Fifteen times Tennessee football has tried to beat Nick Saban and Alabama football. Fifteen times the Flights have failed.
However, this year’s Tennessee team may have the best chance of finally breaking the streak in an undefeated battle.
No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) will face No. 8 Vols (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, CBS) at Neyland Stadium.
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Prior to the game, Tennessee writer Adam Sparks of The Knoxville News Sentinel and Alabama writer Nick Kelly of The Tuscaloosa News discuss the rivalry game.
Nick Kelly, Tuscaloosa News: Adam, I thought this Tennessee game would be one of Alabama’s toughest tests this season. I hadn’t expected it to be a battle of two undefeated teams. How strongly does Knoxville believe this could be the team to beat Nick Saban in Alabama?
Adam Sparks, Knoxville News Sentinel: Well, it’s certainly plausible. Tennessee trailed around the Tide last season, reducing it to a one-score game early in the fourth quarter before Alabama pulled out for a blowout. This Tennessee team, including on offense, is better than last season. So yes, these Vols could beat Alabama. But will they? I think it mostly depends on the situation of the Alabama quarterback.
Bryce Young, Jalen Milroe vs. Tennessee
Sparks : Speaking of which, how do Alabama’s quarterback options affect this game? I see Alabama as a 7 point favorite, maybe 10 points with Bryce Young. But if he’s absent, it goes down a bit, doesn’t it?
Kelly: It certainly does if Jalen Milroe plays like he did against Texas A&M. He had three turnovers in the first half alone. Nick Saban said on Monday he thought Milroe was playing with a lot of anxiety, which is understandable in a first start. But a road game will only be more delicate. Alabama is obviously in a much better position if Young plays. Tennessee’s secondary is vulnerable and Young probably won’t let a Neyland Stadium affect it too much. It has ridiculously good balance. If Milroe has to play, passing could be a problem, as it was against Texas A&M. But Milroe is a legitimate threat with his legs that forces teams to defend Alabama’s offense differently than with Young.
Sparks : Tennessee would like to face Milroe over Young, and not just because Young is the defending Heisman winner and obviously a game-changer. Milroe’s tendency to run and Alabama’s reluctance to allow him to pass play better in UT’s hands. The Vols have one of the worst pass defenses in the nation, and they’re at their worst when mobile quarterbacks scramble and look down to throw. But if a quarterback is looking to run first — like LSU’s Jayden Daniels last week — UT isn’t as vulnerable.
Hendon Hooker vs. Alabama Defense
Kelly: Speaking of quarterbacks, Alabama is going to have their hands full with Hendon Hooker, I imagine. What, if anything, can the Crimson Tide do to be better prepared to succeed against him?
Sparks : Removing the running game from UT would help Alabama. Josh Heupel thinks his offense isn’t complete unless the ground attack moves. But, honestly, Hendon Hooker handled all types of play, defense, environment and did well. His best asset is decision making. Hooker hasn’t thrown an interception in a game in almost a year (November 13, 2021 vs. Georgia). You would think that at some point an angled pass would be taken out. But it hasn’t happened yet. Hooker threw 239 consecutive passes without an interception. So if Alabama wants to be successful, catch an interception. Nobody else has done it for a long time.
Sparks : Does Alabama know the atmosphere it enters? Obviously, he is used to noise like at Neyland Stadium, home and away. But it will be half a notch higher than Neyland Stadium has been in Alabama’s last games.
Kelly: Former Vols linebacker Henry To’oTo’o spoke about it Monday and said he was excited to play in another hostile environment like this and it would be a huge challenge. But I’m not sure he or anyone else will be able to fully appreciate the environment that awaits the Crimson Tide until Saturday arrives. One of the main ways I’ve seen affecting Alabama is their offensive line trying to avoid false starts and protect whoever’s at quarterback. The offensive line has improved this season since last it seems, but that atmosphere could be a unique challenge. What kind of problems could Tennessee’s defensive front give Alabama’s offense?
Sparks : Tennessee has talent up front, especially rusher Byron Young. But it kind of depends on the quarterback the Vols are up against. Against Florida’s Anthony Richardson, they were content to try to contain it in the pocket. He torched them for 453 passing yards. Against LSU’s Jayden Daniels, they attacked him relentlessly and racked up five sacks. It seems Tennessee is at its best when aggressive. But every decision is made to ease the pressure on the secondary.
Narrow Alabama win over Texas A&M
Sparks : Tennessee is coming off a dominating 40-13 victory at LSU. It’s hard to say how this will affect the Robberies as this type of victory hasn’t happened in quite a while. How do you think Alabama will react to the resounding victory over Texas A&M? Or, I guess, how did Nick Saban react this week?
Kelly: Let’s put it this way: He started his Monday press conference by listing the things Alabama needs to work on. Alabama isn’t going to dismiss a win. He’s happy to be 6-0, given he had to play a backup quarterback in his first start, but it’s clear that much of what happened in the game won’t lead. not to wins against better teams. So even though it was a win, the mood was probably more like a loss. Or at least the hunger that might accompany a loss. I expect this to be an Alabama team that stands out in Knoxville. Last question for you: how do you see this unfolding?
Sparks : If Bryce Young doesn’t play, Tennessee wins 38-31. If Bryce Young plays, Alabama wins 34-28. And I think Bryce Young will play, so I’m picking the Tide to win a close one. That being said, if Bryce Young is playing but he’s limited, I don’t know how it’s going to be. It would probably be the most interesting game. What is your choice ?
Kelly: No real disagreements with you there. Tennessee has a top-notch offense, but this Alabama defense is probably the best it’s had in a few years. Everyone’s attention will be on Young for a reason, but I’m fascinated to see what two heavyweights of Vols offense and Crimson Tide defense can do against each other. Saban said Young won’t play unless his shoulder is 100 percent, so I’ll go to Alabama 41-31 if Young plays. If he doesn’t, Tennessee should win 38-20.