The Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Neyland Stadium this Saturday to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. The Crimson Tide have will put their nine game win streak against the Volunteers on the line and look to remain undefeated on the season.
For old school Alabama fans it doesn’t get any bigger than the Third Saturday in October in terms of rivalries. The new breed of fan likes to say Auburn, and even some say LSU, is the the Crimson Tide’s biggest rival. However, those of us who know how to truly hate understand that this game is the big one on the schedule.
Whatever your opinion is on who is the biggest rival, there is no doubt that this game is huge. This Saturday is the 99th meeting between Alabama and Tennessee and the 21st meeting when both teams are ranked. Alabama holds an 11-9 advantage in such contests.
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Tennessee has failed to live up to its end of the rivalry for the last decade. For the majority of these program’s history this game was a major factor in which team would go on to win the SEC. Finally, this game is back on the pedestal it belongs.
Both teams currently control their own destiny in the SEC race to Atlanta. That will no longer be the case should the Crimson Tide extend their streak to 10 straight over the Vols. If the Volunteers end their misery at the hands of Nick Saban Alabama still controls its own SEC fate, but that’s not necessarily true in terms of the College Football Playoff.
Outside of the implications this game holds for this season this is a game both fan bases want to win badly. It means a lot to both programs and the players know that.
Here is how the Crimson Tide and Volunteers will match-up this Saturday.
When Alabama is on Offense:
The Crimson Tide O was firing on all cylinders early against Arkansas last week after getting off to slow starts in the majority of its first 5 games. After failing to score a touchdown in the first quarter against a Power 5 team all season, Alabama had 14 points after the first quarter in Fayetteville.
Alabama will need another fast start on offense this weekend. In fact, it will probably get off to one. The Vol’s Defense, in its 3 SEC games, has surrendered just under 12 points in the first Quarter and just under 20 points before the Half, on average.
However, Alabama will need to keep their foot on the gas. Tennessee is allowing just over 10 points per game in the 2nd Half. That’s a number good enough for 30th in the nation.
The Volunteer’s defense is limping into this game. Their two best players, Cornerback Cam Sutton and Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, are not expected to play Saturday. Also, UT’s other starting linebacker, Darrin Kirkland, has missed their last 4 games with an ankle injury. Even if he plays it’s unlikely he’ll be at 100%. Finally, Defensive Tackle Danny O’Brien was dismissed from the team earlier this week.
Tennessee’s injury issues certainly will have an impact on what Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop likes to do.
Shoop runs a 4-3 base that has a heavy 4-2-5 Nickel look. On early downs, especially 1st down, Shoop likes to run his 4-3 to stop expected runs and keep opposing offenses in second and third and long situations. When Tennessee takes out the 3rd LB and replaces him with a Nickel-back they run a basic 4-2-5 or go with a 4-3 Over look. That is, their NB either plays in a traditional role like a 5th defensive back or plays close to the line like a 3rd linebacker.
Tennessee’s lack of depth at Linebacker and Defensive back right now has limited Shoop’s ability to do this. Tennessee has been forced to go more with the 4-2-5 base with Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland out. The smaller base defense has allowed teams to have much more effect running against the Tennessee front.
In more bad news for Tennessee, Alabama’s offense likes to run out of similar formations as Texas A&M. With Jalen Hurts at QB, the Crimson Tide employ a lot of spread read-option and power running out of the spread. Defending that out of a 4-2-5 requires very good LBs and aggressive DBs. The replacement Tennessee LBs have not had a ton of success stopping the run lacking that 3rd backer on early downs.
Additionally, Tennessee’s secondary has clearly missed Cam Sutton. Emmanuel Mosely has shifted into Sutton’s position in his absence and Malik Foreman has filled the void at the other corner spot. Opposing Quarterbacks have certainly started taking more down field shots in Sutton’s absence. Even Florida back-up QB Austin Appleby was able to hit on big plays early against the Vol’s backfield.
The Crimson Tide have a lot of options in how to attack a hyper-aggressive Tennessee defense. With a banged up Linebacking corps and Defensive backfield I expect Alabama to aggressively attack the edges in this game. The goal will be to force Vol defenders make tackles in open space against talented runners like Damien Harris and Jalen Hurts.
Lane Kiffin will also look to take Defensive End Derek Barnett out of the game. At this juncture he is Tennessee’s best defensive player. He can rush the passer, stop the run, and drop back into coverage. He’s also very aggressive. Alabama’s misdirection with the option, jet sweep, and screens may do enough to frustrate him. He will likely be double teamed on running plays his direction.
Alabama will also look to win some one-on-one matchups down field with Calvin Ridley and Ardarius Stewart on the outside. Kiffin will have to call his shots though as Shoop likes to run a Cover 6 scheme which essentially keeps the Top on the Defense. However, should Bama attack the flats early and often it may force Tennessee into man-coverage. Once Kiffin sees that match-up he’ll look to get Ridley and others lined up in a single battle.
The Crimson Tide offense SHOULD be able to win the majority of its battles simply based on better talent. Shoop is good at defensive scheme but this Saturday he’s likely to lack the player’s necessary to run his precise system. Texas A&M and Georgia both had good success against this Vol’s defense. Alabama should as well.
When Alabama is on Defense:
The Tennessee Offense is not anything new to this Crimson Tide defense. In fact, it will actually be a nice reprieve after playing Arkansas a week ago. It seems we have come full circle in college football. The spread, no-huddle option attack has become the norm. The two tight end set with a throwing Quarterback is now the outlier.
Tennessee is going to try to run Josh Dobbs out of the Quarterback spot. They’re going to try to do that a lot. In Tennessee’s wins with Dobbs at the starting QB the Vols have amassed a whopping 1,197 yards rushing with his legs alone. In their losses, just 456 yards.
That task may prove quite difficult for the Vols, however. This year the Crimson Tide defense has allowed 52 QB rushing yards – on 52 attempts. The Alabama Linebacking corps may be the fastest it’s ever been under Nick Saban. Quarterbacks have had little to no free space against this unit.
Of course, the Tennessee coaches don’t want Dobbs to be getting hit on every rushing play. Naturally, they’re going to give the ball to their bell-cow Jalen Hurd. Hurd is expected to return Saturday against the Crimson Tide after missing last weeks game against A&M.
In 5 games Hurd has amassed 407 yards on the ground. That’s only 4 yards per carry for Hurd, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He’s a very, very good compliment to Dobbs in the read-option game and is very good at catching the ball out of the backfield.
The back who may be even more dangerous overall than Hurd is the other RB Alvin Kamara. A former Crimson Tide player, Kamara is a stud in this spread attack. He is just as good of a receiver as he is a runner. Alabama will need to certainly keep an eye on him when he’s on the field. He’s very good in space and will test this Alabama front 7 like no back they’ve seen up to this point.
On top of the running game the Volunteers have a pretty good stable of Receivers. Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings are Dobbs’ favorite targets. Each have 17 receptions on the year and are the biggest scoring threats in the passing game with 5 and 3 TDs, respectfully.
Malone is an especially difficult match-up for the Alabama secondary. To not be too condescending, the Alabama secondary, as a unit, appears to have regressed since their stellar performance against USC in week 1. Both Chad Kelly for Ole Miss and Austin Allen torched the secondary unit at times for over 400 yards each.
My initial thought after the Ole Miss game was that the Rebel WR’s were just athletic freaks who could win 50/50 balls. Then Arkansas’s receivers, who aren’t psychically imposing, just flat beat Bama defenders play after play.
This is why Malone is a problem. He’s a 6’5″ guy with great speed. Malone can win jump balls, avoid getting jammed at the line, and speed past his share of defensive backs. The Alabama secondary is going to have to play much, much better against Tennessee this weekend to contain Malone. If Bama is forced to double or shade Malone it’s going to open up passing lanes for Dobbs.
As for Dobbs, look for the Bama defense to play a lot of zone coverage on Saturday. The Tide defnese is going to want to keep their eyes in the backfield to prevent Dobbs from taking off on the run. Also, it should provide over the top help against receivers like Malone. Additionally, it should help contain guys like Kamara coming out of the backfield.
Dobbs is not particularly gifted as a passer. Yes, he can make open throws like any QB at this level. However, he has issues putting the ball exactly where it needs to be in tight coverage and isn’t doesn’t have a good long ball. He is a gifted runner, however. When the play breaks down he an keep it alive and find receivers down field or just take off.
The Crimson Tide pass rushers will need to get home often in this game. More importantly, when they have a chance to bring Dobbs down they have to take advantage. It’s a unit that clearly has the ability to have an impact on the game. They’ll need to have on this Saturday.
Finally, the Crimson Tide defense should have an opportunity to score yet another Touchdown. The Vols have been very turnover happy this season. Dobbs himself has thrown 8 interceptions. If the Tennessee offense puts the ball in a Tide defender’s hands there’s a good chance the defense can make yet another game impacting scoring play.
This is a gifted Tennessee football team. There is no doubting that. The Volunteers didn’t have the talent necessary to win in the SEC when Butch Jones first arrived. That is no longer than case after several highly touted recruiting classes.
This Vols team also has no quit in them. They’ve fallen behind by 14 points in 5 of their 6 games. They’ve trailed in the 4th Quarter in every game but Ohio as well. Still, they’re 5-1 and nearly completed an amazing comeback against Texas A&M.
The Crimson Tide will have to take advantage of the Vol’s lackadaisical start and will have to keep hitting the Vols until the clock hits zero.
Expect this game to be a pretty high scoring affair. The Crimson Tide offense is clicking and the Volunteer’s defense is banged up. Unfortunately, Dobbs and Co. are going to hit Bama for some big plays as well.
Score Prediction: Alabama – 41 Tennessee – 28
If you’re going to Knoxville, come prepared with a cigar. The Crimson Tide kicks off against the Volunteers at 2:30pm central time tomorrow. The game will be the Verne and Gary Special, aired on CBS. More information related to game time to come this evening. Roll Tide!