After an exhilarating win over the Auburn Tigers, the Vols have the toughest challenge of the season coming to town in the Alabama Crimson Tide.
This is arguably the best team under Nick Saban since he arrived at the program. Tua Tagovailoa has the team buzzing on offense and they are lights out on defense, as usual.
Tennessee is currently a (+29) point underdog. They have a chance at covering the spread, but can they win the game?
It’s not likely, but these five keys to the game will give them more than just a shot in the dark.
1. Jeremy Pruitt and Tyson Helton
One could argue that the most encouraging sign from last week’s game is the fact that Pruitt and Helton may have finally found their groove with this team.
Can that carry over into this week?
There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t but we still don’t know for sure how this coaching staff will prepare for a top opponent such as Alabama.
Pruitt should have some insight on how the Tide runs their defense, which should help Helton with his game plan. How effective it will really be remains to be seen, though.
Regardless, both coaches showed against Auburn that they can provide an effective game plan that will attack a teams’ weakness(es).
Unfortunately for the Vols, it doesn’t look like Alabama has many of those, but nevertheless, expect these two to have their players ready on Saturday.
2. Neutralize Deionte Thompson
Thompson is probably the best safety in the entire country and will go in the top 10 - if not the top 5 - in the 2019 NFL Draft barring injury.
He has excellent range and can play at the line of scrimmage. He’s been likened to former Bammer Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, which is no small feat.
Thompson plays a lot of single-high (cover 1) coverage. The Vols showed last weekend that they can throw it deep against a talented defense, but can they do it against Thompson?
The best choice of weapon in this case will be Jarrett Guarantano. If the Vols can find ways to scheme multiple receivers into the single-high zone, then it will be up to Guarantano to fool Thompson with his eyes, reads, motions, etc. Of course, the receiver will have to catch the ball as well.
But Thompson is the best for a reason. He has already shown great instincts and play recognition this year, which is why Saban trusts him to play back there.
If Tennessee can hit a couple of deep shots to force Alabama to put another safety deep, then it will help alleviate pressure on JG as well as take another defender out of the box.
3. Fast starts on offense and defense
In three losses, the Vols have been outscored 31-0 in the first quarter and it doesn't get much better from there. They’ve been outscored 29-10 in the second quarter, making it a grand total of a 60-10 first-half deficit in those games.
That can’t happen this weekend if they even want a chance to beat Alabama.
The Vols went down 10-3 against Auburn in the first quarter, but made it a 17-13 game by halftime. It was the first - and only - time this season they were able to outscore a major opponent in the second quarter.
Tennessee will need another Auburn-like performance from the team. If they can keep it close, then you never know how a game could play out.
Alabama is the complete opposite when it comes to slow starts. They outscored Louisville, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Arkansas 149-34 in the first half, good for around a 29-point scoring difference.
Going by those numbers, that means Alabama could possibly cover the spread before halftime.
Tennessee will have to do better if they want to still be around by the time the third quarter begins.
4. Throw the ball downfield (and complete it)
There aren’t many ways to beat a Nick Saban defense, but there is one method that has held true over the years - throw the ball downfield.
In three losses over three years (yea, you read that right), Alabama has given up an average of 8.5 yards per pass attempt and 9.75 adjusted yards per pass. They gave up around 334 yards in the air to go along with 2.3 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Guarantano has thrown just two interceptions on the season, but he also has just six passing touchdowns. If Tennessee wants to win this game, they will have to sling the ball downfield and make plays like they did against the Tigers.
UT has the receivers to win jump balls and who can make plays over the middle. Ty Chandler should factor in again out of the backfield as well.
But players such as Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer will need to be on point this weekend, because it may come down to them when it comes to considering how much success this team will actually have on offense.
Whether it be that the bus breaks down, Saban gets sick, or Butch Jones finds a way to screw something up - the Vols will need outside help to win this game.
Let’s hope they’re on the good side of any and all deities.