Neyland Stadium will provide the backdrop for the 101st meeting between the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) and the Tennessee Volunteers (3-3, 1-2 SEC) in the Third Saturday in October rivalry. Alabama leads the all-time series 55-38-7.
The Vols enter Saturday’s matchup riding high following last week's 30-24 upset victory on The Plains against Auburn. It marked Tennessee’s first win inside Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1998 and the first victory against an opponent from the SEC West since 2010. More importantly, Jeremy Pruitt’s first signature win snapped an 11-game SEC losing streak for the Vols. Pruitt’s Volunteers will now attempt to snap another 11-game losing streak on Saturday, this time against archrival Alabama. It's a team that Pruitt is all too familiar with, serving as a long-time assistant coach and former player for the Crimson Tide.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide will make their way to Rocky Top riding a colossal wave of momentum. The defending national champions have carved up opposing defenses with ease en route to a perfect 7-0 start. In fact, they lead all FBS offenses, averaging a remarkable 567 yards and 53.6 points per game. They still play a little defense as well. That was evident against their latest victim, as Alabama held Missouri’s high-powered offense to just 10 points in last week’s 39-10 win. This team has been so great that head coach Nick Saban routinely has to point out the most insignificant flaws each week to keep them motivated. Motivation should not be a problem this week against the hated Volunteers.
Alabama at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday Oct. 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -29
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama’s high-octane passing game
The Crimson Tide are traditionally recognized as a ground-and-pound team with a stellar defense. The defense has not changed. However, it’s an elite Alabama aerial assault that is making all the headlines so far in 2018. That’s primarily thanks to sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has been nearly flawless through seven games. The Heisman hopeful has completed an SEC-best 71.5 percent of his passes for 1,760 yards with 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 123 pass attempts. His 248.1 passer rating and 14.31 yards per attempt are the highest in the nation. And Tagovailoa has yet to even play in the fourth quarter of a game all season. But he has not done it alone. Alabama’s offensive line has been impeccable in pass protection, allowing just three sacks in seven games, while four Alabama receivers are averaging 20 yards or more per reception.
The bad news is that Tagovailoa may be a little worse for the wear entering the Tennessee matchup after reaggravating a knee injury last week against Mizzou. That could mean an expanded role for backup Jalen Hurts this week. Alabama may also be without two of its top receiving options as well. DeVonta Smith (hamstring) and Henry Ruggs III (ankle) are both listed as questionable for Saturday. This all bodes well for the Tennessee defense. However, a young Volunteer secondary will still have its hands full trying to keep tabs on big-play wideout Jerry Jeudy, who leads the SEC with 705 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Jaylen Waddle and tight end Irv Smith Jr. are plenty dangerous as well.
2. Can the Tennessee passing game keep it rolling against the Tide?
Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton decided to open up the passing game last week, and the results were very encouraging for the Tennessee offense. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for a career-best 328 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the upset victory against Auburn to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Ty Chandler and Josh Palmer all played significant roles for the Tennessee passing game in the win as well.
While this is certainly a promising development for the Volunteer passing attack, Guarantano and company will be hard pressed to repeat last week’s success against Alabama. The Crimson Tide pass defense is allowing just 189.9 passing yards per game (No. 29 in the FBS) and ranks second in the nation with 12 interceptions. Alabama’s front seven will undoubtably test a suspect Tennessee offensive line as well. SEC sack-leader Isaiah Buggs (8 sacks) spearheads an Alabama pass rush that has racked up a conference-best 23 sacks.
3. The run game
The run game may no longer be the bread-winner for the Alabama offense, but it’s still pretty darn good. The Crimson Tide rushing attack is averaging 216.7 yards per game (29th in the FBS). Damien Harris and Najee Harris are both averaging more than six yards per carry. And the Crimson Tide have found pay dirt 17 times on the ground in seven games. They will face a Tennessee run defense that is much-improved under Pruitt and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer. That said, the Vols are still somewhat vulnerable against the run, surrendering 152.7 yards per game. It doesn’t help that Tennessee will be without leading tackler Daniel Bituli for the first half on Saturday after being charged with targeting in last week’s win at Auburn.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee ground has struggled mightily so far in SEC play, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry and failing to find the end zone in two of three conference matchups. The Vols have a capable backfield led by sophomore running back Ty Chandler (5.3 yards per carry). However, running room has been very difficult to come by behind a leaky offensive line. That will likely be the case again against an Alabama run defense that allows only 3.9 yards per carry. The Crimson Tide have allowed just three rushing touchdowns through seven games as well.
Tennessee is an improving football team under Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols also gained a lot of confidence with last week’s upset win against Auburn. They will carry that into Saturday’s rivalry matchup, further aided by a raucous Neyland Stadium crowd, and a head coach that knows the Crimson Tide as well as anyone.
Conversely, Nick Saban is a perfect 14-0 against former assistant coaches, and no team in America can shatter an opposing team’s confidence quicker than Alabama. The Volunteers will do well to remain resilient for four quarters and play mistake-free football. But Tennessee still has too many flaws to keep pace with a far superior Alabama team. Better days probably lie ahead for Tennessee, but this “Third Saturday in October” will not be one of them. The Crimson Tide will be puffing on victory cigars for the 12th year in a row.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Tennessee 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.