Tennessee at Alabama
When: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013; Time TBD
Where: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama at a glance:
Head coach: Nick Saban (68-13 in 6 years at Alabama)
All-time record: 827-321-43
2012 record: 13-1 (7-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 6 (offense), 8 (defense)
2012 overview: It wasn’t all easy for Alabama, but the Tide claimed its third national title in the last four seasons after a 13-1 campaign in 2012.
There were plenty of Alabama-style blowouts along the way. Michigan, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Missouri were among the teams that Alabama easily dismissed. The Tide also made easy work of Notre Dame, their BCS National Championship opponent, defeating the Irish 42-14 to win the title in dominating fashion.
But Saban’s polished machine ran into a few bumps, most notably a 29-24 loss at home to SEC newcomer Texas A&M. There was also a nail-biting win at LSU in addition to a 32-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game that came down to the final play.
Though Alabama proved to be beatable, the Tide dominated the SEC statistically. It finished in the top three of virtually every major category and led the league in passing defense, running defense, scoring defense and total defense. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron had a breakout year, but it was the run game that again carried the load.
Led by an elite offensive line and the two-headed attack of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, Alabama finished second in the SEC with 227.5 ypg and an impressive 5.6 ypc average.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Who has the upper hand on the offensive line?
Tennessee and Alabama have arguably the two best O-lines in the SEC. Even after losing three starters to the NFL after 2012, Alabama will rebuild around elite tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Anthony Steen as it breaks in three new starters. Tennessee, meanwhile, holds the experience edge with four returning starters and six total offensive linemen who have started multiple SEC games.
2. How will Tennessee deal with Alabama’s offensive balance?
Yeldon returns to anchor a running attack that again will be dangerous. Stopping the run always has to be the first priority against Alabama, but that leaves UT’s thin secondary exposed against McCarron, who will return all of his receivers, led by Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones. There’s no easy solution and it seems to be somewhat of a pick-your-poison situation for the Vols.
3. Can Tennessee compete for four quarters?
In the past two matchups, the cumulative halftime score has been just 29-16 in favor of Alabama. The second half totals? Alabama held a 52-3 edge. Maybe it was coaching adjustments or perhaps Alabama’s superior depth, but, regardless, Tennessee clearly couldn’t compete for four quarters in the last two matchups. Butch Jones has advertised conditioning and competitiveness as two cornerstones of his program. This will be a true test of those.
How will it play out?
Aside from Alabama’s 12-10 win in 2009 (the Terrence Cody blocked field goal game), Saban has overwhelmed Tennessee in every game since taking over in Tuscaloosa in 2007.
Derek Dooley, a former Saban assistant, did nothing to narrow the gap. Saban beat UT by exactly 31 points in each of their three matchups to give Alabama a six-game winning streak in the series.
Jones has the daunting task of catching UT up to its biggest rival, which also happens to be the best program currently in college football. It’ll take some time and the odds will be heavily stacked against him in the first couple of games against Saban.
Fans don’t like moral victories, but, realistically, keeping the margin of defeat under 31 and playing four competitive quarters would be a good start for this year.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga