Tennessee-Alabama is always one of the biggest games on the college football calendar, but my goodness, does it seem to carry extra weight this year. Take two Top 10 teams, who just happen to be huge rivals, and put them in a game with major SEC title and College Football Playoff implications, and yeah, this one is huge.
We learned something very important about the Vols last week: They are a darn good football team. After weeks of being passed off as “lucky” for wild comeback wins against Appalachian State, Florida and Georgia, the Vols nearly pulled off a Top 10 shocker on the road despite missing a handful of key players to injury. Had they done one or two things differently, they could’ve and probably should have won.
It still gave Vols fans hope for this weekend’s game against ‘Bama. Tennessee isn’t favored, but if they do these five things, they can knock off No. 1 Alabama.
Get out to a better start
Look, we all know the narrative by now: Tennessee gets off to slow starts. Tennessee falls behind at halftime. Tennessee makes wild second-half rallies. And (until last week), Tennessee finds a way to win the game. It’s what the Vols have done all season -- they've been outscored 62-17 in the first quarter and have trailed at halftime in four of six games.
It’s a trend the Vols have to clean up to have any chance of upsetting Alabama. Falling behind by double-digit points like they have in all three SEC games this season feels like a recipe for disaster against ‘Bama, which has been great in second halves this year.
Tennessee doesn't need to rip off an early lead necessarily, but it has to be close.
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Get Alvin Kamara involved
Kamara was an absolute revelation last week. Stepping in for the injured Jalen Hurd, Kamara had a historic day, putting up 127 yards rushing and another 161 receiving (the last Vol to top the 100/100 mark was Jamal Lewis in 2000). Even though Hurd is back this week, Kamara still needs to remain a focal point of this offense.
In that double-overtime loss to Texas A&M, Kamara proved to be the most versatile weapon Tennessee has. He doesn’t have the overall power of Hurd, but he has the ability to make people miss in the open field and the breakaway speed that led to three touchdowns last week.
Also, remember that Kamara started his career at Alabama. You think he’ll have extra motivation entering this one? Tennessee coaches, if you’re reading: Get Kamara the ball!
Get in field goal range
Yes, I know. Reading about the kicking game is painfully boring. I get it. But when it comes to Tennessee’s game-plan this week, kicker Aaron Medley could be an X-factor.
Medley has been one of the most consistent kickers in the SEC this season, making every single point he’s attempted, and is 7-fot-7 on field goals within 40 yards. In a game that will likely be low-scoring, points will be at a premium.
If Tennessee is able to kick a couple field goals, and get three points on a few possessions instead of zero, it could be the difference in this game.
Make Jalen Hurts beat them with his arm
Whenever anyone discusses how Alabama could conceivably lose a game or two this season, most questions center around this: At some point, Jalen Hurts has to look like a freshman, right?
It’s a fair question, and with all due respect to Ole Miss and Arkansas -- Alabama’s two road opponents so far this year -- Neyland Stadium will be the toughest road venue he’s ever played in. If anyone is going to make Hurts look like a true freshman, it seems like the Vols would be that team.
It starts with getting good pressure on him early (Derek Barnett and his five sacks and nine TFL’s should help that) and by forcing Hurts to beat them with his arm. Hurts attempted only 17 passes last week, while Alabama’s run game gashed Arkansas’ defense for 264 yards on the ground.
If the Vols can somehow limit that running game, can Hurts beat them through the air?
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In many ways, Tennessee is a statistical anomaly this year. Example: Good teams traditionally don’t turn the ball over, yet the Vols' 16 turnovers rank 124th out of 128 teams in the country. The only schools that are worse are Kansas, Duke and Bowling Green, clubs with a combined 5-12 overall record.
The turnovers didn’t come back to bite the Vols in the butt until last week at Texas A&M, when Tennessee turned the ball over a staggering seven times against the Aggies. With just one or two fewer turnovers would they have won the game? It seems likely.
It’s also why protecting the football needs to be the No. 1 priority against Alabama. That's always important, but especially so against the No. 1 team in the country.