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Josh Heupel previews Alabama

Heupel gets his first taste of this rivalry.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Alabama Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the third fourth Saturday of October, which means it’s time for the latest installment of the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. The Crimson Tide have dominated this series as you know, hiring Nick Saban just as the Volunteers began their freefall as a program.

14 wins in a row is the current mark for Alabama over Tennessee. A 16-13 victory all the way back in 2006 was the last time the Volunteers found a win over the Crimson Tide. That streak has called some to question just how much of a rivalry this matchup really is anymore.

For Josh Heupel, it’s his first taste of this game, and he certainly understands the weight of it.

“You talk about the historic nature of the football game — the players that have been here understand the expectation and what this game means to people,” Josh Heupel said. “Absolutely have an understanding of it.”

Alabama sits at 6-1 on the year, with their one slip-up coming a couple of weeks ago against Texas A&M. They also had some scary moments against Florida, which was also played on the road. Outside of that, the Tide have rolled along as usual, boasting the nation’s 12th ranked offense.

Nick Saban turned to former five-star prospect Bryce Young to replace Mac Jones under center. While there has been some fall-off as Young continues to learn as a second-year player, he still finds himself in the thick of this year’s Heisman battle, poised to lead Alabama to yet another SEC West title.

“He’s smart,” Heupel said. “Competitive. Accurate with the football. Obviously he’s got dynamic playmakers around him from the wide receivers to the tight ends to the running backs. Offensive line does a great job with protection. But you can tell that he understands what his pre-snap read is and where he needs to go with the ball once he sees the pre-snap movement from the defense.”

Alabama has seamlessly replaced DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle with Jameson Williams and John Metchie III. Brian Robinson picked up right where Najee Harris left off, while offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien did the same replacing Steve Sarkisian.

The Alabama machine simply marches on as long as Nick Saban remains in town.

Defensively, perhaps Alabama isn’t the dominant force that they once were — like Georgia this year, for example — but they’re still a very good unit. Alabama sits 17th in total defense, giving up exactly 300 yards per game. They’ll be tasked with slowing down Tennessee’s 16th ranked offense, which may or may not have their starting quarterback available to play.

“Their front seven make it extremely difficult to run the football,” Heupel said of the Alabama defense. “Long, violent, athletic. They disrupt you. They eat up your double teams. Linebackers are athletic and play fast over the top. They tackle in space. Their safeties do a really good job of being involved in the run game when they ask them to. They are fully gapped out. At the same time, they have the ability to rush the passer. They do that with pressures. They’re able to do it with the four guys up front because of their athleticism, too.”

Alabama’s eighth-ranked rush defense will be put to the test as Tennessee tries to spread them out and operate with tempo. The Vols are balanced, but they really need the threat of the run game there to have success. That may come down to the availability of center Cooper Mays and right tackle Cade Mays, who Tennessee was forced to play without for much of the game against Ole Miss. The status of running back Tiyon Evans remains unclear as well.

Plenty of question marks remain for Tennessee on the injury front, but still, some support in the gambling markets has come in on the Volunteers. Per DraftKings Sportsbook, Tennessee is now a 25 point underdog, which is down a few points from the open.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. ESPN will have the coverage.

Odds/Lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.