The arrival of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa signified an end to Tennessee's run of dominance against Alabama, and the Vols haven't beaten the Crimson Tide since he's been there.
Last season, UA hammered the Vols 44-13—the Tide's third consecutive 31-point drubbing of UT while Derek Dooley was the Vols' head coach.
AJ McCarron threw for 306 yards and four touchdowns, freshman receiver Amari Cooper had a breakout game with seven catches for 162 yards, and Tennessee got embarrassed. Again.
The famed "Third Saturday in October" hasn't been much of a fall classic lately, and if the oddsmakers have anything to say about it, this year won't be, either. Vegas doesn't seem impressed with Tennessee's 23-21 win over South Carolina last week.
The Vols don't care. Now with Butch Jones at the helm, they'll try to continue their momentum as they hit the road to take on the top-ranked Tide after playing No. 2 Oregon away from Neyland earlier this year.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 26
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Place: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Radio: Vol Network, Crimson Tide Sports Network, Sirius/XM Channel 91
Spread: Alabama by 28.5, according to Sportsbook.com
All quotes were transcribed from videos posted on UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Tennessee is not ready to win this game from a talent and depth perspective.
That doesn't mean the Vols can't.
They've just got to play the perfect game. The formula includes duplicating last week's no-turnover effort against South Carolina, erasing pre-snap penalties, playing the season's best game on defense, sustaining long drives and scoring touchdowns.
Somehow, UT has to score against a defense allowing 9.7 points per game. If you exclude the 42-point performance by Texas A&M, Alabama is allowing just 4.3 points per game. It's a tall task, to say the least.
Tennessee is tied for third in the league with Alabama in turnover margin at plus-four, and the defense is coming off its best performance of the season against the Gamecocks.
The Vols allowed just 15 yards in the fourth quarter.
Even though Bama is tied for the league lead with just six turnovers, the Vols must find a way to keep getting takeaways. They've been adept at it so far this season, and it's essential to steal possessions this week.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones was thrilled to break through for the program's first big win in four years last weekend, but the Vols defense could have been even better.
He said at his Monday press conference:
We had way too many missed tackles Saturday afternoon and we can't have that happen. We had 15 missed tackles and for us to accomplish what we need accomplish and working to be a much improved football team and defense, our tackling has to take great strides this week as we continue to move forward.
Tackling in space has been an issue for UT all year. If that happens against UA, T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Amari Cooper will wind up in the end zone.
Avoid the Home Run
In order to win this game, Tennessee is going to have to take some shots downfield.
That's where not having a player of Vinnie Sunseri's smarts could hurt the Tide. Sunseri was lost for the season to injury last week against Arkansas. UA also has had a difficult time finding a consistent cornerback opposite Deion Belue.
The Tide have got to get those issues resolved and make sure not to let anything get over the top.
Shut Down the Run
Justin Worley likely won't beat a team as good as Alabama with an array of pass-heavy drives. Instead, the Vols will be trying to grind out yards on the ground behind an offensive line that has continued to improve.
The Vols are just eighth in the league in rushing, but the duo of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane were very successful against the Gamecocks and have been efficient in sustaining drives in UT's two-game revitalization.
A'Shawn Robinson and the UA front has to change that.
The Vols jumped out to a 17-7 lead against South Carolina, but after the Gamecocks stormed back to take a lead, UT came back.
It likely won't be able to do that against Alabama.
If the Crimson Tide jump out to a double-digit lead, UT isn't built to come back. If UA gets an early two-score lead, it will cruise.
Alton "Pig" Howard
You have to think Alabama will try to line up Deion Belue on Marquez North as much as possible. If that happens, Howard has to take advantage.
Howard is playing at the highest level of his two-year career. After amassing 116 yards on 10 touches against Georgia, Pig caught a career-high eight passes for 33 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina.
Justin Worley needs the game of his life in this one, and if he has it, that probably means Howard was a viable safety valve when North wasn't open deep.
Rajion Neal has been Tennessee's bell cow this year, but with the game on the line against the Gamecocks, Butch Jones had Lane in the game.
The junior from Daytona Beach, Fla., responded. He finished with 12 carries for 55 tough yards—24 of those coming on four tough carries on UT's last four offensive plays of the game.
Against Alabama, getting those gritty yards will be key. Don't be surprised if Lane gets a lot of carries.
The junior cornerback was torched for a 76-yard touchdown pass against South Carolina, and it wasn't the first time he's been picked on this year.
Freshman Cameron Sutton has been brilliant, but Coleman has given up some big ones. Alabama has stud receivers like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood and Amari Cooper and a quarterback who can distribute the ball among them.
Coleman is going to get a marquee matchup. He has to be up to the challenge.
Everybody knows about T.J. Yeldon, but Drake has been more dynamic this year.
He looks like a completely different player from last season and is averaging a stunning 8.2 yards per carry while equaling Yeldon's seven touchdowns.
Either of Alabama's backs has game-breaking ability. The Vols have to bottle them up before they get to the third level.
For all Alabama's playmakers on offense, Howard—the ultra-athletic freshman tight end from Prattville—will be a nightmare for UT's linebackers or nickelbacks to cover.
He is 6'6", 237 pounds and runs like a wide receiver. Though he has just 10 catches for 173 yards this season, this game against UT has all the makings of a breakout performance. The Vols have struggled against good tight ends.
They have to find a way to guard somebody with that athleticism in the middle of the field.
With Vinnie Sunseri out, more of the onus for big plays and leadership falls on the former 5-star prospect, per 247Sports, who is a sophomore.
Collins has all of the ability to be a huge star for the Crimson Tide. The spotlight will be on him in the defensive backfield, and he has to take his game to another level.
Vols quarterback Justin Worley isn't from the state of Tennessee, but that doesn't mean he despises the Crimson Tide any less.
The normally robotic junior quarterback candidly told the media at Monday's press conference:
"We hate Alabama just like they hate us. They've had the upper hand recently, but they've had the upper hand on everybody."
247Sports' BamaOnLine reporter Travis Reier gave GoVols247's Wes Rucker some insight on Alabama's recent success in his "Better Know a Foe" series this week (subscription required):
I really think this team has kicked it in to another gear since the second half of the Ole Miss game. The running game has piled up 1,050 yards in the last 14 quarters, averaging 7.7 yards per carry over that span. Meanwhile the defense has given up just 313 rushing yards in the past 14 quarters, with opponents averaging 2.9 yards per tote over that span.
Have the opponents been bad? Georgia State, Kentucky and Arkansas are Miley Cyrus-at-the-MTV-Video-Music-Awards bad. Still, most teams can't get through a Friday walk-thru without committing a false start penalty and Alabama went an entire SEC game without a flag last week.
It's difficult to trust anything that Nick Saban says about other coaches, especially considering how much Alabama's football czar praised Derek Dooley.
But Saban did have some very respectful things to say about the job Butch Jones has done in his first season as UT's head coach. According to The Anniston Star's Marq Burnett:
Tennessee is emerging as a very good football team in the last two weeks. I think Butch Jones has done an outstanding job there. When a team improves like they've improved, it's always a sign of good coaching, good coaching staff and a lot of people doing a very, very good job.
Alabama 31, Tennessee 17
The Crimson Tide won't win this game by more than four touchdowns, as the bookmakers believe. But they won't struggle with the Vols, either.
There's simply too much talent on both sides of the football for UA not to win comfortably. But the days of Tennessee getting blown off the field are over, and help is on the way with a star-studded recruiting class. This game needs to be about UT closing the gap with its longtime rival.
Look for the Vols to keep fighting until the end, but AJ McCarron has too many offensive weapons around him. Tennessee has been opportunistic on defense, but it hadn't been good until the South Carolina game.
It will take a perfect game to win. Alabama's just too strong across the board.