Fearless Prediction: Tennessee vs. Alabama
OK. First things first … the Fearless Prediction took an L last week with the Vols’ 20-10 upset of Mississippi State, but to be fair, I had no idea Tennessee would break out the orange pants. They were likely worth 17 points by themselves. I’m certain Trey Smith agrees.
It’s time to bounce back. (Me, not the Vols.) And no better opportunity than with the “Third Saturday in October.” Tennessee and Alabama is one of college football’s historic matchups, with these teams playing 100 times since their first meeting in 1901.
If you are a Tennessee fan, you now look forward to this game like a root canal or paying your taxes or when your overly political relative comes over for Thanksgiving dinner talking constantly about how taxation is theft and sweet mercy, Uncle Joe, I’m just trying to have some peach cobbler!
This has always been a streaky series, and the Tide have won 12 in a row. That run coincides with the arrival of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Only 2 of these games (2009, 2015) have even been close. It’s been so bad for Tennessee fans that arguably their greatest moment in recent years happened during the 2017 game. Yes, the Vols lost by 38 points, but Rashaan Gaulden became a Tennessee legend.
This year Alabama looks like … Alabama. Tua Tagovailoa is completing 73.6% of his passes. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is an absurd 27-to-1. His wide receiving corps is the best in the nation, maybe in history. Defensively they aren’t dominant by any means, surrendering 31 points to Ole Miss and 28 points to Texas A&M … but that’s not a big deal when your offense is averaging 51 points per game. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 in the nation for a reason.
Alabama’s athletic department officials have complained publicly this season about early kickoffs. Well, when the SEC TV contract pays you the equivalent of the gross national product of Peru, you have to suck it up and play the games when the TV folks want you to play your games. Sorry, no one wants to watch the Tide curb stomp New Mexico State in prime time. For Saturday’s matchup, Alabama got its wish. It will be a 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT) kickoff against the Vols. Reportedly there will be cool light show on display at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I’m sure the players would rather have their game look like it’s taking place at a rave instead of getting a few bucks for the physical toll that playing football has on their bodies.
But I digress …
Saban is 18-0 when facing a former assistant. Heck, he beat protege Derek Dooley and the Vols by 31 points in 3 consecutive years. Another Saban apprentice, UT coach Jeremy Pruitt, will be fortunate to keep this game within that margin after losing by 37 last year.
The good news for Tennessee is that its defense looked solid in the Mississippi State game. The Vols intercepted 3 passes and had 10 tackles for loss. The Vols also limited SEC rushing leader Kylin Hill to only 13 yards on the ground. Defense is supposed to be Pruitt’s specialty. Perhaps the Mississippi State game helps them turn the corner. Certainly the challenge of Alabama will be much tougher, but it was encouraging to see the Vols’ defense make a statement.
As for the offense? True freshman quarterback Brian Maurer looked like a true freshman, completing 4-of-7 passes for 61 yards, to go with 2 interceptions. He left the game before halftime with a concussion. Former starter Jarrett Guarantano played well in relief, but he rarely threw the ball farther than the sticks. It’s alarming that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has no confidence in Guarantano to throw the ball downfield, but you can’t blame him. That said, it greatly limits the ability of this offense to move the football.
If Maurer plays, expect Tennessee to take more chances and in turn have more bad things happen. If Guarantano plays, Tennessee’s offense will look like a guy folding with pocket kings. There won’t be much risk taking.
The folks in those big and shiny buildings in Vegas initially established Alabama as a 35.5 point favorite. At last look it was down to 34.5 points, which would still be the largest margin ever between these teams.
One of these days Tennessee will beat Alabama.
It just won’t be this weekend.
Fearless Prediction time …
Alabama 44, Tennessee 13.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” an in-depth look at all that led to Tennessee’s crazy coaching search in 2017. The book is available on Amazon.