The Third Saturday in October has arrived. Tennessee will head down to Alabama looking for a second consecutive win over the Crimson Tide on Saturday afternoon.
The Volunteers picked up their first win over Alabama since 2006 last season, playing in a 52-49 instant classic. However, quite a bit has changed since. No Hendon Hooker or Jalin Hyatt, no Bryce Young or Jahmyr Gibbs. Both sides are breaking in new quarterbacks, and both sides are having to take dramatically different approaches on offense.
As we continue to prep for the game, here are eight things to watch for on Saturday afternoon.
1. The Tennessee pass rush vs. Alabama OL
It’s been a while since Tennessee fans could say this — the Volunteers might just have their biggest advantage over Alabama in the trenches, at least on one side of the ball. Josh Heupel and his staff have done an outstanding job of rebuilding this defensive front, and you’re starting to see the dividends.
James Pearce is a legitimate future NFL first round pass rusher. Tyler Baron has made big strides, while Roman Harrison and Joshua Josephs provide rotational depth that can also be effective.
That group might have their biggest mismatch in front of them this Saturday, which is odd to say about Alabama. The Crimson Tide have a massive pass protection issue, and it starts at their left tackle spot. Alabama ranks 126th in the FBS in sacks allowed, giving up a staggering 4.43 per game. Tennessee ranks third in the FBS in sacks per game, averaging four.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe will be under fire all afternoon. How he handles that pressure might just determine the outcome.
2. Jalen Milroe’s tendencies
It’s been feast or famine for Milroe since taking over as Alabama’s starter. He makes the difficult look easy and the easy look difficult, which makes him a real X-factor in any Alabama game. Milroe can excels down the field, but really struggles in the shorter game. Will he have time to work down the field against this Tennessee pass rush though?
Milroe’s throws in the short to intermediate portions will be a key part of this one to keep the chains moving for Alabama.
3. Tennessee’s play-calling and faith in Joe Milton
It’s no secret. Tennessee’s sixth-year senior quarterback has struggled so far this year, and it’s handicapped Josh Heupel’s offense. The staff has worked around this, designing a quicker, simpler passing game that creates some balance with Tennessee’s elite rushing attack. But they’ve still mixed in a shot play or two.
They trusted Milton late against Texas A&M and he ended up making a bad decision with an endzone pass. Tennessee is lucky that turnover ended up not mattering. Will they have the same aggression in Tuscaloosa? They’ve given Milton every opportunity to make plays down the field, but it’s just not working. Playing on the road, will they clam up? Or let Joe let it fly?
4. The wide splits and tempo of Tennessee vs. the Alabama defense
Tennessee’s receiver splits have been well-documented at this point. They spread you out to the max, pull defenders out of the box, and make you defend the whole field. That’s been the secret to the Vols’ run game success, and it’s been no different this year, even without the downfield passing game.
“They certainly make you defend 53 yards wide of the field,” Nick Saban said this week. “There’s two challenges. It affects run support in the box because the guys that are covering the receivers are so far away from the box. And they run a lot of vertical routes from out there so the people covering them get pretty isolated because they’re far away from, whether it’s split safety or middle of the field safety. So it is very challenging. The thing that I think is going to be really important is not to give up big, explosive plays, which was a real issue for us a year ago.”
Alabama will counter this year with a bigger and stronger front seven. We’ll see what kind of effect that has on the game this year.
5. Squirrel White
White hasn’t had the big plays we all thought he would have to this point, but the offensive staff has done a really nice job of keeping him involved regardless. Pop passes, quick screens, slants — easy stuff just to get him the ball. We all know Tennessee wants to run the ball, but quick hitters to Squirrel keep defenses honest, and allows an electric playmaker a chance to change the game.
6. Dee Williams
In a game that was essentially a stalemate last week against Texas A&M, it was Dee Williams pushing Tennessee to the finish line. Not only did he down a perfect punt at the one, he took the punt back for six just a few plays later. It’s nothing new for Williams, who has made a habit of making big plays in the return game for Tennessee.
Kick it to this guy at your own risk.
7. Alabama’s ability to run the ball
Alabama had a whopping 26 yards rushing against Texas A&M two weeks ago in College Station. 26! While the Tennessee run defense may not be quite that stout, the Vols still rank in the top 30 in the FBS. The Crimson Tide are going to want to get the ground game rolling to take pressure off of Milroe, but that’s not exactly a given that they can.
Both trench matchups — the Alabama OL vs. the Tennessee DL and the Alabama DL vs. the Tennessee OL — will play massive roles on Saturday.
8. Tennessee’s road woes
Tennessee has played exactly one true road game this year, and it didn’t go well. A very average Florida team scored 26 unanswered before halftime, forcing the Volunteers to play from behind. They’re not exactly equipped to do that, and the final scoreboard proved that.
Was that a blip on the radar, or a trend? Frankly, we don’t know. Tennessee has since gotten back senior center Cooper Mays, which has seemingly made a massive difference up front. Having another veteran leader out there on the field in Tuscaloosa will be a nice boost.
But the road concerns, dating back to last year’s debacle at South Carolina, have to have you somewhat concerned.
Tennessee and Alabama are set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS on Saturday.