This Tennessee-Alabama game provides ample intensity even minus the superstar quarterbacks, top 10 rankings and dueling national title hopes of last year’s epic clash.
It usually does.
Even without the electric offenses led by Bryce Young and Hendon Hooker a year ago, it’s still a border rivalry game between two teams battling for division titles. The 17th-ranked Volunteers (5-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) visit the 11th-ranked and SEC West-leading Crimson Tide (6-1, 4-0) on Saturday.
“It’s one of the best rivalries in college football,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.
The stakes remain high, if not quite like last season. Tennessee and Alabama both can capture division titles if they win out, though the Vols’ future challenges include No. 1 Georgia in the East and the Tide plays No. 19 LSU in the West.
Last season, the sixth-ranked Vols snapped a 15-game losing streak in the rivalry with a 52-49 victory over No. 3 Alabama on Chase McGrath’s 40-yard field goal as time expired.
Neither offense has given much indication that another shootout is imminent. Nor have the defenses looked likely to allow one. Both teams rank among the SEC’s top four in scoring and total defense.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel thinks his team is ready for its next big road test after a 29-16 loss at Florida.
“It’s 11-on-11 when you’re inside the lines,” Heupel said. “We’ve continued to work that and believe we’ll be ready for it when we hit gameday.”
Tennessee looks nothing like the up-tempo offense that led the nation averaging 46.1 points and 525.5 yards a game. Joe Milton III threw for just 100 yards in th e 20-13 win over Texas A&M, and he is averaging 210.7 yards passing per game with 10 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
Milton hasn’t been helped by the season-ending injury to wide receiver Bru McCoy. Heupel said Milton needs to correct a couple fundamental issues and communication needs to improve.
“It wasn’t pretty (last week), I’ll be the first to admit that, but it’s not that far off either,” Heupel said. “We have to do ordinary things at a really high level.”
Tennessee brings a three-headed rushing attack that is the SEC’s best and sixth nationally at 231.3 yards a game. The Vols ran for 232 yards against Texas A&M last week against an Aggies’ defense that had been the league’s stingiest allowing only 84 yards rushing.
The Vols are the SEC’s only team with three players averaging 50 yards or more per game led by Jaylen Wright, who’s third in the league averaging 95.2 yards per game. Wright is coming off a season-high 136 yards.
“People have gotten caught up in the pass game numbers at times with us and some of the explosive plays, but the bread and butter of what we do all starts with the run game,” Heupel said.
Both teams are good at getting to the opposing quarterback. Tennessee is just much better at protecting Milton.
Alabama ranks 126th nationally in sacks allowed per game, giving up 31 compared to nine given up by the Vols. Tennessee has 24 sacks in six games, led by James Pearce Jr. (six) and Tyler Baron (five).
Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner’s seven sacks lead the SEC and Chris Braswell has five.
It will be interesting to see if both teams handle that scenario better than they did initially.
“I think if you look at all those things that went wrong in that game (at Florida), a lot of it was self-inflicted,” Vols center Cooper Mays said. ___
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report.