A mere 310 miles separate the Tuscaloosa and Knoxville campuses as a heated rivalry resurfaces on the Third Saturday in October.
Nick Saban has dominated this series between Alabama and Tennessee since taking over as head coach of the Crimson Tide. In the meantime, the Volunteers haven’t defeated the Tide since 2006.
The animosity dates back to before former national champion coach Phillip Fulmer provided the NCAA with information about Alabama program violations.
Fast forward to the present, when the Volunteers are led by head coach Josh Heupel and have one of the best offenses in the country. Tennessee can move the chains quickly on the ground or through the air, averaging 21.3 seconds per play.
That pace worked against Heupel last season in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama won 52-24. Since a second consecutive loss to Ole Miss in 2015, the Crimson Tide have not been defeated by a pure tempo team.
If Tennessee beats Georgia later in the season, this game could serve as a preview of the SEC Championship in 2022.
Several questions about Tennessee were answered following a bye week prior to kickoff at LSU.
Gerald Mincey, offensive tackle, and Cedric Tillman, wide receiver, were both out for the Volunteers. Tennessee struggled at left tackle with Jeremiah Crawford as the starter, but Mincey is expected to return to help in the trenches.
Tillman is the team’s most explosive target for quarterback Hendon Hooker. Outside of Tillman, only Jalin Hyatt averages more than two yards per route run. Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton have filled in.
Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright dominated the LSU defense, averaging more than five yards per carry.
The ability to stay in standard downs has been critical for Heupel, with the Volunteers staying in these situations at the fifth-highest rate in the country and the sixth-highest Success Rate.
While the offense has been on a roll, the defense has had its ups and downs in recent games.
Tennessee’s coverage grade improved after the LSU game, and it now ranks 118th, according to PFF. The Volunteer’s defense has excelled at stopping the run while regressing against the pass, thanks to a benign pass rush and a below-average Havoc rating.
A passing downs success rate of 96th ensures opposing offenses rack up plenty of first downs.
Tennessee ranks 117th in opponent first downs through the air, putting Alabama’s starting quarterback at a significant disadvantage in this game.
Whatever Saban does at quarterback, the Heisman winner may be limited in downfield passing, while the freshman backup has serious issues in Havoc Allowed.
The good news for the Crimson Tide is that their defense is peaking in the middle of the SEC schedule. Alabama is ranked in the top 15 in almost every advanced statistical category. Texas and Arkansas are the only teams to have a total yardage total of 375 on this defense.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding has put in his best tackle grading effort yet, as Alabama ranks third in the country while promoting a top-30 defense in explosiveness allowed.
Preseason Heisman frontrunner Will Anderson’s game has improved recently, with 10 pressures against Texas A&M’s offensive line.
Betting Prediction for Tennessee vs. Alabama
Handicapping quarterback injuries can be a time-consuming process with no clear information available until after kickoff. In Alabama’s case, there’s a clear indication of how the offense will look depending on the quarterback.
If Milroe gets the start, Tennessee’s defense, which has been strong against the run, will benefit greatly. The Volunteers rank first in the country in Defensive Stuff Rate and Rushing Success Rate, limiting LSU’s zone read with Jayden Daniels to only 55 yards on the ground.
Although the Action Network projection for the total is in the 70s with Young starting for Alabama, if the Milroe ground attack takes over, an under at 65 or better is the play.
Even if Young is healthy enough to play, the downfield passing is suspect. As the Tide’s previous explosive passing game has not been a part of this 2022 squad’s identity, Ja’Corey Brooks and Kobe Prentice are the only targets with more than two yards per route run.
Jahmyr Gibbs out of the backfield has been Alabama’s best weapon, bringing a negative number in average depth of target and relying on missed tackles from the defense.
With Young, the Action Network predicts Alabama -10.
Aside from the quarterback issue, the Tide have a number of advantages. According to PFF, Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry are two of the highest-rated secondary players.
Meanwhile, Anderson and Chris Braswell are both top-25 in pass rush productivity, while Tennessee ranks last in coverage and pressure generation.
The strategy is simple: support an Alabama team that can get the ball to explosive targets with Young. Look for an under at the key number of 65 if Milroe makes his second start.