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Prediction Panel: Tennessee vs. No. 1 Alabama

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Alabama Crimson Tide this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

Nathanael’s Pick

I’m sorry, Vol fans, for what you’re about to read. All three of us aren’t very high on Tennessee’s chances of winning this game (as you can probably assume), and you’re about to read three different takes about how good Alabama is. If you want to turn back now, I understand.

Still here? Alright, but you’ve been warned.

To win this game, the Vols are going to have to produce big plays through the air, protect Jarrett Guarantano, and force Alabama to make mistakes and turn the ball over. Essentially, Tennessee needs to have a very similar gameplan to what they had last week against Auburn.

Unfortunately for the Vols, Alabama is significantly more talented and much more composed than Auburn. And they almost never turn the ball over.

On the year, Alabama has given the ball away a total of five times. They’ve forced 16 turnovers on defense, however, giving them an SEC-best +11 turnover margin. Not only that, but they have the most sacks of any team in the SEC with 23 through seven games, and they’ve intercepted the most passes (12) of any team in the conference as well.

People keep saying this is Nick Saban’s worst defense at Alabama in a long time. That may be true, but it’s still an elite defense, and the Vols are going to have their hands full trying to keep up with what is easily the Tide’s best offense in the Saban era.

Alabama is averaging 53.6 points per game. The closest any of their previous offenses have come to replicating that output was when the Tide averaged 38.7 points per game in 2012. And that Alabama team went 13-1 and crushed Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game.

Tennessee showed a lot of progress last weekend when they went on the road and upset Auburn. But don’t get it wrong; that Tigers’ team was reeling and didn’t play as a team. Not only that, but the play calling was questionable at best outside of their opening drive of the game.

The Vols won’t get many breaks on Saturday from Alabama. Even if Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t play, Jalen Hurts has torched UT in recent years.

Tennessee would need Alabama to play uncharacteristically bad on Saturday to even have a chance in this one, and I just don’t feel confident in predicting that to happen.

I warned you, and I’m sorry to have to say all this, Vol fans. But just don’t expect a win on Saturday, and don’t even expect it to be all that close. If it ends up being somewhat close, that’s good news. But I don’t want you to get your hopes up.

Pick: Alabama 55-20

MVP: An Alabama QB

I don’t know how much Tua Tagovailoa will play, but I think even if he doesn’t and Jalen Hurts does, Hurts will be able to have his way against the Vols. In his previous two games against UT, Hurts has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 370 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and has added 146 rushing yards and three scores on just 17 carries. If Tua does start and play most of the snaps, he’ll likely put up his usual video game-like numbers. Either way, a Bama QB is likely the MVP of this game.

Ben’s Pick

I really don’t know what to expect in this football game. Tua Tagovailoa’s knee is banged up, and it’s looking like its going to rain. That’s a recipe for a sloppy football game, which would benefit Tennessee.

I’m going into this football game expecting Alabama to be ready to play, though. When the Crimson Tide are at their best, they put up 60 (or more) on opponents. Tennessee is coming off its best performance of the year, beating Auburn on the road, but the Vols at their best are nowhere near Alabama at its best.

The goal in this football game is to show progress for a third straight game. Tennessee showed progress against Georgia following the Florida debacle and then took a huge step with its win over Auburn. Alabama will be a different beast, but there will be opportunities for Tennessee to stay in the game.

It starts with Jarrett Guarantano and the receivers. Guarantano was money last week, hooking up with Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer on a consistent basis down the field. They’ll need to do the same against an inexperienced secondary on Saturday if the Vols want to make this a game.

Alabama has far too many mismatches. The Crimson Tide’s offense and defense creates far too many nightmares for a Tennessee team that is progressing, but also rebuilding.

Pick: Alabama 50-13

MVP: Damien Harris, Alabama RB

With Tagovailoa’s knee being banged up, I think Alabama will call on the running game to win this football game. There’s no reason to push the health of their star quarterback when you can win this match-up on the ground. As a result, Damien Harris and company will have a big game. Harris is arguably the best running back in the conference, and I expect Alabama to lean on him heavily.

Charley’s Pick

To me, there is nothing in sports better than the “Third Saturday in October.” Unfortunately, for the majority of my lifetime, Tennessee has lost. But I still love this rivalry. Things probably aren’t going to be any different this weekend, but I think we will at least get an inspired performance out of the Vols.

A big factor in this game: How much will banged up quarterback Tua Tagovailoa play this weekend? Based off of the reports out of practice, he is going to start this game and probably play his usual amount of snaps, but he isn’t 100 percent. No matter who starts, Alabama still has an elite offense, but maybe there is a glimmer of hope if Jalen Hurts ends up playing a significant amount in this one.

The Alabama offense is nearly impossible to match up with. In order to have any chance of stopping them, teams need to have the majority of their defenders win one-on-one match-ups, which is nearly impossible against the Tide’s talent. Alabama probably isn’t going to lose a game this year because it is just so hard to slow them down now that they have an elite quarterback. If you play the pass, then they’ll just line up and run it down your throat, but if you play the run, then they’ll just beat you in the passing game.

The Vols’ secondary has been pretty good this year, and now that the pass rush has come alive, they have done a relatively decent job in coverage. However, Tennessee just doesn’t have the front seven to challenge Alabama. In order to hang around in this one, they will have to capitalize on any chance they can get and create turnovers. Unfortunately, Tua has yet to throw an interception this year. It is supposed to be colder this weekend, and there are some rain chances as well, so maybe that will slow Alabama down some.   

Alabama’s defense is a little more vulnerable than they have been in years past, but they are still really good. The Vols probably faced the best front seven they’ll see all year against Auburn, and they still had some success moving the ball, so there is some hope. They will need to air the ball out again this weekend, and Guarantano needs to have the game of his life. The one place they can potentially attack the Tide is in their secondary. I think Tennessee actually has the advantage with their receivers against Alabama’s defensive backs. The problem is going to be in pass protection, as the Vols are going to struggle to give Guarantano enough time to throw the ball. Jeremy Pruitt coached the Alabama defense for several years, so he may have a better understanding of how to attack their weaknesses, but they really just don’t have any. Tennessee needs Jennings, Callaway, and Palmer to make some big plays.

The one place Tennessee may have an advantage is special teams. They have done a great job all year in their kick and punt coverage, and Brent Cimaglia and Joe Doyle are both better than their counterparts. Doyle needs to have a big game to try and win the battle for field position.

Ultimately, it is nearly an impossible task to beat Alabama. The Vols will need some magic, and that still may not be enough.

Pick: Alabama 48-24

MVP: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama QB

He is the best player in the country, and assuming he plays, he is going to have a big game. It will be a win for Tennessee if they can even force him to take some snaps in the fourth quarter.

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