Fresh off a loss to Ole Miss in Oxford, the Tennessee Vols (3-4, 0-3 SEC) return to Knoxville this week to take on rival Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC).
This will mark the 96th meeting of the cross-division rivals, with Alabama leading the all-time series 50-38-7.
On offense, the Crimson Tide will be led by quarterback Blake Sims. The red shirt senior is having a stellar season so far, passing for over 1700 yards and 13 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. Sims has also managed to run for 208 yards and four more touchdowns.
Alabama running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have been spectacular for the Tide, averaging over 5.2 yards per carry and rushing for over 1000 yards combined.
Amari Cooper has been Alabama’s best receiver this season, with the Heisman contender catching 62 passes this season to the tune of 908 yards and seven touchdowns. DeAndrew White has been a great complimentary receiver, tallying 19 catches and 184 yards. Christion Jones and O.J. Howard are also producing for the Tide.
“They definitely have a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball,” safety Brian Randolph said after practice on Tuesday. “They can run the ball. They can pass the ball. As you know, the quarterback can run and pass. That just creates an extra running back that we have to worry about.”
The Tide’s offensive line has proven to be one of the most consistent in the NCAA, returning three All-SEC caliber linemen from last year’s club. Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd make up a powerful unit that has only allowed four sacks all season.
“That’s a good team. I see big guys up front,” freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. “They’re all big. 6-5, 6-6, and 300 (pounds).”
It remains to be seen which Tennessee quarterback will start Saturday, after Justin Worley went down with a shoulder injury during the Ole Miss game. Worley leads the Vols in passing yards with 1579 and 12 touchdowns, but has also thrown eight interceptions on the year.
Nathan Peterman will more than likely be the starter if Worley is unable to play, as the Tennessee staff is attempting to red shirt sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs.
A committee in the backfield has been Tennessee’s offensive scheme this season. Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane, Derrell Scott and Justis Pickett have all taken a decent amount of carries. Hurd has had the most success so far, rushing for 414 yards and two touchdowns. After playing injured in the Ole Miss game, Hurd looks to be 100 percent for Saturday’s game.
UT Head Coach Butch Jones had high praise for his freshman running back Tuesday after practice.
“The running back position is one of durability,” Jones said. “All the great running backs in this game have tremendous durability and you have to have mental toughness. And again, you’re getting hit on every single snap, whether it’s in pass protection to running the football. It takes a little bit of a different mindset to play that position, but Jalen has it.”
The Tennessee receiving corps is led by sophomore Marquez North, who leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns with 266 yards and four scores.
The matchup of the game will be Tennessee’s receivers against Alabama’s defensive backs. If the Crimson Tide defense has a flaw, the secondary would be the place to look for it. Look for North, along with Pig Howard, Von Pearson and Josh Malone to attempt to find room against the Alabama cornerbacks early by utilizing quick screens.
The weakest point of the Tennessee offense, and team as a whole, is the offensive line. So far this season, quarterback Justin Worley has been sacked 30 times.
With several injuries hitting Tennessee, and a powerful Alabama defensive line next up, UT may prove to struggle even more. Right tackle Coleman Thomas and left guard Marcus Jackson have been limited all week, creating possible matchup problems for Tennessee. All signs are pointing to Jackson playing Saturday, however If Thomas cannot play on Saturday, his replacement will be former walk-on Jacob Gilliam, who is playing on a torn ACL.
While the offensive line may struggle with depth issues, junior Mack Crowder says he is not worried.
“I am not very concerned because I have all the faith in the world in those guys who are going to be stepping up and playing and if we do have any issues this game, there are other guys who are going to step up and do their job also.”
Defensively, the Crimson Tide fields the second-ranked defense in the nation. The unit leads the SEC in run defense and is led by nose tackle A’Shawn Robinson and defensive end Jonathan Allen. The Vols have struggled running the ball already this season, and Saturday should be another difficult challenge given Alabama’s depth.
Even with the loss of multiple starters to the NFL after last season, the linebackers of the Crimson Tide are still producing at a high level. Xzavier Dickson leads the team in sacks with five and a half.
If one weakness can be found in the Crimson Tide defensive unit, the Alabama secondary might be it. Cyrus Jones has played relatively well in his first season as a starter, but the Tide has given up some large plays through the air this season.
This may be the one area where Tennessee has the advantage over Alabama. If the Tennessee receivers can exploit the Tide’s secondary, the Vols might be able to stay in the game.
Tennessee is led up front on defense by true freshman Derek Barnett. Barnett leads the team with nine and a half tackles for loss, as well as a team-high four sacks, notching three against Ole Miss.
Defensive tackles Jordan Williams and Danny O’Brien have elevated their play, and are playing efficiently this season against the run. Defensive end Corey Vereen has had a sophomore slump of sorts, and has yet to register his first sack of the season.
Barnett is confident that Vereen will start making more plays soon though.
“He’s very consistent, and if I don’t know something, I’ll talk to him and ask him what I need to do,” Barnett said on Tuesday. “He just talks to me about football and the little things in being successful … He’s a football nerd. He’s really intelligent and he loves the game of football.”
Tennessee’s linebackers have been having a tremendous season as well, especially A.J. Johnson. Johnson is having an All-American type season, leading the team in tackles with 78. Sophomore Jalen-Reeves Maybin isn’t far off, with the Clarksville native tallying 58 tackles this season.
UT’s secondary is anchored by cornerback Cameron Sutton, who has elevated his play since his freshman season. The sophomore leads the team with three interceptions, and has locked down several of the SEC’s top receivers. Safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are enjoying successful seasons as well.
Alabama is currently favored by 17 points, and with the Crimson Tide’s front seven playing a battered Tennessee offensive line, Alabama should be able to generate a pass rush and defensive effort that may halt the Vols come Saturday night.
Still, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is optimistic about the rivalry, and hopes it continues to flourish.
“I’ve spoken about us getting back to making it relevant,” Jones said on the rivalry. “They understand the magnitude of this rivalry which means so many things to so many people. Our former players, our students, every one that’s attended these institutions, there’s a pride that comes along with it. I believe it’s one of the best rivalries in college football. It didn’t take me long to figure that out. So, in terms of importance to us, it will always be there.”
For more Tennessee football, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Sport
To contact sports editor Connor Grott, email firstname.lastname@example.org