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Tennessee Vols vs. Alabama Crimson Tide: closer than the experts think

The Tide may be favored, but the Third Saturday in October finally features teams that are both good at the same time again.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Four years ago, there was a monster at the end of the Tennessee-Alabama preview. The Crimson Tide was undefeated, and the Vols had three losses. 'Bama was decent on offense and downright terrifying on defense, ranking first in five of seven defensive categories. My prediction was 45-13, and the score ended up being 44-13.

Three years ago, I said the Tide defense was like the Borg but without the personality. Alabama was again undefeated, and the Vols again had three losses. The bad guys were Top 10 in five of nine defensive categories that season, and I joked that because the two things they weren't particularly good at were tackles for loss and sacks, we could win if we played the entire game behind our own line of scrimmage. Hahahahahaahahahaha. Humor is a copying mechanism. My prediction was 36-7, Alabama, and the score was 45-10.

In 2014, I called the teams' respective numbers the biggest mismatch I'd ever seen since I started doing these previews. Sigh. I predicted a score of 31-6, and the game ended 34-20.

Last year, things began to shift just a bit. The Tide still had a Top 5 rushing defense and a Top 15 scoring defense, but the Vols' were much better positioned to compete on those fronts. Alabama had advantages in other categories, but they weren't particularly scary. So I wasn't buying the 15.5 point spread and suggested that it would be a much closer game if we did the right things. I predicted a 3-6 point victory for the Tide (Alabama 34 to either 31 or 28 for Tennessee), and the score ended up being 19-14.

So what are we looking at this year? Alabama is, yet again, a really, really good team. They are first in the nation in defensive touchdowns and rushing defense, and they are second in team sacks. And they're Top 15 in scoring defense and total defense. On offense, they're Top 10 in scoring offense and Top 25 in a bunch of other categories. These guys are good. Really good. Again.

But Tennessee is pretty good, too. The Vols' numbers may not stand up next to those of the Tide, but as I said last week in the Texas A&M preview, we should all be aware that those numbers are weighed down by a five-game stretch of Jekyll and Hyde. They've been buying the right stocks, but they've also been buying the wrong ones, and their diversified portfolio reflects an average of both extremes. All they need to do is keep buying the good stuff and dump the junk.

So no more making jokes about being undermanned and overmatched. Alabama may still be the better team, and they may still be favored to win this game, but today we start talking about how the Vols have a legitmate shot to Beat 'Bama.

So what does Tennessee have to do to win on Saturday?

First, the run game is going to be difficult on both sides of the ball. Alabama's likely going to be able to run when and how they want to, and with their run defense being first in the nation, we shouldn't be surprised to find it difficult to move the ball on the ground. The Vols can mitigate that to a degree by getting Josh Dobbs involved in the run game, but there's likely limited opportunity there.

But if there's a vulnerability on this Alabama team, it's in the passing game. This is true on both sides of the ball, but it's particularly true of their pass defense. Alabama is allowing 223 passing yards per game, and the Vols are getting 240. If Mike Debord will mix up the predictability of standard and passing downs, if Dobbs can avoid the sack specialists and find open receivers, and if the receivers can catch the ball when it comes their way, Tennessee will be able to move the ball and score points against the Tide.

On the other side of the ball, the Tide has a terrific receiving corps, but they also have a freshman quarterback. Lane Kiffin has been working magic with Jalen Hurts so far, but he's been doing it by playing it safe through the air. If Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, and the rest of the defensive line can keep containment on Hurts, force him into passing downs, and then get significant pressure on him (and thereby relieving a bit of pressure on Tennessee's DBs), Hurts could be in for a bit of a wake up call, and the Vols would have a chance to slow down the Tide enough to let the offense catch them. It may not work, but it's likely the best strategy.

And we'll keep saying this as long as it continues to matter: The Vols need to make the most of free and hidden yards in this game. Limit the free yards via penalties and turnovers. Make the most of hidden yards on special teams by punting well, covering well, and returning well. These things matter more than most realize. The team shouldn't play so carefully that they neuter themselves, but finding the right balance of aggression that leads to yards and points and that which gives it away will be key in this game.

There is the not-so-small matter of Tennessee's defense being depleted by injuries and the fact that Alabama's still beating the Vols in the depth game. If, like last year, we were coming off a bye week and Alabama was at the end of a long stretch of games, I'd go with the Vols in this one. But as it stands, I'm thinking that Alabama is still the better team at this point. It's getting close enough that just a few small things matter in any particular game, and those small things are against us in this one.

So I'm going Alabama 38, Tennessee 34. But I'm also not going to be surprised one bit if the Vols pull it out if they're within striking distance in the fourth.

Go Vols.

The tables for this week are below. But first a quick note on strength of schedule. The Vols currently hold the nation's second-most-difficult schedule, while Alabama's is ranked 35th. Alabama's best three opponents have S&P+ rankings of #11 (Ole Miss), #18 (USC), and #29 (Arkansas). Tennessee's: #10 (Florida), #13 (Texas A&M), and #19 (Virginia Tech).

Processing Tennessee vs. Alabama.

Tennessee Alabama Comps Result against Comps Guess
Next Worst Next Best Next Worst Next Best
Team Team Team Team
Value Value
Tennessee rushing offense vs. Alabama rushing defense 192.5 69.2 Florida None Florida None 160
90.0 None 179 None
Tennessee passing offense vs. Alabama passing defense 239.5 223.3 Ohio Florida Ohio Florida 240
243.8 139.8 203 319
Tennessee rushing defense vs. Alabama rushing offense 183.0 237.0 Georgia Texas A&M Georgia Texas A&M 230
215.7 274.3 181 353
Tennessee passing defense vs. Alabama passing offense 216.3 252.8 Florida Texas A&M Florida Texas A&M 250
246.4 258.5 296 239
Tennessee scoring offense vs. Alabama scoring defense 33.8 15.8 Texas A&M Virginia Tech Texas A&M Virginia Tech 38
19.2 15.6 38 45
Tennessee scoring defense vs. Alabama scoring offense 26.7 44.8 Virginia Tech None Virginia Tech None 35
39.4 None 24 None

Processing Alabama vs. Tennessee.

Alabama Tennessee Comps Result against Comps Guess
Next Worst Next Best Next Worst Next Best
Team Team Team Team
Value Value
Alabama rushing offense vs. Tennessee rushing defense 237.0 183.0 Kentucky Arkansas Kentucky Arkansas 220
189.0 180.2 173 264
Alabama passing offense vs. Tennessee passing defense 252.8 216.3 USC Kent State USC Kent State 220
217.0 215.2 223 217
Alabama rushing defense vs. Tennessee rushing offense 69.2 192.5 Kentucky None Kentucky None 150
186.2 None 72 None
Alabama passing defense vs. Tennessee passing offense 223.3 239.5 Kentucky USC Kentucky USC 110
158.7 264.5 89 130
Alabama scoring offense vs. Tennessee scoring defense 44.8 26.7 Arkansas USC Western Kentucky USC 45
27.5 25.7 38 52
Alabama scoring defense vs. Tennessee scoring offense 15.8 33.8 USC Arkansas USC Arkansas 30
25.0 35.0 6 30