Tennessee has quickly gone from a fun team that scores a lot of points to a legitimate threat in the SEC. Josh Heupel’s upstart Volunteers now have their chance to prove it on the field. No. 6 Tennessee will host No. 3 Alabama on Saturday afternoon, setting up the biggest game the Vols have seen since the 2007 SEC Championship.
Josh Heupel has transformed this program from one of the worst offenses in the country, to quite literally the best. The change was dramatic in scheme, and it’s all working right now thanks to Hendon Hooker’s full embrace of the system.
Hooker has been lights out so far this year, even playing the last two games without top target Cedric Tillman. However, Saturday will be the toughest defense he’s seen by a good margin. Alabama ranks sixth in the country in total defense, and their pass rush is one of the top reasons why.
Future top five pick Will Anderson leads the attack. He’s coming off of a 17.5 sack season in 2021, and has five to his credit to this point. The Tennessee offensive line has been decent in pass protection so far this year, but they’ll need their best effort on Saturday.
“Long. Athletic. Is disruptive in the run game, too,” Josh Heupel said of Anderson. “In the pass game, he’s got the ability to play on an edge and cause havoc. Between their personnel being good enough to win a lot of one-on-one matchups and then all their pressures and all their games up front, you’ve got to do a really good job in one-on-one matchups, and then you’ve got to do a great job working together as all five guys.”
Making things more challenging? Dallas Turner firing off the other edge. Turner got home twice against Texas A&M last week, helping Alabama do just enough to beat the Aggies. Of course, Alabama has plenty of interior guys more than capable of creating havoc.
How does Heupel counter this pressure? Help personnel-wise with tight ends and backs chipping is an obvious answer, but Tennessee’s tempo also could help. Early-down success to find some sort of rhythm will be a major key here to keep Hooker out of those third and long situations. Those spots are where this Alabama front can really eat. The Tennessee receivers are also going to have to win their battles out wide and make some plays for their quarterback.
Hendon Hooker found some success against this defense last year, throwing for 282 yards and three touchdowns. However, Cedric Tillman accounted for 152 of those yards, and is reportedly expected to miss Saturday’s game. That puts the pressure on Jalin Hyatt, Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton, who have each been great in Tillman’s absence.
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
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