Pregame analysis of Alabama's home game against Tennessee:
What: Alabama Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0 SEC) vs. Tennessee Vols (2-4, 1-2)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. Central time
Rankings: Alabama is No. 1 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings, while Tennessee is unranked.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821), Tuscaloosa
Line: Alabama by 34½
TV/radio: TV: ESPN; radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961)
Three things Alabama must do
1. Go on the attack early and often, including taking some deep shots offensively.
If some at Alabama — including apparently quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — are bothered by perceived criticism of the offense’s (highly successful) use of slant routes this season, the quickest way to quiet those critics is to go on the attack.
Tagovailoa has found great success taking advantage of the soft zone coverage most defenses utilize against the Tide this season with quick slants out of RPO plays, expeditiously getting the ball into his receivers’ hands and letting them do their thing. That has led to nearly 1,500 combined yards after the catch and plenty of touchdowns.
But against a familiar staff that includes second-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley — both of whom were on Alabama’s staff in 2017 — there could be opportunities to challenge a Vols secondary that allowed Florida and Georgia to combine for 601 passing yards on 76-percent passing.
And after some admittedly “uncharacteristic” missed opportunities in the passing game last weekend — including a brief spat between Tagovailoa and No. 1 receiver Jerry Jeudy, whose production has dropped off of late — a couple of long touchdown passes could do plenty to right the ship a little, and even appease a seemingly frustrated Jeudy. They could also serve to take Tennessee out of the game emotionally before it ever really gets going.
2. Dominate the line of scrimmage offensively by running the ball at will.
While Alabama’s potent passing attack has been otherworldly this season, with Tagovailoa and his gluttony of potential first-round NFL Draft picks at receiver, its running game hasn’t quite measured up.
And although this offense is an understandably different beast than the ground-and-pound approach of years past, there will be times that the Tide will need to show it can run the ball with consistency and power against far superior defenses still ahead on the schedule.
That, of course, starts up front with a first-team offensive line that could be settling into place with juniors Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown expected to make their second-consecutive starts at center and right guard, respectively. The 340-pound Brown creates a mighty powerful run-blocking pair with 360-pound freshman left guard Evan Neal that balances out the pass-blocking prowess of junior left and right tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr.
Last week’s starting five opened quite a few holes against Texas A&M that junior tailback Najee Harris used to post season-highs in attempts (20) and rushing yards (114) for his second 100-yard performance in the last three games. And against a Tennessee run defense that ranks 10th in the SEC allowing nearly 160 rushing yards per game this season, there should be even more holes Saturday.
“As long as we have balance and we have the ability to run the ball, we want to feature what our players can do best,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
3. Harass whatever quarterback Tennessee puts behind center.
Fueled by junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis’ breakout day, Alabama’s pass rush had its best game of the season last week with five sacks, four quarterback hurries and seven tackles for loss against Texas A&M.
And with the visiting Vols fairly unsettled at quarterback with freshman Brian Mauer (concussion) and junior Jarrett Guarantano splitting time over the past three games — including two straight starts for Mauer — it could create opportunities for a hungry Crimson Tide defensive front seven.
Mauer has reportedly practiced this week and Pruitt has already declared he’s “going to be fine” to play Saturday, but the mere fact that the true freshman has been knocked out of the last two games he’s started would make any quarterback hesitant, especially if he sees the 6-foot-7 and 312-pound Raekwon Davis charging at him off the edge.
Tennessee has also used five different starting offensive line sets in its six games this season, with only former Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy the one constant with six straight starts at center. That lack of continuity can be especially detrimental for a young Vols offense tasked with fending off a traditionally fierce Tide defense that isn’t living up to its own standard of excellence and could be looking to send a message against a hated rival.
As has been the case the last few years, Alabama will want to put on a show against Tennessee —and not just to show off the fancy,new LED lights that were installed in Bryant-Denny Stadium this summer.
Not only would a win Saturday be lucky No. 13 straight in the series, it would also continue Nick Saban’s personal dominance to give him a 19-0 record over his former assistants-turned-head coaches, and stretch Alabama’s FBS-record consecutive win streak against unranked opponents to 88 straight — a 12-year run of perfection that’s a full season better than the previous record holders.
Alabama 55, Tennessee 17