When it comes to SEC rivalries, it doesn’t get much better than when Alabama plays Tennessee. The two teams have met 97 times since 1901. Alabama holds a 52-37-8 lead in the series and currently carries an eight-game win streak. The Crimson Tide defense held off a Tennessee rally led by then-backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs and current NFL receiver Amari Cooper shattered ‘Bama’s single-game receiving record with 224 yards on nine receptions, as the Crimson Tide cruised to a 34-20 win last year in Knoxville.
The Vols picked up their first conference win of the season on Oct. 10 against Georgia. Dobbs accounted for five touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing) in the contest, helping Tennessee overcome a 21-point deficit to give the Vols a 38-31 win ahead of the bye week. After a 3-3 season, morale in Knoxville is understandably low. But a win against a bitter rival could quickly turn that around. Tennessee last beat Alabama in 2006 and the Vols’ last win in Tuscaloosa came in '03.
The Tide return to Tuscaloosa one week after traveling to College Station, Texas, where it posted more than 40 points on Texas A&M for the second consecutive year. But unlike last season’s offensive explosion that netted 602 yards of total offense, the Tide defense this year did most of the heavy lifting, forcing four turnovers and scoring on three to win 41-23. Head coach Nick Saban will look for that momentum to spill over into Saturday's conference showdown.
College Football Podcast: Week 8 Preview
Tennessee at Alabama
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs
Many who follow college football know what Dobbs is capable of doing. He showcased his ability to the entire country in his team’s nationally televised win against Georgia. Behind Dobbs, who will make his 16th career start Saturday, the Tennessee offense ran 90 offensive plays. The aerospace engineering major threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another 118 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Dobbs is one of the SEC’s most effective signal-callers, as he is 8-4 since the end of 2013. A much-improved Alabama secondary was able to stifle Texas A&M’s high-octane offense last week, and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate that performance against one of the conference's best quarterbacks. While the unit's four forced turnovers were a source of pride, the 'Bama defensive front held Aggie rushers to a combined 32 yards.
2. Alabama running back Derrick Henry
If not for LSU phenom Leonard Fournette, Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry would likely be the conference’s most hyped back. Last week against Texas A&M Henry rushed for 236 yards — a career high — with two rushing touchdowns. The current SEC Offensive Player of the Week’s 55-yard, first-quarter touchdown extended his rushing scoring streak to an NCAA best 12 games. Only Fournette (1,202) has more yards than Henry’s 901 in the SEC, and Henry’s 12 rushing touchdowns also rank second in the conference to Fournette’s 14. The junior ranks eleventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (128.7). He has also broken the 100-yard rushing mark in four of the team’s seven games this year. The Volunteers’ rushing defense has shown itself to be porous this season as it currently ranks tenth in the conference in rushing yards and allows 170.5 per game. With running back Kenyan Drake nursing a thigh injury that he sustained last week in College Station, the Volunteers are in for a large helping of Henry. It isn’t unrealistic to expect him to power past 1,000 rushing yards on the season by game’s end.
3. Alabama’s health and stamina
Drake isn’t the only ‘Bama player nursing an injury. Starting center Ryan Kelly also left Saturday’s game early after suffering a concussion in the first half. Kelly has been held out of Alabama’s practices as he attempts to pass the mandatory concussion protocol. An embattled Alabama team has the misfortune of playing Tennessee on the heels of the Vols’ by week. Carrying arguably the nation’s toughest schedule, ‘Bama’s first half of the season has included physical matchups against Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas A&M. While the the Crimson Tide will receive a much-needed bye week next week, it must first get past Tennessee.
Even with three blemishes on its record, Tennessee isn’t to be taken lightly. The Vols are a formidable opponent with a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. Although head coach Butch Jones is still in the process of resurrecting the program, this year’s team ranks among one of his most talented since his arrival in Knoxville three years ago. Players like running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, a former member of the Crimson Tide, and a number of talented youthful defenders will offer the Tide a challenging test. But stealing a road win in Bryant-Denny Stadium won't be an easy task. Simply put, Alabama just doesn’t lose to unranked opponents. And it most certainly doesn't lose at home. The Crimson Tide have won 19 of their last 20 home games, dating back to 2012. Even more staggering is that the Tide, since Saban's arrival, has rattled off 57 straight wins against unranked teams. Fans shouldn't expect a blowout Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, but rather a hard-fought, physical matchup. But Henry and Alabama's offensive line should ultimately send the Tide into the bye week on a winning note.
Prediction: Alabama 24, Tennessee 14
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.