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Staff Picks: Vols vs Alabama

One staff member correctly picked the Vols' upset win over Georgia. Is he going back to the well?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Rocky Top Talk staff went 1-6 both straight up and against the spread two weeks ago when the Vols faced off about Georgia, and they're not too unhappy about it. Closest to the Pin, however, doesn't go to the one winner but to Nathanael, who correctly predicted a high-scoring, close game. His 33-30 Georgia prediction was just 10 points off on the final margin and six points off on the final total. But we have to give a shoutout to Hunter, who picked the Vols to win a 24-23 contest. Miles off on the total, but when you're the only one to pick the winner, you get your name in this space. Good work. But beating both of them in the comments was TennVol95 in 3D!, who called a 35-24 win for the men in smokey gray, coming in just four points off of the final margin and ten off of the total. On the plus side, TennVol also predicted a win over Alabama. On the minus side, that prediction required wearing smokey gray in Tuscaloosa.

Speaking of Tuscaloosa, it's time for the Vols' toughest test of the season in rival Alabama. The #8 Tide actually have their worst ranking coming into the Third Saturday in October since 2010, when #8 Alabama, having already lost by double-digits to Stephen Garcia, blew the doors off Dooley's first team, 41-10. Can the Vols expect better this week? On to the picks!

I_S (3-3 straight up, 3-3 against the spread): It's not hard to pick a winner here, but it's a little tricky to predict how the game will go. On one hand, there are a lot of miscellaneous factors pointing pretty strongly in Tennessee's favor here. They're coming off a bye week, where a coaching staff that excels at game prep has traditionally been strong (2-2 straight up, 3-1 ATS since being at UT). Whereas Alabama will be playing their eighth straight game (and fourth straight game against a non-Vandy/Carolina SEC opponent). Their next game, following a bye, is against LSU, likely with a trip to Atlanta at stake. Tennessee should be especially prepared, and Alabama is as likely to be as tired or distracted as they've been all year.

On the other hand, Alabama's run game is comparable to that of an Arkansas team that gashed the Vols, and the strength of their defenses matches up perfectly with the strength of Tennessee's offense. Not to mention the coaching, where there is no contest. Saban is one of the best in the business, and in the two times we've seen Lane Kiffin against John Jancek, the defense has lost badly.

So what to expect? I do think the Vols' gameplan will be good enough to score some points early, but I'm not convinced their defense will prevent Alabama from doing the same. I see a game that's relatively close after three quarters, with Alabama putting it out of reach in the fourth. On the plus side, I'm currently on a three-game losing streak straight up. Let's make it four! Alabama 31 Tennessee 20

Hunter (3-3 straight up, 3-3 against the spread): Look, I know all about Alabama's winning streak in the series, ridiculously talented roster, and coaching advantage with Nick Saban on the sidelines, but it's defeatist to chalk this one up as a loss ahead of time. The Vols shouldn't be favored and the Tide should win this by two touchdowns, but this is probably the most talented Tennessee team coming to Tuscaloosa since at least 2005. So instead, let's imagine what a Tennessee victory would look like:
  • On offense, the Vols play their most creative and efficient game of the season: Josh Dobbs throws for 200 yards and rushes for another 100, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara keep the chains moving inside and break the occasional run to the outside for 150 combined yards, Preston Williams has a coming out party by scoring on two long plays against single coverage, and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord dials up a few trick plays to convert in the red zone. 
  • On defense, Kahlil McKenzie and Derek Barnett battle Alabama's offensive line to a draw, and Tennessee's linebackers, led by JRM and Darrin Kirkland, tackle better than they have all year. In the secondary, Lane Kiffin goes back to his favorite player Calvin Ridley a few too many times and Todd Kelly, Jr. makes him pay with a pair of interceptions, one of which he returns for a touchdown.
  • On special teams, Evan Berry gives the Vols consistently great field position while holding onto the ball like it's a winning lottery ticket. Cam Sutton weaves his way though the defense and takes a punt return to the house.
  • Butch Jones accidentally ingests a pill given to him by Les Miles at the SEC Annual Meeting (aw, that ain't nothin' but your standard Cajun Pick Me Up) and subsequently coaches like his hair is on fire-- the Vols come out with an extremely aggressive gameplan, play disciplined football, and manage the clock appropriately. Tennessee 31 Alabama 30.
Chris (4-2 straight up, 4-2 against the spread): How I want this thing to go: Tennessee gets an early TD, Alabama comes out firing and scores around 28 points (unanswered), resulting in Butch Jones entering "yeah, we're not gonna win this so let's go for it" mode, Tennessee then turns around and scores ...well, let's say 17 since it has to work that way. Alabama messes up their last drive (Lane Kiffin thinks that anyone can beat Cam Sutton, resulting in three PBUs in a row), Tennessee scores the game-winning TD with 3 seconds left, Alabama screws up the ensuing kickoff return which Curt Maggitt (work with me here) returns for a final exclamation point. Oh, and somehow Florida loses twice on Saturday. Maybe throw a Georgia loss in there too. You want Lane Kiffin as the next head coach of Miami after the game? Yeah, let's do that too. Tennessee 37, Alabama 28

How it'll probably go: Tennessee hangs in early--maybe 10-7 at the end of the first quarter. Alabama then slowly rolls out to a [checks other scores] ...well, fine, 34-7 lead. Tennessee then rallies for a couple late TDs after everyone on the staff loosens up a bit.. Let's add a field goal for good measure. Real predictions: not as much fun as making it up as you go. Alabama 34 Tennessee 24.

Charlie (3-3 straight up, 4-2 against the spread): I want to say Tennessee will hang with Alabama. I want to say the Vols will be rested after a bye week and give Alabama their best shot and put themselves in a position to win late in the game. I want to say those things, but I just can't. Alabama had their early season struggles which have become a tradition in Tuscaloosa, but then, as they do most every year, the Tide pulled it together and have been an absolute buzz saw in their last few games. If Alabama had shown any real weakness against Texas A&M last week, I may have felt differently, but they looked iron clad. If I have any critique, it's that Alabama's offense still looked sluggish at times, but at other times, it looked like a well oiled machine. Tennessee will have to play the perfect game and Butch Jones will have to coach better than he ever has to win Saturday. Don't get me wrong, the Vols CAN win, I just don't think they will because at the end of the day, there are only three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Nick Saban. Alabama 34 Tennessee 20

Nathanael (3-3 straight up, 3-3 against the spread): To quote various characters in the Star Wars movie franchise: "I have a bad feeling about this." Are the Vols an improved football team? Yes. Have they been competitive in every game this season, even in their losses? Absolutely. Are the Vols coming off a bye and have had an extra week to prepare for Alabama? Sure thing. But that doesn't change how I feel about this game. After watching Alabama all but shut down Texas A&M's passing attack last week, I have little faith this coaching staff is going to feel confident with Tennessee's passing game, and this game could see a similar offensive style as we did in the Florida game. But the difference between that game and this one is that Alabama's run defense is elite. It's the best in the SEC and 3rd best in the entire NCAA. While Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, and Josh Dobbs bring a rushing attack the Tide haven't seen all season, I still don't think it will be enough. The Vols have the edge on special teams, but not on defense or offense in my opinion. Alabama won't be overlooking the Vols, and Tennessee may jump on the Tide early, but they won't do it late. Alabama 34 Tennessee 17

Joel (3-3 straight up, 4-2 against the spread): Alabama 34 Tennessee 31

Will (3-3 straight up, 3-3 against the spread): This feels like a game Tennessee is going to get to the fourth quarter, but everything about the trenches on both sides of the ball suggests Alabama will be able to grind it out from there.  I'm unsure how many offensive linemen Tennessee will be able to play, let alone how many of them will be at 100%.  I'm unsure who else can make a difference on the defensive line for the Vols against Alabama's front.  Tennessee has enough talent at the skill positions to still make some plays, even against Alabama's defense, and the Tide offense hasn't set the world on fire.  Still, I'll take Alabama to put it away late, and I'll take the Vols to make this feel much more like a toss-up next year in Knoxville. Alabama 30 Tennessee 20

Rocky Top Talk Staff Average (2-4 straight up, 3-3 against the spread): Alabama 32 Tennessee 23

Vegas (for reference): Alabama -15, over/under 53. Alabama 34 Tennessee 19