Alabama football: Annual rivalry game with Tennessee could get ugly

Oct 19, 2019; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) carries the ball in for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA football game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2019; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) carries the ball in for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA football game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports /

Alabama football, coming off a big win, looks to unleash Mac Jones on the Tennessee Volunteers considering freshman Harrison Bailey.

The “Third Saturday in October” actually takes place on the fourth Saturday of the month this year. Regardless, one tradition that likely will not change is Alabama football beating Tennessee.

As you know, Alabama proved that they still own the monopoly in the SEC by beating Georgia last week 41-24, in the biggest game of the season so far. In a game that was billed as the immovable object meets the irresistible force, offense won.

Georgia never got much pressure on Mac Jones as the offensive line picked up their blitzes, allowing Jones to continue to show his talent on the big stage, throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. All four scores went to the trio of DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and John Metchie, who simply could not be contained once again.

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian might not have gotten enough recognition, especially after the return of Nick Saban to the sideline dominated the headlines, but he should be one of the front runners for the Broyles Award as the best assistant in the country following the game he called on Saturday. On almost every touchdown pass, he exploited Georgia’s defense by either recognizing or creating one-on-one matchups and using leverage to gain separation on defenders to give Mac Jones some easy throws.

The combination of play-calling from coaches and skill from the players that we witnessed on Saturday makes Alabama the most dangerous team in the country along with Clemson.

For all of Nick Saban’s accomplishments as a head coach, perhaps his best was being able to adapt to change by bringing guys like Sarkisian onboard. Despite his initial aversion to the fast tempo, spread offenses a decade ago, he eventually saw the writing on the wall and was willing to change his philosophy over the last few years. In today’s sport, the best defense is a good offense. In Saban’s new offense, the Mt. Codys of yesteryear are basically an extinct species now.

Speaking of which, the last time that Tennessee should have beaten Alabama was when the defensive tackle blocked a last-second field goal over a decade ago. Outside of 2015, the Volunteers have not really been close in any of the other matchups.

This season does not look to be any different as Tennessee is coming off a 34-7 beating against Kentucky, losing at home for the first time against the Wildcats since 1984. Kentucky was simply too physical running the ball, especially in the second half, which led Jeremy Pruitt to make news by firing his defensive line coach the day after the game.

However, more worrisome was the performance of Jarrett Guarantano once again. The senior only threw for 88 total yards and had three turnovers, including two bad pick-sixes.

He was soon replaced by J.T. Shrout, who threw an interception on his first pass, and finally by Harrison Bailey late in the game. Jeremy Pruitt now faces a decision about who to start on Saturday.

Tennessee comes into the matchup at 2-2 while Alabama is 4-0 and ranked No. 2 in the latest AP poll.

Date: Saturday, Oct. 24
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Knoxville, Tenn.
Venue: Neyland Stadium
Live Stream: CBS All Access

Keys to Victory

Let’s be honest- it is hard to see Tennessee keeping this close.

The main question for Volunteer fans is who gets the start at quarterback. The feeling is that Guarantano is not improving, and the future is in Bailey, the highly regarded freshman (Shrout seems to have been written off after the interception).

On one hand, no freshman should ever make their first start against Alabama. Doing so would likely spell the end of the Guarantano era at Tennessee and would indicate that they are building towards the future even if it potentially means writing off the rest of the season.

On the other hand, Tennessee is probably looking at themselves hard in the mirror after getting battered and bruised against Kentucky. Confidence cannot be high going into this game, so perhaps any kind of spark could be what they need right now.

Jeremy Pruitt is only in his third year, and yet, he faces an interesting choice that could affect the perception of him going into next year. Should he start looking towards the future now or try to will the team to win the rest of the way with the guy he has? Being a coach sometimes means being a politician. Whatever the case, the natives are already starting to get restless on Rocky Top.

In the absence of a reliable option at quarterback, the Vols must run the football with Eric Gray and Ty Chandler. This is still their strength despite previously getting crushed vs. Georgia. The key is to somehow continue to run up the middle and control the clock — anything to give Alabama fewer possessions in the game. Georgia had moderate success rushing against the Tide last week, so Tennessee might find some success here.

Meanwhile, they need more from their defense after last week. Alabama provides no easy answers, but perhaps their best chance is to drop back, play a lot of zone, and always have two high safeties.

Obviously, this could be a big Najee Harris game, but that is the risk Tennessee has to be willing to take.

For Alabama football fans, the main thing to watch for is if this defense can continue to look better than they did against Ole Miss. They had a good performance against Georgia by making three interceptions, but they still showed that they can be picked apart when opposing quarterbacks are given time.

Basically, they just should not let the Vols’ Josh Palmer get behind them for a big play, or this could lead to a trademark Nick Saban meltdown on the sideline.

Betting Odds

Courtesy of The Action Network

Spread (Open): Alabama -20
Over/Under: 66


“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!” –Bluto from Animal House (1978)

Unless the Volunteers can take some time off the clock and Harrison Bailey comes in to provide some magic at quarterback, CBS might wish that they broadcasted some other SEC game this week. If Tennessee turns the ball over even once, you will be glad you took the over.

Final Score: Alabama 47, Tennessee 13

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