Will Shelton - Whoever plays LB next to Colton Jumper
A quick word of praise for Jumper: we all had concerns when the former walk-on was pressed into service after the Battle at Bristol. Now Jumper leads the team in tackles, won the poll for Most Important Vol last week, and has become one of the most reliable players on our defense. It's the spot next to him that draws the most attention this week to me. We know it won't be Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Quart'e Sapp. Will it be Cortez McDowell if he can return from the undisclosed injury he suffered at Texas A&M? Will it be Elliott Berry, who was fourth-string behind those three when the season began? Or will it be Darrin Kirkland Jr., asked to learn a slightly different role in what would be his first game back from an ankle sprain if he can go against Alabama? I'd expect the Jumper/Kirkland combo to be how Tennessee looks in the long run. I'd also expect Alabama to put heavier personnel on the field to make the Vols consider putting an additional linebacker out there.
Justin Phillips - Todd Kelly, Jr.
You know that thing the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator does when he raises his hands in the air to signal that he has called the perfect touchdown-scoring play while the ball is still in mid-flight? Nothing would please me more than to see his arms drop slowly upon seeing TKJr snatching the ball out of an awaiting receiver's hands. The Tide will bring to Neyland a freshman quarterback, a formidable running game, and weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Kiffin will look to exploit our banged up linebackers and defensive backs. Kelly's play will be crucial if the Vols are going to upset the Tide. He'll have to be a sure tackler and an able pass-defender to support an injury-riddled defensive unit. In other words, the Volunteers need the Knoxville native to play his best game to-date. This is the reason you stay home and play for Tennessee: To beat Alabama.
Volundore - Kahlil McKenzie
Do y'all remember when the Vols signed McKenzie? And how he was an awesome trash talker on Twitter? And how excited we all were for him to come in and dominate right away? Well here we are, 19 games into his college career (about halfway if he leaves after 3 years)...and what's his most memorable play? A forced fumble against Western Carolina? A sack against Missouri?
This isn't meant to be an indictment of McKenzie, per se, but we're about to go up against a terrifying offense (#24 total offense, #20 rushing offense, #6 scoring offense) potentially down 2 key members of the defensive line rotation in Vickers (maybe) and O'Brien (definitely). As guys went out against Texas A&M, Kahlil had his most productive game in 2016 with 5 total tackles and .5 tackles for loss. That thing that Justin said about reasons you come to Tennessee? Kahlil could earn a spot in Vol lore by helping to anchor the line and giving whoever starts at LB a chance to make plays in an upset win over the Tide.
Incipient_Senescence - Derek Barnett
The Tennessee secondary has been iffy at the best of times, and with seemingly everyone banged up, this isn't the best of times. Tennessee is bound to give up plenty of yards and probably points, so they'll have to make up for it by making a few big plays that kill Bama drives and get the ball back for the offense--preferably with good field position. It's hard to see that happening unless Barnett plays like the terror we all know he can be. Alabama is playing a freshman quarterback in a hostile environment. So far this season, he hasn't looked like one. This weekend is the perfect time to change that.
Hunter Turner - Josh Dobbs
Yeah, yeah, yeah-- we all agree that Dobbs is the most important Vol every week, so it's not necessary to trot him out like a show pony when we'll all be talking about him on Saturday. Except that this Saturday is the Third Saturday in October, the Tide are again ranked number one, and Nick Saban has lost a grand total of five conference games in the last six years. If the Vols are going to win this game, Dobbs will need to be spectacular. After all, "if you come at the king, you best not miss."
Chris Pendley - Lane Kiffin
HEAR ME OUT. We haven't had that weirdo game yet this year where Kiffin forgets how to call a game, and this year is just full-on weird at this point to the point where fumbling is dominating our conversations like it's a controllable long-term thing. It's time to forget rationality.
Let's see Kiffin call the most inexplicable game to date, blowing up a good half-dozen drives. Let's see Finebaum have to open the lines at halftime to funnel the hordes calling for Kiffin's head away from Bryant-Denny. Let's see Kiffin tell his team he's taking the LSU job at halftime.
Does this sound any less implauble than half this season? Yeah, that's what I thought. Ride with chaos.