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Hope for the Best: Tennessee edition

Before the injuries, Tennessee represented possibly the strongest challenger for Alabama’s crown. Even still, they will present a stiff challenge for the Tide

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M
Josh Dobbs in dangerous, but Alabama sees a similar talent in practice every day.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Third Saturday in October is one of those rare conventions of Southern gridiron culture that simply cannot be replicated in modern times. People from other locales not steeped in the potency of this rivalry simply don’t understand it. They don’t get the seething hate based solely on a century of happenings between 18 to 22-year-old men on a lime-lined grassy knoll of 100-by-50-yard dimension. It is foreign for those who have not lived it: for those souls who didn’t grow up in either state (or elsewhere, at the knees of members of the Southern diaspora) it is difficult to understand the unadulterated disdain the two teams and their supporters hold for one another.

Alabama has rivalries with other teams, to be sure. There’s the annual battle of contenders between the Tide and LSU, a “rivalry” rooted in perennial excellence over the last decade rather than a long-running historical context. There’s a similar, more latent rivalry with Florida, as the two teams have been frequent combatants in the SEC Championship Game since its inception. There’s the burgeoning border war with Ole Miss that has developed of late as the Rebels have challenged Tide supremacy in the West. And of course, there is the sibling rivalry with little brother across the state, as emotions run high because of familiarity when the Tide and Tigers face off each November.

But ask most fans of the Tide who their greatest rival is, and they’ll answer without pausing so much as to draw a breath: the Tennessee Volunteers. This rivalry has lived through long win droughts on both sides. The series is streaky, though Alabama leads it overall with a 52-38-7 record. Much of the series may be water under the bridge for the current generation, old war stories spun by old men who remember the glory days of colorfully-named ghosts like Bear Bryant and General Neyland. But the fervor is still there, the coals still smoulder in the newer crops of Tide and Vol fans. As evidence, recently, when asked about rivalries that are important to the Tide players, Coach Nick Saban said that without a doubt, it is the game with Tennessee that his young men care about the most.

The rivalry is not some rigid lava-cast that once burned bright only to harden and gray in the cooling winds of time. No, make no mistake, this feud fought over the banks of the Tennessee River is still molten, and that’s why the Third Saturday in October remains the magmatic eruption upon which the season hinges for both teams.

Alabama is currently on an unprecedented run against the Volunteers, with the Tide winning the last nine contests. For those keeping score at home, today marks the 3636th day since the last time the Vols have beaten the Tide. Volunteers are on their fourth coach since the era of Alabama’s Saban began in 2007, as the wily West Virginian has been the career executioner of Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley in his time at Alabama. The closest Tennessee came to victory was in 2009 under one-year head coach lane Kiffin, who incidentally is now Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

The Volunteers’ current coach, Butch Jones, hasn’t had better luck against an Alabama squad in the midst of a full-blown dynasty, and if recent history has proven anything, it’s that perpetual losses to the Tide will get one a pink slip and a bus ticket out of Knoxville.

This season appeared to be promising for the Volunteers early on, as the bluster amongst their players and fans was at an all-time high in the Saban era. The Vols rolled out to an unlikely yet solid 5-0 record before falling to Texas A&M in heart-breaking fashion last weekend. Now, the Volunteers must regroup, and given the spate of injuries to key players, rebuild into a team that can hang with the dominant force coming out of the West.

Can Tennessee break with recent history by upsetting the Crimson Tide in front of a rowdy home crowd at Neyland Stadium? Can Tennessee do enough to stay in the game against a vastly superior Alabama team on both sides of the ball? Will Alabama’s road to 17 continue on the other side of Knoxville’s Appalachian ridges? Or will this game be another one for the ages, a way-point for either team on which the fortunes of the remainder of the season are forged.

We will know more Saturday night. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Tennessee defense

At the beginning of the season, it was this match-up (the Bama offense against the UT defense) that likely would have spelled the tale of the tape in the perennial battle of the two teams. Alabama’s offense was nothing if not green, with a yet-to-be-decided quarterback, three new tailbacks, and a green center, right tackle, and left guard on the offensive line. Tennessee, on the other hand, would be returning several ALL-SEC performers on a defense that was revitalized by the aggressive scheme of new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, and with the likes of Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and Danny O’Brien in the heart of the defensive line, Alabama’s likely strength would play against Tennessee’s greatest power defensively.

Flash forward to the current week: Alabama’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has taken the conference by storm, snatching the reins of the Tide offense and allowing Lane Kiffin to run his dream offense. Where Alabama had no sure thing at running back in Week 1, the Tide now has a trio of capable runners led by breakout stars Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. And that offensive line that featured so many new faces (including true freshman Jonah Williams at right tackle)? Well, it pushed around a strong Arkansas defense as if shoving a group of kindergartners last week on the Razorbacks’ home field.

In the meantime, Tennessee has seen injuries to no fewer than three key returning starters. The Vols’ best corner, Cam Sutton, is out for the season. The linebacking position has become a bit of a dumpster fire for Tennessee, with All-SEC performer Jalen Reeves-Maybin missing the remainder of the season with an injury, along with fellow linebacker Darrin Kirkland. To make matters worse, the defensive line took a hit last week when senior tackle Danny O’Brien was injured, then subsequently removed from the team for undisclosed reasons. While those represent the biggest losses due to injury, the Volunteers are extremely thin in regard to healthy talent, as they are dinged across the board.

How can Tennessee possibly match-up with an Alabama offense that seems to be hitting its stride? After all, Alabama hung nearly half a hundred on a fairly decent Arkansas defense last week, and they did it in a number of ways. What has to be most discouraging for Vol fans (and the remainder of the SEC teams on the Tide’s schedule) is that Alabama appears to have once again returned to form with its running attack, with a tandem of backs performing well behind a cohesive, powerful offensive line. Add into that Hurts’ development as a passer and his ability with his legs, and it hardly even seems fair.

There are several key match-ups that will determine the tone and timbre of this edition of the Third Saturday in October. First off will be the aforementioned Tide running attack versus the Tennessee defense. Tennessee is a defense that likes to take the run off of the table altogether by forcing negative plays to start offensive series. On first downs, Shoop will break with the traditional way of stacking the box (adding safeties in close while corners play man) by bringing his nickel and a corner in to set the edges when the Vol defense reads run. This gives him the element of speed on the outside for running plays that are designed to get outside of the tackles, but it also forces backs into the beef of the Tennessee front in the middle. Safeties, instead of crowding the box, drop back into deeper zones in the event of an RPO that fools the defensive backs into playing run up front. Most of the time, the safeties clean up what’s left when the eight (or nine) men in the box get finished.

Whether of the injuries or the lingering need to recruit talent to fit the new 4-2-5 scheme, Tennessee’s execution against the run has been less than spectacular this season. They are currently ranked 86th against the run, giving up 183 yards per game to opposing offenses. Alabama, conversely, is a running machine with the 20th ranked rushing offense nationally (237 yards per game). There is a large statistical disparity, which while not always an accurate forecaster of future events, points to Alabama’s likely ability to run well against Tennessee. And as we all know, when Alabama reaches the magic 140-yards-rushing number, the Tide typically comes out on top.

Against Alabama, the Vol run defense strategy will be problematic. Kiffin and Alabama have proven that they are willing to adapt to their opponents’ weaknesses within the confines of the offensive system they run. Kiffin loves the cerebral portion of the game, as he works like a chess grand master, setting up future moves with feints and misdirection. He’ll take a momentary loss to set up an eplosive play later in the game. For example, Kiffin uses the jet sweep to move defensive players out of plays he plans to run series into the future.

Alabama’s offense uses a lot of RPO action, and Hurts has demonstrated his ability to adequately make those decisions adeptly and then execute them. Alabama can line up in a running formation, show run, and let those defensive backs close towards the tackles. When they do, the quick lateral throws to Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart will be there, and they’ll get them in space with safeties playing back. Tennessee generally counts on being able to read offensive sets pre-snap so that they can begin flowing in the right direction when the play begins. Alabama’s offense will offer them scant clues, even after the snap, that will allow them to anticipate what’s coming. Alabama has the talent at skill positions to burn Tennessee for incorrectly anticipating. Eventually, this will lead to a flat-footed defense (especially in light of the myriad less-experienced players that will be on the field Saturday), and a defense that is flat-footed against Alabama’s level of talent is likely to get scorched routinely.

Not only that, but this particular strategy typically employed by the Vol defense is one that doesn’t seemingly mesh with Alabama’s under-appreciated edge running game. The Tide would probably prefer to run between the tackles, whether with inside zone looks or power. But if Alabama wants to run to the edges, there’s no doubt that the Tide receivers will be up to the challenge of becoming blockers against the Vol DB’s trying to set the edge against the run. There, on the edges, shifty, shaky runners like Jacobs and Harris could really do some damage.

Expect Alabama to probe and attack the interior of the Vol line, though, as the absence of O’Brien will leave sophomore Khalil McKenzie (6-3, 325 pounds) as the starter. Behind him, the depth is sparse and inexperienced. Fellow tackle Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295 pounds) will likely start despite an injury in the Texas A&M game, but his effectiveness may be less than 100 percent. Behind him is another sophomore in Shy Tuttle (6-3, 311 pounds), who while capable, may not be ready for what Alabama will throw at him with the physical running game. Kiffin likes to identify the weak link in a defense and then hammer it with Mjolnir-like force. Against Tennessee, the thunder will likely strike at the tackle positions, as the Vol D line hasn’t seen anything like what they’ll face Saturday.

Given the depth issues and injuries at the interior defensive line, coupled with an injury-ravaged linebacking corps that will struggle as they have for much of the season, it’s easy to imagine that the Tide will try the middle until the Vols make them stop. Alabama will have an injury issue of its own at right guard, as Alfonse Taylor may be out with a concussion. However, he will be replaced by sophomore Lester Cotton, who saw a good bit of action at right guard earlier this season. If Alabama can run it between the tackles, it’s hard to imagine a way that the Vols will be able to stop the Tide machine overall.

In the passing game, while the Volunteer passing defense has been workable this season (ranked 49th and allowing 216.3 yards per game), it is a unit that has little depth at this point. Safeties Todd Kelly (5-11, 208 pounds) and Micah Abernathy (6-0, 195 pounds) are pretty good, but at the corners, the Vols are trying to knit a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. They will likely start freshman Baylen Buchanan (5-11, 190 pounds) at left corner, with the steady Emmanuel Moseley (5-11, 180 pounds) probably starting on the right. Moseley was injured last week against the Aggies, and may not be able to go. If he can’t, the Vols will rely on Justin Martin, a journeyman who is providing the depth at both corner positions due to injuries. The Vols have a good tandem of nickel backs in starter Rashaan Gaulden (6-1, 185 pounds) and Malik Foreman (5-10, 190 pounds), but again, Foreman may be limited due to injury, leaving little quality depth behind Gaulden.

Given Shoop’s desire to force offenses into passing situations, the performance of the secondary will be critical. Shoop wants to limit offenses on first downs when both the run and pass are at play. If Tennessee can set up second-and-long and third-and-long situations, his defense can orient to the pass, and work on shutting down the passing lanes and blitzing the passer.

When Tennessee gets what they want and they can stuff offenses on first down, they are lethally efficient on the latter two downs. They have a third-down defense that is ranked 35th nationally, allowing conversions 33.7 percent of the time. Long yardage on latter downs means they can get creative with their blitzes and create debilitating pressure with the ends like Barnett and Vereen. Against some quarterbacks, the plan works to a T.

However, despite all of the pressure the Vols attempt to create, their sack numbers are terrible. They are currently ranked 104th in team sacks, accounting for little more than one per game on average. Barnett is a beast to be sure, but only one other defender (Vereen) has more than a single sack this season. Conversely, Hurts has proven that while he may struggle with accuracy when pressured, when his line can give him time, he is extremely effective as a passer. Against Arkansas, Hurts was 12-of-13 passing when not pressured, and against Tennessee, it’s easy to imagine that he’ll get a lot of those opportunities to throw the ball once again.

To keep Hurts clean in the pocket, Alabama’s line will be called upon to handle a variety of blitz looks. Shoop is known for his unique blitz vectors, whether originating from man-free configurations or fire zones. He brings corners and nickels on the blitz, he twists both linebackers through the A-gaps, he drops the ends into coverage and brings safeties on delayed blitz calls. And he destroys any attempt at tendency diagnosis by constantly running different schemes and blitzes from the same formations.

When a defense blitzes, however, it creates an opportunity for a savvy offense. Blitzing is a calculated risk, with the defensive coordinator hoping that the speed of the blitzers and their ability to penetrate trumps a quarterback’s ability to read the defense and get the ball to a hot route quickly. The more defenders rush the passer, the fewer there are to defend downfield. Simple math dictates that there’s a chance for a big play if the quarterback reads his keys and executes. Hurts has become increasingly confident with his reads, and that could be key against a blitz-happy Vol unit that will try to create the pressure that leads to problems for the young quarterback.

First, the line will have to handle the likes of Barnett and Vereen routinely. It starts with locking down the Vol front four, and the ends are the most dangerous pass rushers the Tide will be asked to handle. The backs will have to be able to read blitzes, stay at home, and successfully pick up the blitzers. The Bama backs have been fairly effective in pass pro this season, and their continued ability to do so will be critical as Alabama attempts to establish the pass. Finally, Hurts will have to be able to see the field, read the blitz, find the exploitable spot, and get the ball in the hands of his playmakers in space. There will be opportunities for big plays in these scenarios, and one can be certain Kiffin has drawn up more than a few ways to take advantage of the Vols’ aggressive blitz packages.

The key factor for the Vols in slowing the Alabama offense will be their ability to impose their will on first down and third down. If the Vols can cause Alabama to routinely have negative plays on first down, then schematically, they will gain an advantage. Alabama is a team that strives to control the ball and string together long, grinding, exhausting drives that sap defenses. Tennessee simply cannot allow that, not only because their scheme is built to get offenses off the field on third downs, but because of their almost non-existent depth.

If Alabama can gain positive yards on first down, keep their options open on second and third down, and build 10-play-plus scoring drives, then the score could be something akin to what we saw in Fayetteville last weekend. If, however, Tennessee can stall Tide drives and keep their defense off of the field, then their chances of survival increase exponentially.

The Alabama defense versus the Tennessee offense

The Tennessee offense has been nothing if not impressive this season, especially as the season has progressed, with the Vols executing several come-from-behind performances to seal wins in games they should have lost this season. Conversely, the offense has been out of sorts early in games, allowing for the necessity of such comebacks.

There’s no doubt that the Vols have the players for a potent scoring offense, with senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs (6-3, 210 pounds) serving as the primary field general. Dobbs is similar in his skill set to Alabama’s Hurts: he is an able enough passer when not under pressure, he has tremendous running ability, and he sees the field well under most circumstances. Joining him in the backfield is one of the league’s best running back tandems in Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240 pounds) and former Tide back Alvin Kamara (5-10, 215 pounds), providing the Tennessee offense with a one-two, thunder-and-lightning combination. The receivers, while maybe not on par with the targets Hurts enjoys, are workable, with Josh Malone (6-3, 200 pounds), Juaun Jennings (6-3, 205 pounds) and Josh Smith (6-1, 213 pounds) filling out the starting wide receiver spots.

While the skill position talent is pretty good for the Vols, their offensive line has been a work in progress for much of the year. They have been able enough as run blockers, as the Vols have the nation’s 50th ranked rushing offense (192.5 yards per game). However, as pass blockers, the Volunteer offensive line has been as porous as limestone despite great size and relatively decent experience up front. The right side of the line has been particularly troublesome for Tennessee, with sophomores Jack Jones (6-4, 307 pounds) and Chance Hall (6-4, 318 pounds) following a steep learning curve that has resulted in poor pass blocking and constant pressure of Dobbs. Add into the fact that the line’s most veteran player, center Dylan Wiesman (6-4, 310 pounds) is questionable after a head injury against Texas A&M. If Wiesman can’t go, he’ll be replaced by the rather green junior Coleman Thomas (6-5, 301 pounds), though Thomas played well in relief against A&M in the latter stages of that game.

The A&M line had its way with the Vol front, with Dobbs continually harassed throughout the game. The Aggies didn’t always get to the fleet-footed Dobbs, and the senior is certainly capable of making plays with his legs when the pocket breaks down. But A&M was able to harass Dobbs all night long last week, and if there is a pass rush in the SEC more potent than Texas A&M’s, it’s Alabama’s, as the Tide has been hell on wheels in pursuit of the passer this season. Offensive coordinators who though they could key on Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams have found that Ryan Anderson and Da’ron Payne are equally as disruptive. To that end, Alabama is currently ranked fifth nationally in sacks, averaging 3.8 per game. In total, the Tide has recorded 25 sacks in 2016 to lead the conference, and many of those sacks came against better pass blocking units than the one in orange they meet on Saturday.

There’s no question that Alabama’s front will be able to get penetration and disrupt the Tennessee passing game. Dobbs struggles with accuracy when under pressure, and overall he’s only a 58 percent passer with 14 touchdowns to eight interceptions on the season. What Dobbs can do exceptionally well is create plays when the pocket breaks down for him, which is often. Dobbs is elusive and head’s-up when on the move, as he creates openings with his athleticism and has the speed to take advantage of them.

When Alabama does penetrate, they’ll need to keep Dobbs in check, or else the Tide defense may have an outcome similar to the one they faced against Chad Kelly earlier this season. Dobbs is definitely not a passer on par with Kelly, but the similarity in elusiveness and the ability to run the zone read is similar. As a runner, Dobbs is probably more athletic. Therefore, Alabama will need to be aggressive but disciplined in pursuit of Dobbs, and if they can consistently keep the senior signal-caller behind the eight-ball, then the Volunteer offense will sputter and stall. The Vols will have to find a way to generate some offense through the air, because they will most undoubtedly struggle to move down field on the ground against the Tide’s exemplary run defense.

To take advantage of the talent he has on the roster, Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Debord have crafted a powerful “smashmouth spread” style of offense that stresses defenses on a number of levels. In fact, it is quite similar in many ways to what Kiffin does with Alabama’s offense with Hurts at the helm, running a combination of spread concepts from a variety of formations with a mobile, dual-threat quarterback who legitimately poses three threats to a defense (run, keep, pass).

Debord likes to stack the math in favor of his offense by forcing defenses to thin the box. He does this by using spread formations and multiple receiver sets to move players to the edges. He further loosens the density of the box by using pre-snap movements to draw defenders away from the play action and set up combos and double-teams in the blocking scheme.

Most of Debord’s (or Jones’) offense is predicated on the inside zone, as it allows him to take the complexity out of reading defenses and gives the offensive front confidence in their assignments. The center counts the defenders in front of him in the box, then counts the players to either side of him, and behind him. If the count is even, all is good, and everyone simply needs to execute the assigned play. If it’s a plus-one that favors the offense, then the quarterback looks for an explosive play opportunity. If it’s a negative-one that favors the defense, the called play is killed and the offense options to another one.

Off of this foundation, the Vols use a ton of packaged plays that give Dobbs the greatest diversity of options to attack a defense from a given set. In the huddle, Debord may call two (or three) plays that can be run off of a single inside zone set. Often times, the base play will be an inside zone run, and there will be a quick pass or screen pass tagged onto it. When the offense comes to the line, the center makes his read. If the match-ups are favorable, they run play one. If not, they’ll “kill” the first play and run play two.

The Vols, like Alabama, also love the unpredictability inherent in the use of RPOs. Some reads and subsequent adaptations are pre-snap, such as the aforementioned kills. However, RPO options are figured at (or after) the snap and are read by the quarterback. For example, Dobbs will take the snap, read the linebacker, and then decide whether to keep it on a zone read run, hand it to Hurd or Kamara, or look for a pre-set passing option.

The Vol front relies on double-teams on running plays, as often times, the guard will join the center on a double-team of the nose before moving to the second level to take on a linebacker. This helps to open holes at the point of attack for the Vol backs, and if they have the patience to allow the blocking to set up, they are almost guaranteed penetration to the second level if the play if properly executed. There is a ton of pulling and movement from the linemen, and for that reason, they must be athletic and mobile, able to pull from, say, the guard position and get to the edge to plow the way for the scampering backs.

The Vols use this dynamic in particular to great effect by attacking the edges. They’ll pull a guard or center (or sometimes even the weakside tackle) all the way out to the edge, where there will be a definite size mismatch featuring the lineman against a corner or safety. These plays typically feature a speedy back like Kamara who follows the pulling lineman and can take advantage of the space created at the boundary. It’s sneaky in that it moves the play away from the heart of the defense, where there is the most run-stopping bulk. It takes the prime run stuffers out of the play altogether, placing the onus on the overmatched defensive backs (or maybe linebackers) to fight through the block of a rumbling lineman to make a play. This can be absolutely devastating if the defense is unprepared, and it is made more so when the offense has the right type of talent.

Against Alabama, this strategy may fall flat, as Alabama’s linebackers are phenomenally fast and can play sideline to sideline. Reuben Foster prides himself on his new lighter “Ferrari” frame, and his pursuit of the Vol backs to the edge shouldn’t be hard for him to accomplish. Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton are also particularly mobile, and with lick-laying safeties like Eddie Jackson, Ronnie Harrison, and Hootie Jones stepping up in run support, there’s no doubt the Tide defense can adapt to the tactic and go with the flow.

The Volunteer offense also incorporates gap principles into their offensive attack, which makes diagnosing them that much more difficult. Gap principles allow Debord to leverage Dobbs’ strengths as a runner to great effect by providing myriad plays from the same few formations. Because Dobbs is such a running threat, using gap principles creates one-on-one situations for the backs because Dobbs must also be accounted for as a runner. It also allows for simplified blocking assignments for the linemen, who can fire off of the ball confidently and execute the plan.

What makes it even more difficult to defend is Tennessee’s tendency to line up both Kamara and Hurd in the backfield with Dobbs at times. When Debord does so, he creates a defense-stressing combination in which the defense must account for three legitimate home run rushing threats, a screen or short throw to one of the running backs (usually Kamara), a downfield throw if the opportunity presents itself, or an option look that strings out the defense laterally. It has the same type of effect on a defense as the traditional old-school triple option, just with a modern twist and no need for highly specialized personnel up front and in the back field. Unlike the triple-option, the Tennessee scheme uses quarterback RPO decision making instead of the veer to instill indecision in the defense, creating a very difficult to diagnose game plan.

Add to the equation a break-neck pace when the offense is regularly converting third downs, and you get a strategy that taxes even the best defenses and allows for guaranteed explosive plays when the defenses inevitably lapses.

It will be a lot for the Tide defense to digest, but if there’s any team capable of handling it, it’s Alabama. Tennessee’s strength offensively is the running game, and Alabama is currently fielding the nation’s top run defense, allowing an obscenely-low 69.2 yards per game. No team has run effectively against the Tide this season, though no team the Tide has faced really does what Tennessee attempts to do on the ground. The Tide has such a diversity of talent with incredible speed at almost every position that it’s difficult to imagine the Tennessee offense having a better showing against Alabama than they had against a lesser run defense in Texas A&M.

Alabama will need disciplined play from the front seven to prevent the aforementioned lapses which could lead to explosive plays for the Vols. Against quality opponents, the Vols have lived and died on explosive plays rather than putting together long, sustained, consistent drives.

Tennessee is likely not going to beat Alabama through the air, which is fortunate since the Tide’s secondary is the surprising weak link thus far in the season. The Tide’s secondary was ripped by Austin Allen last week, with all kinds of problems and inconsistencies mentioned by Saban in the post-game press conference. Dobbs hasn’t shown that he can pick apart a defense that has the coverage skills wielded by Alabama’s secondary, and with the defensive front sure to apply relentless pressure, if he does pass he’ll be doing it under constant harassment.

Tennessee could opt to get Dobbs into a groove in a way similar to the game plan used by Kiffin with Hurts against aggressive, active defenses. Debord can call short, safe passes to the edges off of RPOs to spread the Bama defense and negate the impact of the pass rush to some extent. But they’ll be doing so at their own risk, as Alabama’s defensive backs are excellent tacklers, and such passes will likely be short gainers unless the Vol receivers prove themselves threatening enough downfield to force the Tide DBs into looser coverages. Too many stalled drives will set the Volunteers at a decided disadvantage, as their defense will struggle to contain Alabama’s potent O.

Another factor will most definitely come in the form of turnovers. The Vol offense is a turnover machine…and not in a positive sense. They are currently ranked 97th nationally in turnover margin with a -3. Alabama, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, ranked 20th in turnover margin. The Tide secondary has been opportunistic and aggressive, sometimes to its own detriment. And those turnovers have been more costly for opponents, as Alabama has converted those foibles into seven defensive touchdowns to date. A closely contested game could be decided by an errant turnover or two, but at the rate the Vols give away the ball, Alabama’s ball-hawking defense could break the game wide open and take the pressure off of the offense.

It’s important to note that Tennessee seems to have two offenses this season: the slow, plodding, error-riddled offense of the first half, and the explosive, dynamic, lucky, big-play offense of the second half. It’s hard to understand this dynamic, but for whatever reason, Tennessee seems to play much better after breaking in, as evidenced by their performances against East rivals Florida and Georgia. Some of that can be attributed to luck, but an offense doesn’t make up a 21-point deficit in less than a half by not doing things the right way. When the Vols play fast, when they play under pressure, good things tend to happen for them. Things didn’t work out last week against Texas A&M, but the Vols nearly pulled out yet another last-second comeback against a conference foe.

Alabama’s defense cannot sleep on the Vol offense. They cannot take the foot off the pedal the way they did against Arkansas last week. Alabama’s defense will need to maintain intensity and play the full four quarters this week, as the Volunteer offense with Dobbs playing at a high level is capable of scoring a lot of points in a hurry.

Special Teams

Alabama and Tennessee are evenly matched in regard to special teams for the most part, with both teams fielding veterans at the key kicking positions. Alabama has Adam Griffith at place kicker and J.K. Scott at punter, and the Vols have Aaron Medley and Trevor Daniel, respectively. Medley has been effective this season, hitting all 26 PATs and five-of-seven field goal attempts (71.4 percent), Daniel is a weapon for the Vols, as he averages 42.5 yards per punt.

Alabama continues to tinker with the return game, with both Eddie Jackson and Xavian Marks fielding punts last week against Arkansas. The Volunteers have the shifty Kamara as a punt returner, where he’s averaging 7.8 yards per return. Evan Berry was returning kicks and averaging 25 yards per return, but may not be able to go due to injury. Handling kickoff duties will be Micah Abernathy (if he’s healthy) and Elliot Berry. Abernathy averages 21.6 yard per return, and Elliot Berry has a single 43-yard return to his credit.

The Third Saturday in October is here again, and this year, the stakes are higher for everyone involved. Alabama is on the road to 17, and after beating the saddle-burr of the last two seasons in Ole Miss, the Tide must now run a championship-worthy gauntlet against Tennessee, Texas A&M, and LSU. A stumble in any one of those games could mean the end of title dreams for the Tide, and the insult to injury would come if a Tide loss came at the hands of its most hated rival to break a decade-long streak.

For Tennessee, the game is about pride. It’s about a turning point. It’s about making a statement. The Volunteers have wandered the SEC wilderness for coming up on a decade now, never in contention for anything of note by season’s end. They’ve suffered long, and nothing would secure Jones’ future in Knoxville more steadfastly than a win that would end Alabama’s prolonged reign of terror.

Expect a loud, physical, bruising game this Saturday. The stakes for both teams are incredibly high, even aside from the rivalry itself. Given the heart-stopping nature of most of Tennessee’s contests this season, it’s not hard to conjure in the imagination visions of a game that threatens overtime as the seconds tick away in the third quarter. It’s likewise not hard to envision a dominant Bama rout not unlike the display in Fayetteville last weekend, truth be told.

As the week has drawn to a close, the line has moved to 13 points in favor of the Tide. If you believe in the clairvoyant viability of Vegas books, and given the money behind them there’s no reason not to, that is a significant number. Tennessee under Butch Jones is 1-10 when entering a game as a double-digit underdog. In light of that, there’s every reason to believe the Tide will come out the victor in this game. Rivalry game or not, history indicates that the Tide should roll to a tenth consecutive victory over the hated rival to the north.

In this 98th meeting of the Tide and Volunteers, there will be many storylines, crimson and orange threads knitted between one another like the long and storied histories of the two programs themselves. Can Alabama shore up the pass defense and stop the Vols’ smashmouth spread? Can Alabama’s offense take advantage of a depleted Volunteer defense and jump out to an early lead that will quiet a raucous crowd and set the stage for another dominant performance against a ranked team? Will the score get out of hand early, and if so, will the Vols be able to rally their troops again against a defense the likes of the one Alabama fields?

We’ll know the answers to these questions and more by sunset tomorrow. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.