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Staff predictions: Tennessee vs. Alabama

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Third Saturday in October is here — it’s time for Tennessee-Alabama once again. The Volunteers haven’t won this matchup since 2007, and this feels like their best chance in quite some time.

But can they pull it off? Our staff is split on that topic.

Here are the picks.

Terry: Alabama 38, Tennessee 30

I get the feeling that Bryce Young will be back and ready to roll here, so that line of thinking sways my prediction to the Alabama side. Another factor? Cedric Tillman probably isn’t going to play, and if there’s one game where Tennessee NEEDS him, it’s here. The other wide receivers have been fantastic this year, but the Volunteers need those 2-3 game changing plays from Tillman here, in my opinion.

All isn’t lost though. Hendon Hooker being on the field means Tennessee has a shot against anybody in the country. How he handles pressure and how well the offensive line protects him is going to define this game.

I will say this — if it’s Jalen Milroe on Saturday, give me Tennessee. But if it’s Young? I think Tennessee just flat out has too many secondary issues to overcome.

Clint: Alabama 42, Tennessee 31

First and foremost: This prediction is assuming that Bryce Young is starting.

I honestly like how Tennessee’s offense matches up against Alabama’s defense. I’d LOVE it if Tillman was back, but he’s not going to be playing in this one. Either way, Tennessee’s receivers will be giving Alabama’s secondary all they can handle. I don’t think Hooker will have an amazing game overall, but he will lead the offense down the field plenty of times and come away with more than enough points to make it competitive. If you’re a fan of running backs and smashmouth football at the line of scrimmage…this might not be the one for you.

What I DON’T like is how Tennessee’s secondary matches up against Alabama. Even if the Crimson Tide lack true superstars out wide, guys like Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton, and even Swiss Army knife Jahmyr Gibbs, are more than enough to score on the Volunteers. Tennessee is going to need turnovers, otherwise I don’t see how they get off the field. You read it right: The Third Saturday in October is going to be a shootout.

Any other team on the schedule, I’d bet on Tennessee in that scenario. But not this one. Alabama is so ridiculously talented, and they’ve had such a dominant streak in recent years, I just can’t pick Tennessee yet.

The Volunteers are getting there. They’re almost at the point where they’ve got enough high level talent to match up with the powers of the sport.

But not yet.

If Young is out? 32-31, Alabama. Sorry! Can’t bring myself to type a Tennessee win.

Nick: Alabama 35, Tennessee 27

I’ve said this before each game, basically every week: this is the week we find out if the Vols are for real. Here we are again.

While Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme was/ always is exotic and tough to game plan for, they didn’t have the Jimmys or the Joes to keep up with Tennessee’s WRs — specifically the country’s best go-up-and-get-it wide out Cedric Tillman. Tennessee caught both UF and LSU in first-year, coaching-change rebuilds: that’s worth nothing from a big-picture point of view.

What Heupel and company have done with this program in 1.5-ish years is remarkable, but Saban has a decade worth of program building/ culture defining/ recruiting/ roster development edge over the Vols right now. All that makes picking Tennessee a right-proper, difficult proposition.

That years-long head start in roster construction gives Alabama pass rushers like Will Anderson — arguably the best player in college football — and DB Terrion Arnold, who started the season on the bench and has since allowed just 15 catches on 29 targets. He’s tallied one interception, dropped two more and accounted for four pass break ups.

And he’s just a piece of Alabama’s secondary, which might just be the best in the country. Arnold is microcosm representing the difference in where these two programs are in their relative progress.

But of course: it’s football, Bryce Young’s health is in question, and Tennessee has Hendon Hooker. None of that can be discounted.

Last season, the second half (Q4 especially) was a disaster. If Tennessee can keep this a game for four quarters and have a chance to pull it out in the end, I’ll be alright with that.

Not to get all “moral victory,” on you here, but Tennessee giving Alabama trouble and making this a ball game for four quarters is still progress.

Hell, maybe I’m understating how much Alabama’s offense will slack with Young’s injury status. Maybe I’m giving the ‘Bama secondary too much credit and the Vols’ offense not enough.

Either way, even if UT ends up more nail than hammer Saturday, the sun will still rise Sunday morning, and the Vols will still be in play for the SEC East crown.

Matthew: Tennessee 37, Alabama 31

Perhaps I’m a bit too amped after my Cleveland Guardians took game two from Nick’s Yankees, maybe I’m in an upset mood, but if there’s ever been a time for an upset, it’s this Saturday.

Offensively, Tennessee is as explosive and efficient as anyone in the country and as they have ever been. They just had their best game on the ground of the season. The line has their work cut out for them against Alabama’s pass rush, especially their cheetah package, but Hooker’s ability to create still makes me confident.

Defensively…well their work is cut out for them. One turnover is all I’m asking for. It’s likely going to be a shootout, so one crucial stop could make all the difference.