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Alabama vs. Tennessee Prediction: Volunteers Look to End Long Losing Streak to Crimson Tide

"Third Saturday in October" doubles as massive showdown between undefeated rivals.

The annual matchup between Alabama and Tennessee in the "Third Saturday in October" rivalry hasn't been much of a contest in recent years, as the Crimson Tide has made this a one-sided affair over the Volunteers. However, for the first time in a while, Saturday's meeting in Knoxville is a high-stakes game between two top-10 teams and should be one of the more competitive battles between Alabama and Tennessee that this series has seen in some time.

A major storyline going into Saturday's game is the health of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who missed last week's matchup against Texas A&M. With Young out, backup Jalen Milroe filled in, but a couple of turnovers and missed field goals gave the Aggies a chance to win on the final play of the game. That victory brought Alabama to 6-0, which includes a one-point win at Texas on Sept. 10 and a road victory at Arkansas (49-26) on Oct. 1. Regardless of what happens on Saturday in Knoxville, Nick Saban's team is still the favorite to win the SEC West. However, matchups against ranked Mississippi State (Oct. 22) and Nov. 12 in Oxford against Ole Miss will determine whether or not the Tide can hold onto the top spot.

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Tennessee's rise back to national prominence has been fueled by the arrival of coach Josh Heupel and a high-powered offense that leads the SEC by averaging 46.8 points a game. The Volunteers are coming off a dominant 40-13 win at LSU last Saturday and previously beat Pitt (34-27) and Florida (38-33) earlier this year. Heupel has Tennessee at 5-0 for the first time since '16. A win over the Crimson Tide would put Tennessee in the driver's seat to win the East. However, a looming showdown against Georgia on Nov. 5 should decide which team represents the division in Atlanta.

Alabama has dominated his rivalry in recent years. The Crimson Tide have never lost (15-0) to the Volunteers since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Also, Alabama has won the last six matchups against Tennessee by 22 or more points.

No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee

Date: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Alabama -7
Tickets: As low as $401 on SITickets.com*

When Alabama Has the Ball

A word not used often when discussing Alabama's offense is the best way to sum up the situation going into Saturday's game: Uncertainty. Young is on the mend from a shoulder injury suffered against Arkansas on Oct. 1 and sat out last week's game against Texas A&M. Milroe filled in capably by throwing for 111 yards and three scores on 12 completions and added 83 rushing yards over 17 carries. However, Milroe lost two fumbles and tossed an interception, which gave the Aggies a chance to stay alive and have an opportunity to win at the end. If Young plays against Tennessee, how effective will he be? Is the junior at full strength or less than 100 percent? And if Milroe has to direct the offense, will he show improvement in his second start? Although Milroe showed potential last week, Young is simply on a different level in the passing game and makes this offense (7.5 yards per play) go.

Regardless of which quarterback starts on Saturday night, expect to see plenty of Jahmyr Gibbs. The Georgia Tech transfer averages 8.3 yards per rush (64 carries) and has recorded 360 yards over the Crimson Tide's last two games. Jase McClellan (288 yards) will also see action to spell Gibbs. Tennessee ranks second in the SEC against the run and is limiting rushers to just 2.8 yards per carry. However, Alabama's one-two punch and improving offensive line is the toughest test this defense will have faced so far in '22. Although the Volunteers are improved on defense after allowing more than 200 rushing yards a game in SEC play last fall, Ball State, Pitt, Akron, Florida, and LSU aren't exactly a gauntlet of offenses.

Alabama should be able to find running room against Tennessee's front, but the going could be even easier through the air. The Volunteers rank 10th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and opponents have completed nearly 62 percent (61.9) of their throws against this secondary. Total yardage isn't the best judge of production on defense, but it's notable Tennessee has allowed 753 yards through the air to Florida and LSU over the last two games.

Although Alabama doesn't have a game-breaking threat like Jameson Williams or a steady playmaker like John Metchie III right now, the receiving corps doesn't lack options and seems to be rounding into form. Traeshon Holden and Ja'Corey Brooks are tied for the team lead with 223 receiving yards, with Gibbs (22) leading in catches. Jermaine Burton (16), Kobe Prentice (17), Isaiah Bond (six), and tight end Cameron Latu (11) will all see targets on Saturday.

It's hard to accurately analyze this matchup without knowing whether or not Alabama will have Young in the lineup. If Young plays, Tennessee will have its hands full trying to slow down the passing game and the big plays by Gibbs on the ground. This defense registered five sacks against LSU last week and getting pressure on Young (or Milroe) is a must. Similar to the Crimson Tide defense, Tennessee might have to be willing to trade yards in exchange for timely stops in the red zone or on third down.

When Tennessee Has the Ball

Strength versus strength. It's a battle between one of the nation's best offenses (Tennessee) against arguably the No. 1 defense (Alabama) in college football. Under Heupel's direction, the Volunteers are averaging 46.8 points a game and 7.2 yards per play. Additionally, this unit leads all SEC teams with 14 plays of 40-plus yards through Week 6. The Crimson Tide rank first in the conference in fewest yards allowed per play (3.8), second in scoring defense (12.5 ppg), as well as first in rush defense (84.5 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (100.39).

Quarterback Hendon Hooker is the catalyst for Tennessee's high-powered attack and makes this offense fire on all cylinders for Heupel. The senior has been locked in this fall, completing 70 percent of his passes for 1,432 yards and 10 touchdowns. Hooker has yet to toss a pick and also is a threat to hurt teams with his legs (231 yards and three scores). In last year's matchup, Hooker threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-24 loss by the Volunteers. A similar (and better) effort is needed this year, but no quarterback has passed for more than 292 yards against this defense.

Hooker's supporting cast is a big reason why this offense is on pace for an even better '22 (46.8 points a game) after averaging 39.3 a game last fall. Receiver Cedric Tillman's status is uncertain after surgery to repair a high ankle sprain following Tennessee's Sept. 17 win over Akron. However, even if Tillman can't go or is limited, Hooker won't lack for weapons on the outside with Jalin Hyatt (27 catches), Bru McCoy (20), and Ramel Keyton (10). Alabama's secondary is only allowing 5.3 yards per pass attempt and has surrendered a total of three touchdown passes.

Helping Alabama's coverage on the back end is a relentless pass rush that's registered 18 sacks thanks to edge rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner. Anderson is the nation's top defensive player and is capable of wreaking havoc all night in Tennessee's backfield. The junior has registered 10 tackles for a loss, while Turner has 4.5 through six contests. Keeping Hooker away from this duo is a priority if the Volunteers want to win on Saturday, but pass protection has been an issue at times for this front. Heupel will counter Alabama's front with RPOs and quick throws to keep his quarterback away from constant pressure and the rush of Anderson and Turner off the edge. And if the passing game is clicking, Tennessee could also pop a big play or two on the ground with running backs Jaylen Wright (315 yards) and Jabari Small (311).

Considering the firepower on Tennessee's offense and the willingness to get rid of the ball quickly, Alabama — much like what the Volunteers could do on defense — is opt to bend a little but not break. Not allowing big plays to Tennessee's passing game is a priority, but coordinator Pete Golding is also going to aim to get timely stops on third downs and in the red zone against a high-powered offense.

Final Analysis

Young's status and overall level of health loom large over this game. If Young is at full strength, Tennessee's defense will have its hands full trying to slow down the junior quarterback and a deep cast of playmakers — especially with a leaky secondary a major concern. On the other side, Hooker and the Volunteers' high-powered offense is almost impossible to keep in check. The Crimson Tide would be willing to allow yards to limit the big plays and generate a couple of timely stops. Of note: Tennessee is plus-five in turnover margin, while Alabama is minus-six.

The recipe for the Volunteers to end their long losing streak to the Crimson Tide seems clear: Win the turnover battle, get a couple of big plays from Hooker and generate a couple of stops on third down and in the red zone to get the ball back to the offense. Alabama has not played particularly well on the road over the last two years, so the hostile environment in Knoxville figures to be a factor. Although the Crimson Tide have dominated the Volunteers recently, Heupel's team has what it takes to pull off the upset. If Young doesn't play, we think a Tennessee upset becomes much more likely. However, we will guess Young plays, and that's just enough for the Crimson Tide to escape Knoxville with a victory.

Prediction: Alabama 38, Tennessee 31

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