Alabama and Tennessee renew their annual October rivalry this Saturday in Knoxville, but these two programs head into the matchup coming off completely different performances last week. The Volunteers were easily defeated by Kentucky 34-7, while the Crimson Tide scored a huge home victory over Georgia. It’s unfair to suggest these two programs are trending in opposite directions, but it’s clear Alabama ranks as one of the top teams in college football, and Tennessee is trying to take the next step under Jeremy Pruitt.
The Volunteers started their season with wins over South Carolina and Missouri but have lost their last two games versus Kentucky and Georgia by a combined score of 78-28. Tennessee showed steady progress under Pruitt after a 5-7 mark in 2018, as the team finished 8-5 last fall thanks to a six-game winning streak. Surpassing Florida or Georgia in the SEC East was an unlikely goal, but the Volunteers hoped to close the gap. After a 2-2 start and tough games ahead against Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida, getting to .500 will be a challenge.
Last week’s win over Georgia capped an unusual week for Alabama coach Nick Saban. After testing positive for COVID-19, he was able to join the team on Saturday after three days of negative tests. In what was arguably the biggest game of the year, the Crimson Tide trailed at halftime but rallied for a 41-24 victory behind huge performances from quarterback Mac Jones and receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Alabama has won all four of its games by 15 points or more in 2020.
Alabama has won 13 in a row over Tennessee. In that span, only two matchups – 2009 and ’15 – were decided by seven points or less. The Crimson Tide hold a 57-37-8 edge in the all-time series.
Alabama at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -21
When Alabama Has the Ball
Despite having to replace quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy, Alabama’s offense hasn’t missed a beat in 2020. The Crimson Tide average 8.3 yards per snap and have 16 plays of 30 yards or more. This offense also leads the SEC with 48.5 points a contest. New quarterback Mac Jones played well at the end of the 2019 season, so the Crimson Tide performing at a high level isn’t a surprise. However, Jones has been flawless through his four starts in 2020. The junior ranks first nationally in quarterback rating (220.10) and has completed 78.3 percent of his throws for 12 touchdowns, 1,518 yards and just two picks.
Helping Jones compile one of the best starts by a quarterback in the 2020 college football season is an offensive line that’s arguably the best in college football, a pair of dynamic receivers in Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, and running back Najee Harris. Alabama’s offense presents numerous challenges for a defense: Do you sit back in coverage and take away the deep connections to Waddle, Smith and John Metchie III? Or do you try to take away the run with Harris? And in pass protection, the offensive line successfully kept Georgia’s standout pass rushers away from Jones for most of the night.
Pruitt knows Alabama’s program well from his time in Tuscaloosa, but like every team on the SEC slate in 2020, the Volunteers are going to have their hands full. Tennessee jettisoned defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Brumbaugh earlier this week, and Pruitt has already indicated he plans to tutor that group for the remainder of the year. The Volunteers are holding teams to a respectable 5.3 yards per snap. However, this group ranks ninth in the SEC in points allowed (29.2), eighth against the run, and seventh versus the pass. Also, Tennessee has generated only eight sacks through four games and is eighth in the SEC in red zone defense.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
For Tennessee to have any shot at keeping this game close into the second half, the offense has to get better production out of its quarterbacks. Senior Jarrett Guarantano has started all four games for the Volunteers in 2020, connecting on 63.1 percent of his passes for 752 yards and four touchdowns. However, he’s tossed three picks – including two returned for scores against Kentucky – and has no completion longer than 36 yards. His yards per attempt has dropped from 8.4 in the opener against South Carolina to 4.2 in last week’s defeat. Sophomores Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout and touted freshman Harrison Bailey are pushing for snaps and it’s uncertain which signal-caller will take the first snap on Saturday.
Tennessee’s offensive line was projected as one of the best in the nation prior to 2020. However, the Volunteers haven’t quite lived up to that hype. This unit has allowed 11 sacks, and the rushing attack is averaging just 3.5 yards per attempt. Eric Gray (298 yards) and Ty Chandler (238) are capable backs, but Alabama’s defense is likely to focus on stopping the run and forcing Tennessee to win through the air. Alabama’s defense isn’t quite a vintage, shutdown group under Saban but stepped up in the second half to hold Georgia’s offense without a point. The Crimson Tide are giving up 28.8 points a contest and six yards a play this fall. However, talent isn’t an issue and this group is likely to get better over the course of the year.
Another concern for Tennessee has been its penchant for turnovers over the last two games. After no giveaways through the first two contests, the Volunteers have seven over the last two games. Can coordinator Jim Chaney find some easy throws on first and second down for whichever quarterback starts and keep the offense out of third-and-long or obvious passing downs? If Tennessee has success on early downs and has manageable third-down situations, along with no turnovers, that’s the best chance for this team to keep things close in the second half.
With Alabama coming off a hard-fought win at home against Georgia, a slow start wouldn’t be a surprise here. However, Saban’s teams simply don’t have letdown performances and that should be the case once again on Saturday. In the last four meetings between these two programs, the Crimson Tide have won each by at least 22 points and three of those wins came by 37. Any hopes of a Tennessee upset have to include a couple of takeaways, better play at quarterback, and the ability to keep Jones, Waddle and Smith in check through the air. The Volunteers may show some fight early, but Alabama eventually takes control and puts this game away in the third quarter.
Prediction: Alabama 41, Tennessee 17
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