Texas A&M and Georgia both put up solid numbers on the ground. That must be cleaned up this week or a player such as Harris or Joshua Jacobs will put up massive numbers.
I’ve gone back and forth on this game all week. I feel far more confident in the Vols for this game than I thought I would even at the beginning of the season. Tennessee is a very talented team, and they have the pieces to pull out a victory in this game.
Unfortunately for the Vols, Alabama will be the best team they face all season. And Tennessee’s weaknesses match-up poorly with the Tide’s strengths.
The Vols are tied with Kentucky for the most giveaways in the SEC (16) while Alabama is tied for the third-most takeaways in the SEC (13). Tennessee hasn’t been able to take care of the ball all season, and that likely won’t be fixed in this game given how disruptive Alabama’s defense is.
Alabama’s secondary does have its weaknesses, and Josh Dobbs and the Vols can exploit that. But the Tide’s front seven will be the toughest test Tennessee’s offensive line will face all year, and while the Vols’ line has improved their play the last three weeks, Alabama’s pass rushers will look to tee off on Dobbs. Alabama currently has the most sacks (24) in the whole SEC.
If the Vols can get both Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara involved in the run and pass game, they stand a much better chance of winning this game. But Tennessee’s injury-riddled defense still has to stop Alabama’s offense, and that wouldn’t be an easy task even if they were at full health.
Yes, Alabama’s offense hasn’t been phenomenal this season, but they’ve been efficient and have run teams into the ground with their rushing attack. The Vols have been susceptible on run defense, and the Tide will surely look to attack that part of their defense.
The Vols can win this game. They have the tools necessary and have proven in SEC play that they can’t be counted out. But Alabama is still just too much of a juggernaut to be taken down by an injury-depleted defense.
Pick: Alabama 33-28
MVP: Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
If there’s one area Tennessee’s defense has struggled with all season besides consistently stopping running backs, it’s been stopping receivers from making big plays. And Alabama’s Calvin Ridley has all the big play ability you want in an SEC receiver. He leads the Tide with 34 catches for 412 yards and 4 touchdowns. Look for a beleaguered Vols secondary to have a tough time containing the sophomore wide receiver in this one.
Guys, I’ve been studying up on Alabama this week and I’ve got to tell you – they’re good. Like really good.
On defense, they are 12th in yards allowed per game (293), 11th in points allowed per game (15.8), and they are tied for second nationally in sacks with 24. They may have lost Kirby Smart, but new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has proven more than sufficient.
Go to the other side of the ball and the Tide are 14th in total yards (2,939), 20th in rushing yards per game (237), and even with a true freshman at quarterback they are still passing for an efficient 252 yards per game. In other words, there simply aren’t many weaknesses on this team. Which is pretty normal for a Nick Saban-led football team. But this year seems even more spectacular than normal.
Now that I’ve made you even more pessimistic about this game, let me offer some good news: Tennessee is a good football team. Top 10 in the country, as a matter of fact. And last year it took three missed field goals by Tennessee for the Crimson Tide to escape with a win in Tuscaloosa. This year, the game is in Knoxville and the Vols have proven to be a gritty, never-say-die team which only improves their chances of knocking off the number-one team in the nation. But it’s going to take something special to complete the biggest upset in recent Vols history.
First and foremost Tennessee needs to rattle Alabama’s true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. This will be the biggest and loudest road game of the young QB’s career, and even Nick Saban has said this will be his biggest challenge to date. If ever there was a game where Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop pressured the quarterback, it would be this one. Hurts has the second best passer rating in the SEC behind fellow freshman QB Jacob Eason at Georgia so Derek Barnett and company will need to step up and bring the heat to Hurts from the very first possession if they want to win this one.
Something we say every week is the importance of Josh Dobbs having a great game. It’s starting to sound a little repetitive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Dobbs has had his head-scratcher moments, but for the most part, he has been reliable and impressive this season. He is on pace to shatter his passing yards per game average, and his completion percentage (58.3) would be much higher if there weren’t so many dropped balls on the season. Still, he is going to need to play another inspired game and he will need the help of every single offensive teammate on the field with him – especially his offensive line.
I admit, the numbers don’t look the best for Tennessee in this game. By all accounts Alabama is the better team and if Tennessee turns the ball over like they did against the Aggies, the Tide will win and it won’t be close. I expect big games out of Dobbs, Kamara, Hurd, Barnett, and Darrin Kirkland Jr., should he finally return. And being at home makes this one much more intriguing for the Volunteers. It’s a long shot for Tennessee to win this game, but that’d be the case for any team playing Alabama. Call it a hunch, or a gut feeling – I’m taking the Vols in what would be the biggest upset win for Tennessee in my lifetime.
Pick: Tennessee 31-30
MVP: Josh Dobbs
Alvin Kamara stepped up huge last week in Jalen Hurd’s absence and should see another healthy dose of touches in this game. But if Tennessee wins, it will be because of Josh Dobbs. Alabama does have a good defense, but Dobbs and this Tennessee offense just put up nearly 700 total yards of offense against a Texas A&M defense who is arguably just as good. I don’t expect another performance like that, but with this game being in Neyland and the natural intensity of a rivalry game, don’t be surprised to see Josh Dobbs step up for 270 yards passing and 60 yards rushing with at least three total touchdowns.