Tennessee vs. Alabama: Can the Volunteers Upset the Crimson Tide?

The Crimson Tide come into Knoxville looking to continue their unbeaten streak while the Volunteers will look to pull off the upset.

Alabama and Tennessee both come into Saturday’s matchup in Knoxville with gaudy records but could not have earned them in more different ways.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide have, predictably, bludgeoned their opponents, and outside of a comeback win at Ole Miss in September, they have looked dominant throughout, and have the 6-0 record to show for it.

Tennessee is 5-1 but has not always looked convincing en route to this mark. The Volunteers needed double-digit comebacks to beat Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Florida, and Georgia, with a Hail Mary pass giving them the edge over the Bulldogs.

Lightning almost struck again last week against Texas A&M, as Tennessee forced a fumble out of the end zone in the fourth quarter to prevent what would have been a game-sealing touchdown and then tied the game with 41 seconds left. The Volunteers’ luck ran out though, as they fell in double overtime -- which brings us to Saturday.

Alabama has outscored opponents by 29 points per game -- and by 17.3 in their three conference wins -- and tops the AP and Coaches Poll. The Crimson Tide are also third in our power rankings, with a nERD score that implies they would be favored to beat an average team on a neutral field by 32.08 points.

The Volunteers have been less dominant but are ranked 9th by the AP Poll and 12th by the Coaches Poll and are 19th in nERD (+16.64). Their average margin of victory is 7.2 but just 2.0 in three conference games.

What should we be looking for this weekend?

When Alabama Has the Ball

Alabama is starting a freshman at quarterback and replaced last year’s Heisman Trophy winner at running back yet still somehow managed to get better on offense. Life’s good if you’re an Alabama fan and downright unfair if you root for another team in the SEC.

Nick Saban’s squad is 14th in the country and second in the SEC in yards per play (6.9), and a dominant ground game has been a big reason why. Sophomore running back Damien Harris has gained 478 yards on 55 carries, good for an 8.7 yards-per-carry average, which is eighth in the country.

As a team, the Tide rank 14th nationally in yards per carry (5.7) and should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball on the ground Saturday.

Tennessee’s rush defense ranks 81st nationally in yards allowed per carry (4.5) and yields consistent yardage. Per Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Tennessee’s rush defense is 79th in the country in success rate against the run (in college, a successful play is defined as one that got 50% of the required yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and a first down on third or fourth down).

Alabama’s offense, meanwhile, is fifth in rushing success rate.

Things may be more even when Alabama drops back to pass, but Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts has still been one of the more pleasant surprises in the SEC. The freshman is fifth in the conference in both raw (8.2) and adjusted (8.8) yards per pass and third with a 63.8% completion rate.

His job is made easier not only by the strong running game but also by a deep set of pass catchers, including receiver Calvin Ridley, who is fourth in the SEC with 412 receiving yards.

Tennessee could at least be able to slow the Tide’s aerial attack, as the Vols are 41st nationally and 6th in the conference in yards allowed per pass (6.6).

When Tennessee Has the Ball

Taking on Alabama’s defense is a daunting task for any team, but Tennessee may be better equipped for it than their raw numbers indicate.

Tennessee is just 63rd nationally in yards per play (5.8), but the Volunteers have already faced a pair of teams ranked in the top five in the country in yards allowed per play (Virginia Tech, 3.8 yards per play allowed, and Florida, which has allowed 3.9).

The Volunteers rank 26th in the country in our opponent-adjusted yards per pass metric, with quarterback Josh Dobbs pulling the strings. Junior wide receiver Josh Malone has been one of the nation’s premier big play threats, as he ranks second in the SEC and 23rd in the nation with a 20.1 yards per catch average.

This could be something the Volunteers can use to their advantage, as Alabama has allowed 12.4 yards per completion, worse than the SEC average of 11.7.

Then again, Alabama allows so few completions to start with that this has hardly mattered much. The Tide have only allowed a 53.7% completion rate, which is second to Florida in the SEC, helping them post the nation’s fifth-best pass defense success rate.

Alabama has also excelled at getting to opposing quarterbacks and is second in the country in sacks with 24, with linebacker Ryan Anderson (4.5 sacks) and defensive end Jonathan Allen (4.0) leading the way. Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in sack rate allowed, which could spell more trouble for the Volunteers.

In terms of our opponent-adjusted yards per pass metric, Alabama’s defense is 25th.

This actually pales in comparison to the run defense though, which leads the nation in both raw and opponent-adjusted yards per carry (2.2).

The Tide defense is 2nd in success rate and 13th in the country in tackles for a loss per carry. Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara (5.2 yards per carry) has been solid in the open-field this year but presumably won’t find himself there much on Saturday.

Alabama is second in the country in opportunity rate allowed (the percentage of plays on the ground that gain at least five yards), per Connelly’s metrics. The national average opportunity rate is 39.6%, but Alabama’s opponents have only gotten five yards on 26.2% of their runs.

The Odds

Based on nERD, which doesn't account for homefield advantage, Alabama should be about a 15.5-point favorite on a neutral field. The folks in Vegas have the Tide pegged as 12-point favorites.

The moneyline is -450, implying Alabama has a 78.8% chance of winning, while the over/under is 57.5, which suggests a 34.75 to 22.75 win for the visitors. Premium subscribers can see what our algorithm has to say about this game in a detailed breakdown.