Week 9: Alabama at Tennessee

Alabama (6-1) at Tennessee (3-4) Oct. 25, 7:30, ESPN2 

Here’s The Deal: Still reeling from a loss to Sewanee, Tennessee couldn’t get much done in a 24-0 loss to Alabama – in 1903. Ever since, this has been one of the South’s greatest rivalries, even if it hasn’t been up to snuff over the last several seasons. 2006 was the last time the Vols won – losing seven straight and eight of the last nine, but things are improving. At least that’s the party line as Butch Jones continues to try turning his program into a player again. The offense hasn’t done enough and the strong defense hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. Now, despite having to deal with the Florida defense at home and going on the road to face Oklahoma, Georgia and Ole Miss over the last five weeks, it’s not like the slate eases up with a trip to South Carolina next week after facing the red-hot Crimson Tide. 

Is Alabama going to explode like it did against Florida and Texas A&M, looking like the best team in the country by far in two of the most jaw-dropping impressive performances of the year, or will it sputter and cough like it did against Arkansas? All questions coming out of the 14-13 win over the Hogs were answered by going 59-bagel on an A&M team who’s far, far better than a -59 spread. With a road trip to LSU up next, and Mississippi State and Auburn at home, it’s going to be a fun November, but Nick Saban’s bunch can’t braincramp.

Why Alabama Might Win: Be very, very, very shocked if Tennessee comes close to the 100-yard rushing mark. The offensive line that’s usually so great in pass protection was an absolute disaster against Ole Miss, giving up seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss to finish with a grand total of zero rushing yards on 28 carries. The Vols have yet to run for four yards a pop and were stuffed for 28 yards on 29 carries against Florida a few weeks ago. That means Tennessee has to throw and throw some more to win, and the Tide secondary, while shaky in the opener against Clint Trickett and West Virginia, has tightened up in a big way. Bo Wallace of Ole Miss came up with three touchdown passes, and the Tide secondary has allowed just three to everyone else. Tennessee just might not have enough firepower.

Why Tennessee Might Win: So how did Arkansas come so close two weeks ago against the Tide? It helped that the Bama offense wasn’t sharp, but the offense hunt on to the ball and grinded the clock down to a nub, and the defense managed to top the running game by ganging up on T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and not letting them breathe. Get these two with a little bit of space and on the move, and look out. The Tennessee linebackers are among the best in the country, and while Todd Gurley and Georgia tap-danced into the Vol second level way too often, for the most part the run defense has been terrific. When Alabama is humming it’s a pick-your-poison sort of problem, but the offense is at its best when the ground game works. Keep it to under four yards per carry – like Ole Miss and Arkansas did – and the O slows down. Tennessee allows 3.92 yards per crack this year. 

Who To Watch Out For: Blake Sims isn’t AJ McCarron, and he might not be the superstar leader quite yet that the team needs, but he’s been plenty good. The accuracy has dipped a bit, going under the 60% mark in each of the last two weeks, but he’s making things happen on the move and he’s not making any major mistakes with 13 touchdown passes and just three picks. His 445-yard, four touchdown day against Florida is going to look better and better as the year goes on, and he was terrific last week at coming up with the big play against A&M throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns. 

What’s Going To Happen: Alabama won’t pull a Texas A&M on Tennessee, but it’ll shut down the Vol offense from the start in a stifling defensive performance that’ll overcome a rocky day from the O. 

Prediction: Alabama 31 … Tennessee 10 
Line: Alabama -17 o/u: 46.5 
Must Watch Factor: 5: Dumb and Dumber To – 1: Manhattan Love Story … 2