With last week’s blowout victory over a ranked LSU team, Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) has jumped all the way up to No. 6 in the AP Poll. Now, the Third Saturday in October has arrived as ESPN’s College GameDay and SEC Nation are on campus for the Vols’ home match with No. 3 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) at 3:30.
Here is everything you need to know about the game of the week:
Coming off of a bye week, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge and whooped the Tigers 40-13.
The beatdown started early as LSU muffed the opening kickoff setting up the Vols for a quick touchdown. Then, after stopping the Tigers, Dee Williams returned a punt into LSU territory resulting in a lightning-fast 10-0 lead.
The Vols didn’t look back from there, going into the half up 23-7. They instantly added to the lead in the second half and ultimately walked away with the big win.
Hendon Hooker had another Heisman-caliber performance with 239 passing yards for two touchdowns and 56 rushing yards. He also continued his streak of consecutive passes without an interception.
With Cedric Tillman still inactive, his favorite target was once again Bru McCoy who totaled 140 yards on seven receptions. Jalin Hyatt also found the endzone twice with four catches for 63 yards.
On top of an effective pass game, the Vols also finally got the run game going. Jabari Small torched the Tiger defense for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson also pitched in a combined 73 yards.
Another surprise was how well Tennessee’s defense played. It had a rough performance in its last time out against Florida, but it had possibly the best game of the season vs. LSU.
They held the Tiger rush attack to just 17 yards on handoffs. With nothing working on the ground and an insurmountable lead in front of them, the Tigers were forced to air it out where Jayden Daniels recorded 300 passing yards and a touchdown. The defense also put the cherry on top with a one-handed interception from Trevon Flowers in the endzone in the final moments. What truly swung the game, though, was LSU’s 0-for-3 performance on fourth downs.
With the Vols dominating in all three aspects of the game and Tennessee fans taking over the stadium as the team drove the home fans out early, Tennessee has as much momentum as they’ve ever had in the 21st century.
After falling in the National Championship to Georgia last season, Alabama has reloaded with the hope of reclaiming the title. This mission has gotten off to a solid start with the Crimson Tide yet to lose a game.
However, there has already been controversy.
In Week 2, Alabama walked into a game with Texas where they were expected to win by a large margin. Even after knocking out the Longhorns’ starting quarterback, the game remained close with a drive in the final minutes giving the Tide a win.
Then, just last week, Alabama struggled with a middle-of-the-road Texas A&M team. The game came down to the final play where the Aggies were stopped inches short of the endzone.
It is worth noting, though, that the reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young was out for the game against Texas A&M. In his replacement, Jalen Milroe got the keys to the offense. Milroe struggled, throwing for just 111 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. He added 81 yards on the ground but struggled to consistently push the offense down the field.
When healthy, Young has put together another solid season, though. Through five games, he has averages of 240.4 yards and 2.8 passing touchdowns per game. He has also only thrown three interceptions.
Another main component of the offense is transfer running back, Jahmyr Gibbs. He averages 88.7 yards per game and has punched it in twice this season. He has been impactful in the passing game, as well, averaging 36.7 yards and catching three touchdowns.
At wide receiver, Traeshon Holden and Ja’Corey Brooks lead the way with 223 receiving yards, each. Holden also has four touchdowns and Brooks has three.
As a unit, the offense ranks fifth in the country in points per game (44.3) and seventh in yards per game (503.7).
On defense, a familiar name to Vol fans leads the way in tackles. Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o has the most tackles out of the stifling defense at 39. He also has a sack.
However, the biggest name on the defense is Will Anderson Jr. Anderson currently has five sacks and an interception and is considered the best defender in the country.
As a team, the defense ranks sixth in points allowed per game (12.5) and sixth in yards allowed (250.8).
As always, the Tide are elite on both sides of the ball and create issues for opposing teams. It’ll take Tennessee’s best effort in all three phases of the game to win.
Vols vs. Tide History
Tennessee and Alabama have as rich a rivalry as any in college football. The series dates back to 1901 and has been played on the third Saturday in October since 1928. The Tide currently leads the series 58-38-7.
Currently, Alabama is on a 15-game winning streak beginning in 2007. However, the series has been predominantly streaks with it being rare in recent history that both teams have been elite at the same time. Before the current streak, the Vols won 10-out-of-12. This is also the highest ranked Tennessee has been entering the game since 1999 and the first time the programs have both met undefeated since 1989.
Last year, the matchup was held in Tuscaloosa where the Vols played Alabama tight until the fourth quarter. After cutting the lead to seven in the opening minutes of the final frame, Alabama scored 21 unanswered points to walk away with a win.
Hooker finished with 282 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. Young finished with 371 yards and two touchdowns.
All bets are off this year, though, as it appears Tennessee has as good a shot at winning as any other year in the 15-game drought.
5 Keys to the Game
Contain the quarterback
Whether it’s Young or Milrose at quarterback, Tennessee needs to contain them. Against Florida, they let a mobile signal caller run all over the field and extend plays. This can’t happen against a better team like the Tide. If they can force the quarterback to stay in the pocket and limit their ability to run, then the Vols will see much more defensive success.
Let Hooker eat
Tennessee’s offense revolves around Hooker’s ability to make big plays. The Vols can’t get scared and try to reel it in against Alabama. They still need to make smart choices and take shots when it makes sense, but letting Hooker throw it deep will be essential. His accuracy on longballs was on display against LSU last Saturday and if he can recreate some of those perfect passes, the offense will put up the necessary amount of points.
Continue to stop the run
The Vols’ defense has struggled at times this year but one spot they’ve consistently been successful is at stopping the run game on handoffs. Gibbs is one of the best running backs in the country and Alabama will hope to get him going early. If Tennessee’s front can continue to play well and force the Tide into picking up yards in other ways, then the defense will have a much easier time.
So far, Tennessee’s offensive line has been impressive, especially when considering the pace at which the Vols’ offense conducts. However, Saturday’s game will be their toughest task yet. Alabama has an elite pass rush that will force the offensive line to stay constantly good throughout the game. Rushers such as Anderson have the ability to wreck games and foil offensive plans. If the offensive line can step up to the challenge, though, Tennessee’s offense will have the ability to move the ball effectively.
This one is for the fans. Just like against Florida, the crowd needs to be rowdy and loud throughout the entire game. Not just on third downs, not just on big plays, but on every single snap. If Neyland can get rocking and force the offense to struggle in communicating, it will make an actual difference in this game.
Most years, Tennessee walks into the Third Saturday in October as extreme underdogs. In those instances, Alabama has run away with the games and left Vol fans disappointed.
I think this year will play out differently, though.
Tennessee will have success moving the ball down the field with Heupel’s unique offense. In the opening three quarters of 2021, the Vols accomplished this but ran out of steam due to a lack of depth. Now, they have improved depth and should be able to compete for all 60 minutes.
Hooker will likely throw for over 250 yards and find McCoy and Hyatt for over 100 of them combined. He will also utilize his legs for over 50 yards. The only issue is Alabama’s impressive defensive front. Anderson and company will constantly penetrate the line and halt the run game and get pressure on Hooker.
On defense, whether it is an injured Young or inexperienced Milroe, Tennessee will struggle to stop the offensive attack. Nick Saban is a good enough coach to put his players in positions to succeed and that will include his offensive schemes. However, if Young is inactive, the Vols’ shot of winning will improve dramatically.
Overall, it should be a decently high-scoring affair as both teams will look to play to their advantage. Although I think Tennessee has an actual shot at winning for the first time in recent history, I think Alabama will be too much for the Vols to handle. However, a close game may be a sign of the script flipping in years to come.
Tennessee – 35
Alabama – 38
Game Time and Coverage
Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. EST on CBS in Knoxville Tenn. at Neyland Stadium. Before the game, ESPN’s College GameDay will air from Ayres Lawn and SEC Nation will also conduct its show from campus. TNJN will have more coverage following the game.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org