If you had said before the season began that the Tennessee Volunteers were going to have two College Gameday visits before October was over…well, I think you would’ve been placed into the “optimistic” portion of the fan base. But here we are, heading into the famed Third Saturday in October rivalry against the Alabama Crimson Tide, with both teams undefeated and flaunting top 10 rankings. For the record, this is the first time since 1989 where both Alabama and Tennessee are undefeated entering the matchup.
Our stat dive article is usually pretty easy when the Alabama game rolls around. They are right at the top of every system we look at. I don’t even have to scroll down the page to find any info. Not surprisingly, Alabama is still the favorite in Saturday’s game, even if Tennessee is surging. But this is unlike any recent Alabama and Tennessee game. The Crimson Tide are not overwhelming favorites—and the systems agree that Tennessee has a very decent shot of dethroning King Saban and his team.
How might Tennessee be able to do this? Let’s check it out.
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Overall: 6th (Last Week: 12th)
Offense: 3rd (Last Week: 5th)
Defense: 37th (Last Week: 50th)
Tennessee vaulted into the top 10 with their dominating victory last week. The biggest jumps from a rankings standpoint were with the defense. It was probably Tennessee’s best defensive performance of the entire year to this point. LSU got absolutely nothing done on the ground, so they tried to see if Jayden Daniels could march them down the field. I thought he would be able to strike a few times. It never happened. Tennessee’s defense was huge in putting LSU behind the chains and forcing them to try and rely on a passing game that was not their strength.
Alabama Crimson Tide
It’s hard to write about this offense when we don’t know the status of Bryce Young. Recent reports suggest the 2021 Heisman winner hopes to play against Tennessee. But that’s not a ringing endorsement of his health.
If Bryce Young plays, Alabama might not even need to run the ball. They have a loaded offense at every position. While this is not the Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle days, they are probably just as deep at wide receiver as Tennessee is. Tennessee’s best chance here would be a shootout. But I don’t think anyone would feel great about a shootout with Bryce Young on the other side of the field.
If Jalen Milroe plays, it’s an entirely different ballgame. Alabama did not feel comfortable passing the ball with Milroe last week against Texas A&M. They relied on Milroe’s legs and their loaded stable of running backs to do the heavy lifting. Did it work? Well, they won the game. But they only scored 24 points. That works when you’re facing an inept Texas A&M offense. But if they score 24 points against Tennessee, they might lose by double digits. With how this Tennessee front has been playing, I get the feeling that Alabama knows they could lose the battle on the line of scrimmage.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Overall: 7th (Last Week: 10th)
Offensive Efficiency: 3rd (Last Week: 8th)
Defensive Efficiency: 30th (Last Week: 48th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 17th (Last Week: 47th)
The focus is on the defensive improvement, for obvious reasons. I still do want to note how impressive it is that Tennessee‘s offense keeps rising. You could argue that it’s harder to move up when you’re already in the top 10, than if you’re in the middle of the pack. To dig a little deeper here—Tennessee’s explosive play rate was actually not that high in the LSU game, compared to previous ones. According to Bill Connelly‘s box score, Tennessee only had a 7.7% explosive play rate (poor). But they dropped 40 points! Winning when you play to your strengths is good. Finding a different way to win, even if it’s not your bread and butter? That’s the sign of a great team.
I like using FPI’s special teams efficiency because in my experience, it tends to be easier to understand in light of on field results. What I mean by that is: When Tennessee’s special teams has huge plays (like a kickoff fumble recovery and good punt return), it’s reflected in the FPI number.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Offensive Efficiency: 13th
Defensive Efficiency: 4th
Special Teams Efficiency: 48th
Alabama‘s defense is once again great. Yet…there’s something off.
Firstly, I would note that Alabama’s defense has really not faced a great counterpart. The best offense they’ve gone up against was Texas, when Quinn Ewers was still in the game. When he was playing, he was slicing them up. That’s not an exaggeration. In the first two drives, the Longhorns went for 142 yards and 10 points, and Ewers was responsible for 134 of those yards. Only once Ewers got knocked out of the game did Alabama‘s defense tighten up against Texas.
Check the rest of their schedule and tell me if any of the teams they beat have a great offense. Utah State, UL-Monroe, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Texas A&M. The answer is no. Hendon Hooker and Tennessee will be their toughest test by far. Alabama’s secondary got a preview of their task last week against Texas A&M’s wide receivers, which included Evan Stewart. Stewart went for eight receptions and 106 yards.
My main contention with Alabama‘s defense is this: They are super reliant on their pass rush to bail out their secondary. If their defensive front doesn’t get home, they’re very vulnerable.
So far, this hasn’t really been a problem. Edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. is a complete freak, and has looked every part of his future NFL draft pick billing. Mirroring him on the other side is edge rusher Dallas Turner, who would be the star on basically every other SEC team as well. This is by far Tennessee’s toughest task, and they will need Gerald Mincey back healthy. Even then, I think this duo mentioned will have more success than LSU.
Football Outsiders Line Stats
No red! Both lines improved their standing against LSU. Most drastically was Tennessee’s sack rates for their defensive line. The Volunteers had a total of five sacks from Saturday’s game, so it makes sense that they made the jump they did in the rankings. If there’s one asterisk I’d put on here, it’s that LSU was missing their starting left tackle Will Campbell. That undoubtedly benefited Tennessee.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama‘s offensive line the last couple years has not been the powerhouse it once was. This season’s results line up with that trend. It’s still good, and it lets their offensive firepower go to work. But looking at stuff like the power success rate is revealing. Combined with the passing down sack rate, it appears that if you know what Alabama is trying to do on a given down, they really can’t respond. If Alabama needs to muscle their way forward a couple yards for a first down? They can’t really get it. Likewise, if there is a 3rd-and-long situation, you can get to Bryce Young or Jalen Milroe. Now, actually getting them to those downs…different story. If they can just keep the chains moving on first and second down, you’re out of luck.
Their defensive line is, of course, insane. I really meant it when I said above that their secondary relies on these guys to make it look good. Everybody’s job gets easier when you can blow up plays before they ever get moving. If I’m Tennessee, I’m probably not testing this front too much on the ground.
FEI: Alabama, 76.6% — Projected Score (38.2-27.3, Alabama)
FPI: Alabama, 69.8%
SP+: Alabama, 62% — Projected Score (33-28, Alabama)