The third Saturday in October is here, meaning its time for Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers (3-3, 0-3 SEC) to travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to face the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC). Coming off their poor performance last week, Las Vegas has the Volunteers as 36.5 point underdogs, the largest point spread in the history of this rivalry.
Here are a couple key matchups to look for come Saturday, as Jones and staff attempt to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Tennessee history.
John Kelly vs. Alabama front seven:
As the last several games have shown, this Tennessee team is struggling right now on the offensive side of the ball. Since the departure of former quarterback Josh Dobbs, the Volunteers have struggled to string together any bit pass efficiency.
With the inability to rely on the pass game this weekend, sophomore running back John Kelly is going to have to continue to be the playmaker. With an array of 5-star athletes, Alabama has one of the toughest run defenses in the country, which will make it more than difficult on this Tennessee offensive line. It’s not crazy to think Kelly can’t do some damage this weekend, it’s just not likely.
Jarrett Guarantano vs. Alabama defense:
Coming of a heart breaking loss in his first start, redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will look to bounce back and show the Tennessee fan base why he was such a highly touted recruit. Guarantano showed signs of greatness in his first ever start going11-188 for 133 yards. However, he unfortunately came up just short as the game winning TD was dropped in the end zone.
While Alabama’s defense is miles ahead of the Gamecocks, Guarantano doesn’t need to be exceptional this weekend. Everyone fully expects the young quarterback to have his struggles against a Nick Saban defense, but a solid performance can give Guarantano some much needed confidence going forward.
Tennessee Interior defensive lineman vs. Alabama offensive line:
Everyone knows how lethal Alabama’s Offense can be, led by the Crimson Tide’s star studded backfield composed of quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Damien Harris. The duo has combined for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns so far this season, and don’t show signs of letting up.
The most effective way to slow down this Alabama offense is to create havoc inside and force Alabama’s playmakers to run vertically. Junior defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, as well as senior Kendall Vickers, will have to be disruptive early and often come Saturday if the Volunteers plan on slowing down this offense.
Tennessee defensive backs vs. Alabama wide receivers:
Alabama’s run-game is dangerous enough to force the Volunteers to stack the box, leaving Tennessee’s defensive secondary on a island. This means Nigel Warrior, Rashaan Gaulden and Justin Martin have to be able to lockdown on Alabama’s wide receivers, and most importantly keep the play in front of them.
Gaulden has looked the part of an impact SEC defensive back this season, after battling back from a season ending injury last year. Gaulden is also coming off an exceptional game against South Carolina where he was all over the field. That being said, Gaulden and the rest of Tennessee’s secondary will have their hands full on Saturday trying to slow down one of the nations most versatile offenses.
Tennessee special teams vs. Alabama returners:
If you can remember the historic Mount Cody block of 2007, or the 2015 game where Aaron Medley missed three field goals in a 19-14 defeat. This historic rivalry has often come down to special teams, and if Nick Saban is keen on anything it is that special teams can win games. The Crimson tide have always put emphasis on their special teams play, and this Saturday won’t be any different.
It’s really quite simple, the name of the game is field positioning against Alabama. If Trevor Daniel can force Alabama to consistently string together 70 or 80 yard scoring drives rather than 30 or 40 yards, and Tennessee can avoid giving away points by missing field goals, the Volunteers might keep it fairly close.