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Vols looking for a special upset against Alabama

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While Tennessee looks for an upset against the Tide, fans look for a story to tell.

Kevin C. Cox

Word of warning up front, friends. The forecast for the outcome of this weekend's Tennessee-Alabama game is not particularly encouraging. Dark, gloomy, cold, and windy with a chance of hail, which in the south sounds exactly the same as "Hell," which also works. But don't stop reading now, and don't stop reading after the numbers forecast, because the numbers don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they're reduced to the role of villains in the stories you tell for the rest of your lives.

The Villains

The Tennessee-Alabama game may feature the biggest statistical variance that I have seen since I started doing these previews. It's even possible that the difference between Tennessee's rushing offense and Alabama's rushing defense is the biggest mismatch (among teams on the same level) in the history of college football. No exaggeration. That could actually be true.

The Vols currently rank 117th in the nation in rushing offense, netting 94 on the ground per game. The Tide rank 2nd in rushing defense, holding opponents to 63.4 per game. For the sake of comparison, Ole Miss is ranked 6th and allows just over 97 yards per game, and the Vols gained zero yards against them last week. We haven't been able to establish the running game all season, and the chances of it happening this weekend are roughly the same as the number of rushing yards we got last week. Depressing, I know.

Hit repeat on the playlist with respect to Tennessee's scoring offense versus Alabama's scoring defense. We're near the bottom with 24 points per game, and they're almost at the top, allowing only 13. Actually at the top is Ole Miss, and against them we got one measly field goal.

The news is slightly better when you look at the Vols' pass defense, where we may have an actual edge. But Bama is the best passing attack we've faced so far this season, and if it's not working, they can just lean on the run game where they have another fairly significant advantage.

Maybe the Vols can hold the Tide to 350 total yards and 31 points, and maybe Tennessee can match Bama yard-for-yard in the passing game. But the guys in orange are going to have a real challenge running the ball and putting points on the board this weekend. Basically, there is little to no hope in these numbers.

So forget the numbers. Just go and watch and root for something wild to happen.

Revenge, the dish best served cold

We watch sports for the moments. There may be some who want their team to dominate every opponent in every game on their way to and through the championship so they can get a t-shirt and a hat that says so. That might be fun for a season or two, but without any drama, it would get old.

No, it's more about the moments and the stories we tell about those moments for years after they've happened.

Moments are often made in close games between top-ranked teams, but some of the best are made in underdog and come-from-behind victories. And the more hopeless it looks, the more special the moment when it happens. That's why you go to games like this and it's why you never quit watching early. Because when it happens, you don't want your story to be, "Well, I was on my way to the car when I heard the crowd." Or "My phone blew up with texts from friends who were watching."

If those are the kinds of stories you tell, you're telling them only because someone else with a much better story started the conversation, someone whose story begins with, "I was there" or at least "I was watching."

It may not seem like it for a Tennessee fan base that is in Year 6 of a painful rebuild, is rebuilding while the hurricane still rages, and feels snakebit to boot, but upsets happen all the time. When you're done reading this post, come back to read this list of 10 college football upsets that happened in just a five-year span between 2007 and 2012. The setups of the recaps of those games sound like every preview you'll read about this week's Tennessee-Alabama game. An underdog with a horrible record in prior seasons. No bowl for the last few seasons. A losing record this season. Big question and exclamation marks at key positions. An opponent ranked in the Top 5 with trophy cases that still have that new national championship smell. And on and on.

And those are just bland recaps of upsets in a list written by a reporter not invested as a fan. I'm out of time, but if someone feels so inclined, I'd love to see links in the comment section below to the reactions to those games from actual fans.

The ending for this year's Tennessee-Alabama game has not yet been written. Forget the past and forget the stats. The line this weekend is only 17 points. Do you think it's possible that the Tennessee defense could deny Alabama just one touchdown the oddsmakers think they're going to get? Do you think it might be possible that among the offense, defense, and special teams units, that one of them can sneak in a single touchdown no one sees coming? Do you think that down by three with time winding down something special could happen?

And if it does, what will be the story you tell about it?

Go Vols.

Tennessee Logo Alabama Logo Comps Result against Comps Guess
Closest Lower Closest Higher Closest Lower Closest Higher
Team Team Team Team
Rank Value Rank Value Rank Value Rank Value
Tennessee rushing offense vs. Alabama rushing defense 117 94 2 63.4 Ole Miss/Utah St. None Ole Miss/Utah St. None 30
6/7 97.1/99.6 0/110
Tennessee passing offense vs. Alabama passing defense 69 231.1 21 198.7 Florida Ole Miss Florida Ole Miss 200
22 199.7 20 193.4 205 191
Tennessee rushing defense vs. Alabama rushing offense 64 159.6 26 223.7 Oklahoma Arkansas St. Oklahoma Arkansas St. 140
44 192 25 224 146 141
Tennessee passing defense vs. Alabama passing offense 6 166.3 26 290.9 Ole Miss None Ole Miss None 200
33 282 203
Tennessee scoring offense vs. Alabama scoring defense 94 24.4 3 13.1 Georgia Ole Miss Georgia Ole Miss 6
19 20 1 10.6 32 3
Tennessee scoring defense vs. Alabama scoring offense 28 21.3 25 36.9 Ole Miss Oklahoma Ole Miss Oklahoma 31
29 35.4 14 39 34 34