The Third Saturday in October is meaningful once again, as Tennessee and Alabama meet for a potential preview of the SEC Championship Game this Saturday in Knoxville. This is the first meeting between the Crimson Tide and Volunteers where both teams are ranked inside of the top 10 since 1999. Additionally, this is the first contest between these two programs where both are ranked entering the annual rivalry since 2005. While this rivalry hasn’t meant as much on the national stage as some of the games in the 1990s, last year’s game was decided in the final minute and the 2016 meeting is poised to play a key role in shaping the SEC title and College Football Playoff picture.
Tennessee was picked as the preseason favorite in the SEC East, but it hasn’t been easy for the Volunteers in 2016. Coach Butch Jones’ team needed overtime to beat Appalachian State, fell behind 14-0 against Virginia Tech, wasn’t impressive in a 28-19 win over Ohio and trailed at halftime against Florida and Georgia before rallying for huge second-half victories. Tennessee’s second-half luck ran out against Texas A&M last Saturday, falling 45-38 in overtime in College Station. While the Volunteers came up short, there’s no shame in losing by seven in overtime after losing seven turnovers and committing 12 penalties against the likely No. 2 team in the SEC. After a physical, overtime game last week, Tennessee is going to have its hands full against Alabama. However, while the Volunteers are nearly a two-touchdown underdog, they nearly won in Tuscaloosa last fall.
Another year, another dominant Alabama team. The Crimson Tide have quickly addressed any preseason concerns on both sides of the ball and have won five out of their six games by 19 points or more. The only result by less than 19 points? The 48-43 victory at Ole Miss on Sept. 17. As usual under coach Nick Saban, Alabama’s defense is among the nation’s best, and the offense seems to be hitting its stride with true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts at the controls. Similar to Tennessee, the Crimson Tide are also in the midst of a difficult stretch on the schedule. After a trip (and victory) against Arkansas last Saturday, Alabama heads to Knoxville this week, followed by a home matchup against Texas A&M, then a road date at LSU after a bye week.
Alabama holds a 53-38-7 edge in the all-time series against Tennessee. The Crimson Tide have won nine in a row against the Volunteers, including the last four in Knoxville.
Alabama at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
There’s not a clear or defined blueprint on the best way to beat Alabama. However, teams with dual-threat quarterbacks or passers with mobility generally give Nick Saban’s defense the most trouble. Earlier this season, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly threw for 421 yards and added 48 on the ground in the Crimson Tide’s narrow 48-43 win in Oxford. And in the national championship victory over Clemson and standout quarterback Deshaun Watson, Alabama’s defense surrendered 6.5 yards per play. What does that mean for Tennessee? Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has experienced his share of ups and downs in 2016, but the senior has played better since the second half of the victory against Florida. Dobbs has passed for 1,433 yards and 14 scores (nearly equaled his total from 2015 – 15) and ranks second on the team with 324 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Dobbs is streaky (58.3%) as a passer but is capable of hitting on big plays (six completions of 40 yards or more). In last year’s game against Alabama, Dobbs was held in check (171 passing yards, 19 rushing). For the Volunteers to pull off the upset, Dobbs needs to have a performance similar to the one he had last week against Texas A&M (455 total yards). Alabama’s pass rush – led by linebacker Tim Williams and end Jonathan Allen – is relentless. The Crimson Tide have recorded 23 sacks in six games and will be handful for Tennessee’s offensive line. Can Dobbs make enough plays with his legs to slow down Alabama’s pass rush? If he can get to the edges and create opportunities downfield, as Arkansas showed last week (400 passing yards), there are plays available to be made against this secondary.
2. Alabama’s Ground Attack and Tennessee’s Defensive Line
Alabama’s offense has morphed under coordinator Lane Kiffin to adapt to the spread/run-pass plays utilized by many teams. The Crimson Tide are no longer just a pro-style/run-first team. However, the success of this unit still starts on the ground. With a revamped offensive line and the loss of Derrick Henry, Alabama’s rushing attack took a few games to hit on all cylinders. The Crimson Tide averaged 7.8 yards per rush against Arkansas and recorded 6.96 in the 48-43 win over Ole Miss. Quarterback Jalen Hurts plays a key role in the ground attack, as the freshman has rushed for 296 yards on 62 carries. Damien Harris (478 yards) and Joshua Jacobs (307 yards) are the primary running backs, with Bo Scarbrough (164 yards) also seeing snaps.
Why is the battle up front so important on Saturday afternoon? Tennessee ranks 10th in the SEC against the run but last week’s game against Texas A&M was the first time this unit allowed more than 190 rushing yards in a contest in 2016. Additionally, the Volunteers did not allow an opponent (outside of the Aggies) to average more than 4.3 yards per carry. Those numbers aren’t as bad as the stat sheet would suggest, especially with the amount of injuries Tennessee has faced in 2016. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton are sidelined indefinitely due to injuries, while linebacker Darrin Kirkland is a game-time decision. Stopping the run is essential to the Volunteers’ victory hopes. If Tennessee can stuff the Alabama ground attack, it can put Hurts into third-and-long situations. While Hurts has been effective, he’s also a true freshman starting in a tough environment. However, if the Crimson Tide effectively blocks Tennessee end Derek Barnett and keeps rushers away from Hurts, he should have no trouble connecting on big plays to receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart.
3. Tennessee RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara
One overlooked aspect of last year’s meeting was Tennessee’s success on the ground. The Volunteers managed only 132 overall yards and 3.4 yards per carry, but those totals were higher than the 2015 average allowed by Alabama – 75.7 per game and 2.4 per carry. Tennessee’s offensive line has struggled at times to clear the way for running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but the Volunteers posted a season-high 282 yards on the ground in last week’s loss against Texas A&M. Can Tennessee find similar success on Saturday? Running room is going to be limited against Alabama’s defensive front, as this unit has suffocated opposing ground attacks all year (69.2 ypg). Hurd missed last week’s game due to a concussion but is expected to return for this game. Kamara delivered a standout effort against Texas A&M (288 overall yards), but Hurd brings more power to the ground game. Can Tennessee effectively mix-and-match with Hurd and Kamara to keep Dobbs out of third-and-long situations? Or will Alabama find a way to neutralize both players and limit Kamara’s opportunities as a receiver?
Let’s state the obvious here: Beating Alabama requires a perfect effort. Some of the factors Tennessee has been able to overcome (first-half deficits, turnovers and penalties) in other games will be harder to rally from on Saturday. One factor working against the Volunteers is a rash of injuries to the defense, as well as the physical nature of last week’s game against Texas A&M. Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for Tennessee considering their recent history in this series. However, Alabama is simply the better team and is playing at a higher level. Hurts and the Crimson Tide offense could sputter early, but this unit should get better as the game progresses and the depth should show off in the second half. Dobbs needs a career effort to knock off Alabama and his dual-threat ability is going to create a few headaches for this unit. Tennessee has to find a way to win the turnover battle and keep the third downs manageable for its offense. The formula is there for the Volunteers to win, and Tennessee is a better overall program than the last meeting in Knoxville between these two teams (34-20). A win by the Volunteers wouldn’t be a surprise, but the matchups, talent and timing all favor the Crimson Tide.