The Third Saturday in October has arrived once again. No. 1 Alabama comes to Knoxville this Saturday where No. 9 Tennessee will look to spoil the Crimson Tide’s undefeated season.
This Saturday marks the 99th time in which Tennessee and Alabama have squared off. For the first time since 2005, both teams enter the game ranked. To add to the magnitude of Saturday’s game, both teams enter the game ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.
Here are five things the Vols need to do in order to snap its nine game losing streak to Alabama.
No. 1: Cut down on the mistakes
Tennessee turned the ball over an astonishing seven times against Texas A&M last Saturday. Not only did the Vols hand the ball to the Aggies on a third of their possessions, but they also committed 12 penalties, the most in a game during Butch Jones’ tenure on Rocky Top. This has been a continuous week-to-week problem for the orange and white this season and it’s quite perplexing. Entering the season, Tennessee coached teams under Jones were near the top of the SEC in terms of fewest penalties committed and positive turnover margin. The turnovers and penalties point to a lack of focus and with the potential for a special season on Rocky Top, that cannot continue to happen. Turnovers alone cost the Vols the Texas A&M game. If Tennessee plays sloppy against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, the Crimson Tide will run Tennessee right off of the field.
No. 2: Get off to a fast start
Since Team 120’s close win over Appalachian State in week one, a key entering each game is getting off to a fast start. Tennessee’s scoring margin in the first half compared to the second half is remarkable. Through six weeks this season, opponents are outscoring the Vols by 40 points in the first half. In the second half, though, Tennessee is outscoring its opponents by 83 points. While a team always wants to play their best football in the second half, the Vols cannot continue to dig such deep holes to climb out of. Tennessee had enough talent to come back against Florida and Georgia, but against Alabama, that won’t happen. The Crimson Tide are far too talented. If the Vols can find a way to gain an early lead, an upset of the No.1 overall team in the country could begin brewing in Knoxville.
No. 3: Tennessee’s offensive line must neutralize the Alabama front-seven
Another year, another nasty Crimson Tide defense. It all starts up front where Alabama have three potential first-round draft picks in defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Tim Williams and linebacker Reuben Foster. Nick Saban’s defense consistently applies pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in sacks with 23. Alabama is also second in the SEC in tackles for a loss with 42. So far this season, the havoc created by the Crimson Tide’s front seven has created six interceptions, three of which have been returned for touchdowns. Neutralizing an Alabama defense that has scored seven defensive touchdowns this season is no small task, but the Tennessee offensive line has improved since the insertion of Jack Jones and Chance Hall in the starting lineup. This offensive line has proven it can open up holes for the running game, but the group must provide Josh Dobbs with enough time to examine the field. If the front five doesn’t perform, it’ll be a long day for the offense.
No. 4: Derek Barnett must dominate
The Tennessee offense will move the ball and score this Saturday, but they’ll be hard pressed to score more than 30 against an Alabama defense that is only giving up 15.8 points per game this season. This is where the defense comes into play and it all starts with Tennessee All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett. Alabama’s offense is scoring 44.8 points per game, while the Tennessee defense ranks 10th in the SEC with 26.7 points given up per game. Barnett can earn a lot of money on Saturday going up against Alabama left tackle, and potential first-round pick, Cam Robinson. This Tennessee defense goes as Barnett goes, and it has showed this season when he took control over various games. If the defensive line can put pressure on Alabama true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, it’ll open up things for the rest of the defense and could rattle the young man. A rattled, true freshman quarterback in a sold out Neyland Stadium with Derek Barnett bearing down on him? That’s a recipe for success.
No. 5: Force Alabama to win through the air
When it comes to talent, there isn’t a weak spot on the Alabama offense. The offensive line has elite talent, the wide receiver group is loaded with weapons, NFL scouts are drooling over OJ Howard and the running back position is loaded once again. And freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is likely to be a star in Tuscaloosa before all is said and done. However, although very talented, he is still a true-freshman quarterback on the road, in a hostile environment. Tennessee must stop the Alabama rushing attack and force the Crimson Tide to beat them through the air. Alabama is averaging 237 rushing yards per game, third best in the SEC. If Tennessee can limit the Alabama rushing game and force the true freshman into some bad decisions, it’ll be a win for the defense. Alabama does a great job of setting up the play-action fake and deep ball because of its success in the running game, but by stopping the rushing attack, Tennessee can prevent the big plays from happening.
Facing the No. 1 team in the country is never an easy task, especially as banged up as Tennessee is heading into the game. However, Tennessee has plenty of talent on offense and a superstar on defense who can take over a football game. If Tennessee can come out fast and play turnover free football for 60 minutes, the Vols have a good chance of putting a damper on Alabama’s national championship hopes, while creating some of their own.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics