Matchup Breakdown: How will Tennessee's defense fare against Lane Kiffin's offense?
The Tennessee Volunteers (3-4, 0-3) host the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The Vols are coming off a a 34-3 loss to No. 3 Ole Miss in Week 8. The Tide look to continue momentum from a 59-0 win over Texas A&M AND extend their annual winning streak to eight games.
The biggest storyline entering Saturday’s matchup is the return of Lane Kiffin to Neyland Stadium. Kiffin– now the offensive coordinator at Alabama– was Tennessee’s head coach in 2009 before leaving for Southern California just weeks after the season. After a disappointing tenure with the Trojans, Kiffin joined the Alabama staff this past January.
Thus far, Kiffin’s scheme has been successful in Tuscaloosa. Alabama ranks No. 16 overall in total offense, No. 26 in passing offense and No. 26 in rushing offense.
Quarterback Blake Sims has enjoyed a breakout season with 1,748 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions on 117-of-176 passing, along with 208 yards and four touchdowns on 40 rushing attempts. Wide receiver Amari Cooper is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate with 908 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 receptions.
The Tide have several running backs capable of starting on most NCAA rosters. Alabama has combined for 1,566 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 attempts. T.J. Yeldon leads with 566 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 106 carries. Derrick Henry has 452 yards and three touchdowns on 87 attempts.
The Tide will face what could be the SEC’s most underrated defense. The Vols rank No. 19 overall in total defense, No. 11 in passing efficiency defense and No. 64 in rushing defense. Senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson leads the SEC with 78 total tackles. Sophomore outside linebacker has 58 tackles, ranking No. 4 in the conference.
Tennessee returned zero starters on its defensive line before naming Derek Barnett the first true freshman to open the season as the starting defensive end. Barnett leads Tennessee in sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (9.5). The former Brentwood Academy standout recorded his first career game with double-figure tackles in Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss.
The Vols also rank No. 20 in passes intercepted. Cameron Sutton leads Tennessee with three interceptions, while taking on the task of defending opposing team’s No. 1 wide receivers. Sutton managed to hold Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell to 43 yards on four catches. Sutton’s emergence comes as less of a surprise as a reigning Freshman All-American who has started at cornerback in every game since enrolling at Tennessee. However, his progression this season has placed him among the top defensive backs in the conference.
Tennessee’s defense should provide fits for the talented Alabama offense early. However, the Tide will capitalize on good field position and a time of possession advantage due to the Vols’ inability to provide offensive success.
Favored opponents have jumped out to late game leads as Tennessee’s offense has backed its teammates into a corner. The defense can only look so strong before facing fatigue and short distance scoring drives and allowing inevitable points. Alabama’s lineup is balance and will be too much for the young Tennessee team. The Tide should extend their winning streak to eight games in what is expected to be a hostile environment.