The No. 4-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers are set to face off on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa for their annual cross-conference rivalry matchup. This year's "Third Saturday in October" matchup will mark the 104th meeting between these two prestigious SEC programs in a rivalry that dates all the way back to 1901. Alabama leads the all-time series 57-38-8 and has won each of the last 14 meetings against Tennessee, including a 48-17 win over the Vols last season in Knoxville.
Tennessee (4-3, 2-2 SEC) has been a pleasant surprise so far under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. However, the Vols will make their way to Tuscaloosa a little worse for the wear following last Saturday night's heartbreaking 31-26 loss to Ole Miss. While Tennessee struggled to contain quarterback Matt Corral and the high-powered Ole Miss offense, the Vols did manage to compile 467 yards of offense and had a golden opportunity to win the game in the closing seconds. Unfortunately, the prevailing storyline for an otherwise great matchup was centered around some unruly Vol fans throwing random items toward the Rebels' sideline.
Alabama (6-1, 3-1) bounced back nicely from its shocking loss at Texas A&M with a resounding victory on the road against Mississippi State last Saturday night. The Crimson Tide dominated from start to finish, racking up 543 yards of offense and keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone for four quarters in the 49-9 win. Alabama will now return to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time in three weeks to take on the rival Vols.
Tennessee at No. 4 Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -25
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Volunteers have fielded one of the top offenses in the country so far this season, averaging 473 yards and 39.3 points per game. But it might actually be an understatement to say that they are a little worse for the wear on that side of the football right now. Tennessee heads into Saturday night's tilt against Alabama with injuries to three key offensive players — starting quarterback Hendon Hooker (leg), star running back Tiyon Evans (ankle), and top offensive lineman Cade Mays (leg). Heupel has been extremely tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, so we probably won't know the status of those players until kickoff. Hooker's availability will be the most critical to Tennessee's potential for success, or lack thereof, on Saturday night. The dual-threat signal-caller has been instrumental in the Vols' rise offensively — ranking top five nationally in passer rating (179.8) and top 10 in the FBS in passing yards per attempt (9.4). Hooker is also the Vols' second-leading rusher with 390 yards and four scores on the ground. If he is unable to play on Saturday, Joe Milton III will likely get the starting nod at quarterback, which isn't good news considering his lackluster play so far this season (46.7 percent completion rate and a 101.6 passer rating).
The silver lining is that Tennessee's receiving corps is relatively healthy. That group is headlined by veterans Velus Jones Jr. (28 rec., 435 yds., 3 TDs), Cedric Tillman (23, 294, 3), and JaVonta Payton (10, 228, 4). Jones, who is also a serious threat in the return game, ranks second in the SEC with 930 all-purpose yards.
Tennessee's run game has been its biggest strength offensively. The Vols rank sixth nationally in that regard, averaging 249 rushing yards per game. Evans (73 att., 486 yds., 6 TDs) spearheads that effort, but he remains questionable with an ankle injury. That could leave most of the heavy lifting to running back Jabari Small (65, 324, 3), who has been solid as well.
Leading the way for the Vols' rushing attack is an offensive line that has been outstanding when it comes to creating running room. That said, this group has become incredibly thin in terms of depth and has struggled mightily at times in pass protection. In fact, no SEC offensive line has allowed more sacks than Tennessee's with 25. That does not bode well with Alabama's star edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. lurking on the other side of the line of scrimmage, especially if Mays is out or playing at less than 100 percent. Anderson leads the SEC in both sacks (7) and tackles for a loss (15). He's also coming off a monster performance against Mississippi State that earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Regardless of who Tennessee does, or does not, have on the field on Saturday night, it's going to be a tall order for this offense to find success against the vaunted Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide are giving up 303.3 yards per game (No. 2 in the SEC, No. 18 in the FBS). They have been solid against the pass, allowing 210.1 yards per game through the air. They also have more interceptions (10) to their credit than passing touchdowns allowed (9). But the Alabama defense has shined the brightest against the run, giving up just 93.14 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in the SEC, No. 12 in the FBS). Linebacker Henry To'o To'o, who led Tennessee in tackles a season ago before transferring to Bama this offseason, leads the Crimson Tide with 54 tackles.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Quarterback Bryce Young headlines a potent Crimson Tide offensive attack that averages 482.6 yards and 45 points per game. Young currently leads all SEC quarterbacks in passer rating (180.40) and passing touchdowns (24) and ranks second in the conference in both passing yards (2,082) and completion percentage (69.6). Helping in that effort is a standout group of wide receivers — led by John Metchie III (41 rec., 480 yds., 3 TDs) and deep-threat Jameson Williams (29 rec., 587 yds., 6 TDs). Williams also averages 39.38 yards per kick return and has already returned two kicks for touchdowns. He ranks third in the SEC with 906 all-purpose yards.
The Alabama run game, which ranks ninth in the SEC and 66th nationally (166.43 rushing yards per game) hasn't been as spectacular as the passing attack. However, running back Brian Robinson Jr. (116 att., 599 yds., 8 TDs) has been exceptional overall and ranks second in the SEC with 744 yards from scrimmage. Roydell Williams (37, 235, TD) has done a nice job in the backfield for the Tide in limited action as well.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage lies a Tennessee defense that has exceeded expectations, giving up 368 yards and 22.9 points per game. The Vols allow just 4.91 yards per play, which ranks 27th nationally. They rank top 20 in the FBS in passing yards allowed per attempt (6.3). And give up 3.54 yards per carry to opposing runners, which ranks 38th in the country. Tennessee also leads the SEC with 62 tackles for loss. Linebacker Jeremy Banks leads the Tennessee defense in tackles (48), tackles for a loss (9), and sacks (4.5) to go along with an interception. While the Vols have been solid defensively, they will have their work cut out for them against an explosive Alabama offense on Saturday night.
Even if the Volunteers were at full strength, their chances of making this a competitive contest would be slim. But with so many question marks on the injury front, Tennessee will be extremely lucky to avoid being blown out by the Crimson Tide, particularly if Hooker is out or limited. Alabama is simply far more talented overall and much deeper at this point. Throw in home-field advantage to along with ultimate edge in head coach Nick Saban, and the Vols look to be in serious trouble on Saturday night. Alabama cruises to its 15th win in a row against Tennessee.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Tennessee 20
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.