The last time Tennessee beat rival Alabama, fans took to MySpace to brag about it.
Miley Cyrus debuted as Hannah Montana for the first time on Disney Channel, while Justin Timberlake was bringing sexy back.
However, marred by one-year wonder Lane Kiffin and the dark Dooley era, the Vols haven’t put up much of a fight in the previous nine games in the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry. The Crimson Tide have beaten Tennessee by an average of over 21 points a game in the winning streak, with four of those wins coming by 30 or more points.
Despite those stats, the Vols (5-1, 2-1 SEC) has its best chance in a decade to knock off No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC).
The Vols bring their No. 9 ranking into this week’s matchup after dropping a double-overtime contest to No. 6 Texas A&M last week, 45-38. This marks the first time the rivalry is a top-10 matchup since 1999, when No. 5 Tennessee beat No. 10 Alabama 21-7 in Bryant-Denny stadium.
The Vols sit alone atop the SEC East standing thanks to wins over No. 18 Florida and Georgia. If Tennessee beats Alabama, they stare down a much easier second-half of its schedule and control their own destiny in the SEC East race. Not only that, but the Vols could have budding star and sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. back after Butch Jones called him a “game-time decision” on Monday.
Although Tennessee has only held a double-digit, first-half lead for 39 seconds this season, they’ve finished strong. The Vols have overcome a double-digit deficit in every game but its win over Ohio. However, Tennessee faces a different animal in the Crimson Tide.
“I think this is the best Alabama team we have faced since we have been here,” Jones said during Monday’s press conference.
Jones might know what he’s talking about. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in rushing defense, are 11th in scoring defense and 12th in total defense. Led by defensive end Jonathan Allen and the ferocious linebacking duo of Tim Williams and Reuben Foster, Alabama has dominated in each game aside from its win over Ole Miss.
Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has led Alabama to the sixth-ranked scoring offense in the country. Hurts has put up over 1,200 yards passing with almost a 64 percent completion rate en route to nine touchdown passes.
Running backs Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough have combined for nearly 1,000 rushing yards. The Crimson Tide have scored at least 34 points in every game this season.
Not only that, but the Tide have seven non-offensive touchdowns. That could pose trouble for Tennessee, who rank 124th out of 128 FBS teams in turnovers lost. The Vols committed seven alone last week (five fumbles, two interceptions) in the loss to Texas A&M.
If Tennessee wants to end the losing streak to Alabama and truly control its destiny in the SEC East, it needs to limit the turnover problems.
“It’s a focus, it’s a concentration, it’s the ability of doing two things at once,” Jones said after the loss last week. “We may take 25 minutes a day each week and work on ball security because we have to get it corrected.”
Despite overcoming large deficits in each of its big wins this season, the Vols aren’t resilient enough to beat an Alabama team of this caliber for four quarters. Although that was the prevailing thought against high-powered Texas A&M last week, the Tide are better-coached and much more talented on defense. Tennessee won’t put up nearly 700 yards on offense on ‘Bama. However, the Vols probably won’t commit seven turnovers, either. Tennessee has played the Crimson Tide tough the past two seasons, so expect a close game, but the Vols’ defense will be too tired in the fourth quarter to keep Alabama from putting the game away late.
Alabama 31, Tennessee 21
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics