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Saturday, #3 Alabama will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to take on #6 Tennessee in a top 10 matchup between two SEC rivals. Both teams will come into this game undefeated for the first time since 1989. This will also be the first time both teams have come into the game ranked in the top 10 since 2016 and sets up to be the Crimson Tide’s toughest test of the season.
Here are five things to look for in this heated rivalry game:
While Alabama is waiting to see if their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback can be cleared to play, on the other sidelines, Tennessee has their own Heisman hopeful in Hendon Hooker. Hooker has been phenomenal so far this season and has been the key to Tennessee’s offensive success. The fifth-year senior has completed 70% of his passes for 1,432 yards and 10 touchdowns and ranks seventh nationally with a 179.49 quarterback rating. The most impressive stat, though, is that Hooker has yet to throw an interception through five games this season. Going against an Alabama defense that has only recorded two interceptions so far this year, Hooker is poised to cause major problems for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
It would be an understatement to say that Alabama fans are displeased with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien this season. Yes, Crimson Tide fans have been spoiled by former offensive coordinators like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, arguably the best play callers in the game currently, but is a little more creativity in the play calls too much to ask? With Bryce Young at quarterback, nearly anyone could go out there and call plays and be successful, but Alabama is paying O’Brien to be excellent, and the play calling has not met that standard. With backup quarterback Jalen Milroe, you may not have the experience and accuracy that Young has, but you have an electric runner, so use his legs on design runs and quick and easy passes to get his confidence up. Regardless of who suits up as quarterback for the Tide Saturday, O’Brien will need to call his best game of the season to keep up with the Tennessee offense.
Alabama Passing Game
What could be the biggest mismatch of the game, especially if Bryce Young starts for Alabama, is Alabama’s passing game against the Tennessee pass defense. If Young is able to play Saturday, he could have a huge game through the air against a Tennessee pass defense that ranks 128th out of 131 teams in Division I, giving up an average of 307 passing yards per game. Crimson Tide receivers should have no problems getting separation against this secondary that appears to still be practicing social distancing.
The Alabama secondary will have its hands full in Neyland Stadium this Saturday. Tennessee has a very high powered offense that leads the nation averaging 547.8 yards per game on offense and ranks second with 46.8 points per game. The offense has been successful thanks to the passing of Hooker and his leading receiver Jalin Hyatt, who ranks fifth in the SEC with 388 receiving yards. Not too far behind Hyatt is Hooker’s second favorite target Bru McCoy, who is second on the team with 20 receptions for 351 receiving yards. This matchup between the Crimson Tide secondary and the Vols receivers will be a best on best and could be the deciding factor in the outcome of this game, featuring a Bama pass defense ranked eighth in the country against a Vols passing offense that is ranked seventh.
Penalties and Turnovers
So far this season Alabama’s toughest opponent has been itself. In each of the close games the Crimson Tide has been in this season it has been because of their penalties and turnovers. Alabama is one of the most penalized teams in the nation averaging eight flags per game. Not only has it been the quantity of flags thrown on the Tide, but the timing of the penalties extending drives for the opposing offense and putting their own offense in bad situations. Being penalized this much for a Nick Saban coached team is out of character, but the more surprising thing is the amount of flags thrown for discipline-based fouls like unsportsmanlike conduct and late hits. Turnovers have also plagued Alabama this season. Last week Alabama had four turnovers which made the game against Texas A&M go from what should have been a blowout win for the Tide, into a nail-biter that came down to the final play. Alabama has managed to survive these penalties and turnovers so far, but if they continue down this path Saturday, they won’t be lighting up those victory cigars this year.
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