This is a special week for me, as it is for many older Tide fans — Alabama’s real rival, the Tennessee Volunteers come to town.
We may begrudgingly respect LSU. We may live with, hate, and even occasionally love, Auburn fans like a little brother. But there is absolutely no hate that burns in the heart like the white phosphorus loathing between Tennessee-Alabama
Alabama and Tennessee share a 146-mile contiguous land border.
One of the most ambitious public works projects in human history, Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, took advantage and made use of the expansive Tennessee-Tombigbee river waterway: The end product literally saved the Deep South — providing electricity to an entire region, creating a post-agricultural South, pulling several states out of decades of post-Reconstruction military occupation and economic stagnation.
Our two states share a long history of military excellence, of yeoman farmers cultivating the original Western frontier, of rolling hills, precipitous mountain drops, unexpected inclement weather — and, in the right places, an Appalachian temperament unrefined by modern mores or expectations.
This is Tennessee - Alabama.
Sure, the two states now have about 11 million residents between them and are part of the sun belt boom, but Tennessee, like Alabama, is still a rural state. Agriculture is the largest industry of both. Both are noted for tourism. Both have major cities given up for dead which have since revitalized their historical contributions, renovated their downtowns, and now strive for nothing more than to take their place in a vibrant New South that has left them behind.
But, exit those cities, remove yourself from the census data and the feel-good epistles of carpetbaggers, and then our vicious, trouser-dropping, generational-feuding hatred remains: old rules prevail, old enmities emerge, and we are instantly transported back to a more primitive, tribal view of one another.
Because, dear reader, get your head right: These are garbage people.
That bit of animus now shared, let us take a look at the spread on this game, one that opened with ‘Bama as a 10-point home favorite, then dropped to as little as -8, before settling in again as of this writing at -9.
After last year’s hose-job in Neyland, with a revamped scheme, and several key Tennessee departures, you can be sure Alabama is more than motivated to repay the loathed Volunteers back with interest.
Can they, however?
Alabama is still very much live for the both the division, conference, and Playoffs. Its far superior schedule and national notoriety never really pushed ‘Bama out of the national consciousness. This remains one of the Tide’s three toughest outs, and one of its two remaining ranked opponents. It is a tired team, a beat-up team, but one that still has everything to play for. UT is not the best team the Tide have played, but they are one more very difficult home opponent for ‘Bama, where UA is 1-1 against Top 15 teams at home this season.
Alabama has underperformed a bit based on the spread, sitting at just 4-3. And when they’ve fallen short, they’ve really fallen short: By several touchdowns against Arkansas and USF, and a straight up loss to the Longhorns. At home, UA is just .500 ATS the number, and is 4-3 as a favorite.
The Vols similarly have some lofty goals remaining. They did drop a baffling game in the Swamp where they were bullied by the Gators. That leaves them a full-game back of Georgia, though UT can claim the division by running the table: UGA travels to UT in a few weeks, where the Dawgs will be short one Brock Bowers. It is also a backloaded schedule, with UK, Mizzou, Georgia and the Tide all looming late. Notching four wins there will certainly get them into the playoff picture. Like ‘Bama, they also survived an ugly physical contest against the Aggies. But, on the whole, UT has had 5 of 7 at home, and largely against bad competition. This is the best team the Vols have played to date, and certainly on the road. UT also has the advantage in rest: the Vawls had their by two weeks ago, before the backloaded hell-stretch begins. The Tide will be playing its 8th straight contest
Against the number, UT is a very spiffy 4-2. Though, in true road games, it is 0-1 ATS and lost that one straight-up. In fact, that has been a defining feature of the Josh Heupel era: flat road performances, and absolutely brutal records ATS when behind the eight-ball. His Vols are 1-3 OTR as a ‘dog. They’ve also suffered two notable collapses as a road favorite: this year against the Gators, and last year’s baffling demolition in Columbia, where South Carolina kept UT out of the playoff picture and Hendon Hooker out of New York (thanks, Shane Beamer!)
In terms of injuries, Alabama is about as healthy as they can get going into the Third Saturday. There are some minor injuries and lingering ones, and Jihaad Campbells’ absence has been felt last week, but no real complaints for a change. The Vols, however, have lost their best wide receiver, Bru McCoy, for the season. Bru did a lot for this offense besides catching the ball. He is by far the best outside blocking presence, and was responsible for sealing the edges for Milton runs. Last week was the first without him, and that aspect of their offense suffered.
Trend bettors may rightly lean towards Alabama here.
Tale of the Tape
However, when it’s time to lace them up, we evaluate these teams based on cold, hard data. And, Alabama is the better team here...but not by much, and certainly not by a comfortable degree.
These teams are two of the SEC’s most rush-heavy offenses: The Tide pounds the ball almost 59% of the time, while the Vols run on 56% of their plays. However, UT has a clear advantage against UA in volume, yards per play, yards per game, rushing scores, and rush efficiency (12th). Overall, on a per-play basis, it is the 4th best running game in the country. While Alabama has improved up front of late, especially the last two games against A&M and Arkansas, it is still just 24th nationally in run efficiency defense. UT’s rushing efficiency plummeted last week without McCoy, and a concerted effort to contain Milton can be successful. Were that the only weapon: it’s not. UT rolls three-deep behind him at the RB spot, with Jaylen Wright being the one guy the Tide must stop. No one has really done it consistently this year.
Alabama doesn’t run particularly well on paper, but it is pretty efficient overall: 18th in the country. That is apt to be offset however by an offensive line that is in the Bottom 10 in surrendering TFL vs. a Vols front four that is 7th nationally in blowing up plays, and 4th overall in TFL per contest (almost 9 per game). Given the problems ‘Bama has had on the interior in short yardage situations, this is another matchup that leans in favor of the Vols.
Where the Tide has advantages, however, they are clear and pronounced. The UA special teams are among the best in the nation, while UT is just somewhere slightly above average. Both winning the field position war, and limiting damage on returns will be critical this time around; they both notoriously failed UA last season in Neyland.
But the greatest mismatch of the game comes in the passing department. Neither quarterback is particularly accurate: UT completes just about 60% of its passes, while Alabama sits at 62%. Yet the Tide has been far better at cashing in on the completions. Jalen Milroe is third in the nation in yards per attempt, an insane 10.4 per pop. And that brings us to where Alabama is going to have to win this games. Both teams are reasonably explosive, and both teams do a good job limiting chunk plays. However, Tennessee is 92st in the nation in pass-efficiency drive defense: that means you can move the ball on them through the air, though YOLO shots are harder to come by. Meanwhile Alabama is 17th in the country in pass plays of 20 yards. That means Alabama can and should focus on getting those larger one-shots that automatically move the chains rather than focusing on the underneath routes. Then, strategically take those busts that two-high gives you. Such plays are not only his strength, it’s the Vols greatest weakness.
UT has no such luck, however. Milton has been...gross. Against two teams with winning records, he’s a 53% passer and averaging 110 yards per contest. Alabama has the better ball security, and forces more turnovers, this is another area where Alabama can have success: forcing some bad throws. To get there, however, they’ll need to negate that potent running game — a running game that in fact looks exactly like USF’s, because Bulls coach Alex Golesh built this very one the Tide face on Saturday.
If the Tide had a better offensive line, you’d expect to see a more mansome game, much like the Arkansas gameplan. However, the Volunteers are a hybrid of two schemes we’ve seen before: USF’s offense with A&M’s defensive line. That means Alabama is, more likely than not, going to win this game by doing the things it did well against those teams. Win the turnover battle, score through the air, stop the run, win the kicking game.
Unfortunately, also like those teams, it means this game is likely to be uncomfortably close, physical, and low-scoring. It also means that a 9-point spread is simply too much.
Alabama goes +1 in the turnover battle, moves the chains with some chunk plays through the air, gives up some freebies, but overall field position and a better front seven gives the Tide a win.
But not a cover.
Alabama 27 Tennessee 21
‘Bama covering -9 at home?
This poll is closed
Yep. It’s revenge time.
Nope. But they at least win.
Not only do they not cover, they lose outright