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Alabama Football vs Tennessee Preview: When the Tide has the ball

The SEC’s second-best pass rush against one of the most sack-heavy offenses in the country? What could go wrong?

Syndication: The Tennessean Caitie McMekin / News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

In his 3rd year as defensive coordinator, Tim Banks has continued to improve the Tennessee defense in each year - from 29 points per game in 2021, to 22.8 last year, and now at only 17 this year. Statistically, the Vols are almost identical to Alabama’s defense through the first 6 games of this season, as they’re holding opponents to 3.0 yards per carry and a shade under 200 passing yards per game.

Banks runs a multiple 4-2-5 scheme that often swaps around between using 2, 3, and 4 defensive linemen. In years past, he’s been heavily reliant on the blitz, but has seemed to dial it back a little this year with his main four rushers tending to get enough pressure on their own.

Tennessee’s starting two interior linemen, Omari Thomas and Omarr Norman-Lott (transfer from Arizona State) are outstanding 2-gap players who often can wreck opposing rushing games by themselves by keeping things clogged up and shedding blocks. They don’t have gaudy stats, but both 21 and 55 have really stood out to me any time I’ve watched Tennessee play.

On the edges, senior Tyler Baron and uber-sophomore James Pearce Jr. are arguably the best pass rushing tandem in the SEC. Baron’s been contributing and starting on the edge for Tennessee ever since 2020, and has put together a solid career as an upper-level starter, if not ever breaking into star status.

Meanwhile, Pearce was the second-ranked edge rusher by On3 in 2022, behind only Alabama’s Jihaad Campbell. He got a decent bit of rotational time as a freshman last year, but has really exploded as a sophomore with 6 sacks and 9 tackles for loss, trailing only Dallas Turner in the SEC.

Veteran linebacker Aaron Beasley is an undersized, speedy guy who cleans things up from side to side, while Elijah Herring is a new starter for the Vols this year, and adds some bulk to the inside linebacker group. Freshman Arion Carter has been getting some playing time as well.

In the secondary, Tamarion McDonald plays the Star role that Nick Saban has popularized, and the 6’2” 210 senior is a high energy tackling machine with 3.5 tackles for loss. Veteran Jaylen McCullough returns for what feels like his 10th season in Knoxville, and all three of the Vols other starters in the secondary are seniors as well. They’re a solid, veteran group that, while they lack star power, also don’t really have any weak links.

In a lot of ways, this Tennessee defense could prove to be a big problem for Alabama. Their edge rushers vs Alabama’s left tackle scares me, and I’m not sure Alabama will be able to move their defensive tackles out of the way enough to really rely on the run game.

On the flip side of that, though, I think Alabama could really make some hay when the running backs get to the second level, and I think the Tide’s receivers all have a speed advantage on Tennessee’s secondary.

In other words, if Jalen Milroe can get the ball off quickly (or take off running quickly), I think Alabama can rack up the explosive plays, even if they can’t really sustain drives.

According to the Draftkings Sportsbook, Alabama is favored by 8.5 in this one with a total OU of 48, or a 28-20 victory for the Tide. Looking at everything on paper, my brain says this will be even more low-scoring than that, as both defenses seem to have a significant advantage over the offense... But my gut keeps telling me this one winds up scoring more.

So, I’m going to take the betting lines, say that Alabama gets one defense or special teams TD, and Tennessee gets one extra touchdown on some stupid broken play, and Alabama walks away with a victory somewhere in the range of 34-27.

CBS has this game in their primetime slot, so it will be broadcast on CBS at 2:30 pm CT.

Roll Tide!