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The single biggest key to Tennessee beating Alabama

The Vols need to be better in this area.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Ten penalties, 79 yards. 100 yards rushing on the nose.

Those were the key stats from Tennessee’s loss about a month ago to the Florida Gators. It was Tennessee’s only other road test, but it has Vols fans uneasy ahead of a trip down to Tuscaloosa. Multiple unforced errors doomed Tennessee’s efforts in The Swamp, allowing Florida to score 26 unanswered before halftime.

The result was Tennessee having to play from behind, which we quickly learned that they were not equipped to do. Joe Milton and the passing attack still aren’t clicking, and if the offense has to abandon the run, things can get ugly in a hurry.

Going into Alabama, the key to pulling off an upset might just be staying ahead of the sticks. Tennessee played from behind against Florida — 1st and 15, 2nd and long — that’s the stuff you can’t have against the Tide. Josh Heupel needs a clean game, and his team is coming off of another double-digit penalty game last week (12 for 115).

Tennessee ranks 119th in penalties per game, drawing eight flags per contest. They average 69.17 penalty yards per game. Coming in under that average would go a long way towards Tennessee’s chances to win at Alabama.

“You get into long yardage situations, these guys are going to be able to pin their ears back and come after the quarterback,” Heupel said of Alabama.

That Alabama front, led by Dallas Turner, doesn’t need any help to get going. They took over the Texas A&M game on the road two weeks ago with the Aggies in obvious passing situations. We know Tennessee is going to want to run the ball, but staying on schedule to do so will be the key to that operation.

Perhaps the difference from Gainesville to Tuscaloosa will be the presence of senior center Cooper Mays. Mays missed the Tennessee-Florida game as he continued to recover from a pre-season surgery. Since he’s been back (South Carolina, Texas A&M), the run game has really popped.

“End of the day, we have to do a great job of communicating,” Heupel said of his offense. “You have to focus on your job and be dialed into that. It’s 11-on-11 when you’re inside the lines. We’ve continued to work that and believe we’ll be ready for it when we hit gameday.”

Having Mays out there will certainly help that communication, adding back a guy that’s been there and done that year after year.

238 and 232 yards rushing in Tennessee’s last two games — talk about Joe Milton all you want, but that production on the ground paired with the Vols’ defensive front is going to have you ready to win most games. Tennessee just has to stay clean enough on the road to keep those chains moving.

According to the gambling markets, there’s some growing belief that they can at least keep it close until the end. Per DraftKings Sportsbook, Alabama is now just an 8.5 point favorite. That number coming down from 9.5 earlier in the week. The total sits at 48, suggesting another likely slugfest.

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.