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Tennessee vs Alabama: The Return of Maybe

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After five years of big Bama leads, a rested and restored Tennessee team looks to carry the fight to Alabama for 60 minutes.

In 2009 the defense gave Tennessee a chance to win by slowing down Mark Ingram.
In 2009 the defense gave Tennessee a chance to win by slowing down Mark Ingram.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After beating Georgia for the first time in six years, along comes the natural follow-up:  Tennessee could have a chance against Alabama.  Maybe.

It's been those same six years since we've been able to feel that way, with little hope in the space between.  The Vols have been underdogs of between 15.5-29.5 points every year this decade against the Crimson Tide, with Bama beating Derek Dooley by 31 three years in a row then Butch Jones by 35 in his first try.  Last year Alabama opened up a 27-0 lead in Knoxville before Josh Dobbs and the Vols rallied, scoring 17 straight points before ultimately falling 34-20.

The Tide were favored by 16.5 the last time we could engage in maybe.  It was a similar argument in 2009:  questionable passing game but a quarterback coming off the best game of his career, excellent running back, relying on Alabama's own issues at quarterback to give you a chance.  And the last time we believed in maybe, it turned into almost.

I don't think anyone is confusing the 2015 Vol defense with Monte Kiffin's unit just yet.  But Tennessee's overall talent level is at least comparable if not better to what the Vols put on the field that day in Tuscaloosa.  And as we've seen all year, the Vols can compete with anybody.

That anybody should include Alabama.  Do the Vols have enough to win?  Eh, well...maybe.

Alabama is ranked eighth, which is the lowest we've seen them since 2010.  But they're still the team giving up just 2.4 yards per carry, 5.3 yards per pass, and 4.0 yards per play, sixth best in the country.  The Vols may end up underdogs by fewer points than we've seen in these last six years, but Vegas nor the general public will consider this a toss-up.

Competing for sixty minutes would be progress, and it's a reasonable goal.  Tennessee's faint SEC East hopes will almost certainly need a win in Tuscaloosa to still be around in November.  But the overall narrative of Butch Jones and the Vols can take a step forward by going toe to toe with the Tide.  Perhaps this is the last of our moral victories.

But if we're going to be close...I mean, we might as well just go ahead and win this thing.

Is this Tennessee team built to win a game like this?  Again...maybe.  Here's Roll Bama Roll's initial take on the Texas A&M game:

Stop me if you have heard this before.

Alabama's defense overcame putrid special teams play and an uneven offensive performance, overwhelming the Texas A&M offense on the way to a comfortable 41-23 victory in College Station. The Aggies came in averaging 453 yards of offense, including 162 on the ground. Against Alabama they rushed for a pathetic 32 of their 312 total yards. Indeed, the Alabama defense executed the prescribed plan to perfection: they made the Aggies one-dimensional, then trapped QB Kyle Allen in a collapsing pocket, making it impossible to see downfield clearly. The result was three interceptions plus a fourth from true freshman Kyler Murray that was simply an awful read and throw.

One of the big narratives of this week will be Alabama's run defense against Tennessee's run game, fueled by a quarterback who found success against the Tide defense last year.  All the questions that have surrounded Tennessee's identity - tempo, aggressiveness, intermediate passing - will need to be answered in the affirmative on Saturday.  But the Vols have had a bye week to prepare, while Alabama has run a gauntlet of Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas A&M.  And given the way the last five years have gone, the Tide may not even consider the Vols part of that gauntlet.

That's the first part:  compete.  Get in the fight with the best team on your schedule.  Make sure the next time we see these guys, we're closer to the coin flip we've seen in every other big game on our schedule.

But could these Vols, this year, find their way to another coin flip in the fourth quarter, and then come up heads once more?

For the first time in a long time against our biggest rival...maybe.

Beat Bama.