The Tennessee Vols are going on the road to take on the number 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday to renew their annual rivalry. This will mark the 13th time the Vols have played the number 1 team in the nation, with a recorof 2-10 against those teams.
While the “Third Saturday in October” is actually being played on the fourth Saturday in October this year, there is a chance the game could feel more like the games of old than the games of the past several years.
This will be Butch Jones‘ first matchup against the crimson-clad rivals. Tennessee is in the midst of a six game losing streak against the Tide that dates back to Nick Saban‘s inaugural season as the Alabama head coach, having lost the last three by 31 each.
While this season has just been more of the same for the Tide, who have been utterly dominant, the Vols are looking like they have turned a corner after an overtime loss to Georgia and a huge upset over South Carolina.
Tennessee has taken huge strides since they kicked off the season. The much-maligned Justin Worley has shown significant improvement, protecting the ball and making plays when they are needed the most. Worley led the Vols on four scoring drives in critical moments in the fourth quarters of both the Georgia and South Carolina games and has even outperformed opposing quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw.
Worley has been helped by the emergence of playmakers out wide and a solid running game. Pig Howard and Marquez North have developed into legitimate playmakers in this offense, each of them standing out in the Georgia and South Carolina games respectively. Rajion Neal has been a key factor for the Vols, and he ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing yards.
Another difference Tennessee has shown is the play of the defense. After getting humbled by Oregon earlier in the year, the unit has bounced back nicely, forcing turnovers and not giving up as many long scoring drives. They have had their struggles containing quarterbacks in the pocket and giving up the occasional big play, but there has been significant improvement from last year’s abysmal defense.
While Tennessee finally has some hope, it doesn’t change the fact that Alabama is still Alabama. A.J. McCarron has been ruthlessly efficient, and the running game is as strong as ever behind T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. The Tide defense looks historically good, giving up a paltry 275 yards per game to go with only 9.7 points allowed per game.
In order for the Vols to pull off the monumental upset, they have to get to McCarron. If he has all day to throw, he can pick defenses apart. The Vols can live with giving up some rushing yards, but they need McCarron’s stat line to resemble Connor Shaw’s from last week to have a chance. The Tennessee offense also has to take everything the Tide gives them and play clean football. Turnovers, overthrows, and drops will not beat Alabama.
If the Vols can accomplish this, the game will be closer than the experts think. If, by chance, they even manage to hurt some key Alabama players (which Tennessee has been prone to do all season), they could give Alabama their biggest scare to date.
Edited by Will Lomas