Wednesday, November 26, 2014 · 12:17 a.m.

Preview: Tennessee at No. 1 Alabama

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Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. (Photo: David Johnston)

Tennessee at No. 1 Alabama

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) • Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Radio: Vol Network (106.5 FM Chattanooga)

TV: CBS

Series Record: Alabama leads 50-38-7

 

Why Saturday is important

Anytime Tennessee and Alabama meet in football, it’s one of the most important games of the season. Now add in that Alabama is the top-ranked team in the country and Tennessee is coming off its first win over a ranked team in four years and there’s even more intrigue to the rivalry typically known as the Third Saturday in October (though it’s often played on the fourth now). Tennessee has everything to gain and not a ton to lose. Alabama is the four-touchdown favorite and virtually everybody is picking the Tide in this one. Alabama, meanwhile, is on a quest for its third straight national title and after a 7-0 start, the Tide appears to be well on its way. If all goes according to script, Alabama should win by a relatively comfortable margin. But that’s the beauty of rivalry game – sometimes the script gets thrown out.

Three things to know about Alabama

Alabama is unquestionably the top program in college football at the moment. Fresh off of two consecutive national titles and three in the past years, the Tide have lost a total of just five games since 2009. To put that in context, UT lost seven in 2012 alone. … Built on the foundation of a suffocating defense and a strong run game, Alabama has also become a threat through the air over the past couple of season. That’s in large part thanks to the emergence of quarterback AJ McCarron and a talented group of receivers. McCarron has the ability to stretch the field vertically with his deep passes or to take yards in smaller chunks with his ability to check down to his backs and tight ends. He’s among the best ever in the SEC in his decision making as well, boasting an incredible 60-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. … But while McCarron can air it out, the run game and defense remain crucial to its success. Alabama is first in the SEC in scoring defense (9.7 ppg) and second in total defense (275 ypg). Its also fifth in the SEC in rushing with an average of 211.7 yards per game. Running backs T..J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have turned into the formidable duo that coach Nick Saban has been famous for producing in recent years.

What you should know about Alabama head coach Nick Saban

Just as Alabama is considered the premier program in college football, Saban currently is at the pinnacle of college football coaching. He is 160-55-1 as a college head coach, and possesses a 69-13 mark at Alabama. … He is the only coach with four national titles in the BCS era (LSU 2003, Alabama 2009, 2011, 2012). … A former defensive back at Kent State, Saban worked his way through the coaching ranks with stops at Toledo, the Cleveland Browns and the Houston Oilers. He took over as head coach at Michigan State in 1995 and led the Spartans to four bowls in five years. LSU hired him in 2000, and he quickly rebuilt the Tigers into contenders. He was 48-16 in five years there, with a national title in 2003. … After a two-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, he returned to the college ranks by taking the Alabama job in 2007. Alabama was 7-6 that season, but it has won at least 10 games every year since. … Saban doesn’t appear to be slowing down any. The five-time National Coach of the Year has Alabama off to a 7-0 start this season and has given up only 16 points over the past five weeks.

Tennessee player to watch

Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers played perhaps his best game as a Vol last week against South Carolina. The 360-pounder pushed the pocket on virtually every play he was in on. As always, Alabama has an impressive offensive line, but this bunch isn’t as dominant as the unit McCullers went against in 2012. If McCullers can help limit Alabama’s run and push the pocket when it passes, that will greatly help Tennessee’s chances.

Alabama player to watch

Sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper was one of the best freshmen in the nation last season, catching 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Due in part to some injuries and others stepping up, he’s been in a bit of a sophomore slump. He’s beginning to hit his stride, though. He’s caught a total of six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown over the past two weeks – averaging over 21 yards per reception. Tennessee knows all too well what Cooper is capable of after he caught seven passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols in 2012.

Random facts to impress your friends

Alabama defeated Tennessee by exactly 31 points all three years of the Derek Dooley era. … In that same time, Tennessee scored just three second-half points against the Tide. … Tennessee hasn’t beaten the No. 1 team in the nation since knocking off Auburn in 38-20 in 1985. … The Vols currently have a nine-game SEC road losing streak. … They also haven’t defeated Alabama in Tuscaloosa since 2003. … Tennessee will likely be the only team in the nation to face the No. 1 and No. 2 (Oregon) teams in the nation this season. … Tennessee has scored 17 or fewer points in its last nine meetings against Alabama. … Former UT assistant Lance Thompson now coaches for the Tide. … Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart is also a former Alabama basketball player and worked in Alabama’s athletics administration from 2008-2011.

Quotable

“We talk about the mental conditioning. Now going into Alabama, all of that is going to be tested. Our mental conditioning and our physical conditioning – everything will be tested. They are very deserving being the No. 1 ranked team in the country.”

- Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Alabama

The Vols will win if ...

It’ll take a nearly flawless effort from Tennessee. The Vols must win the turnover margin, avoid making mental errors and be the better the conditioned team. A lower-scoring game could play into UT’s advantage. Tennessee’s offense, though improving, still isn’t equipped to score too many points against a defense like Alabama’s. Tennessee’s best bet is to keep the game within a score or two into the fourth quarter and then finish strong.

The Vols will lose if ...

Alabama should win if it comes out focused and plays the way it has over the past several weeks. It has the talent edge at nearly every spot on the field and Saban is a master at keeping his team motivated, even when it is the heavy favorite.

Unofficial UT injury report:

Out: QB Nathan Peterman, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, LB Curt Maggitt, WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Maurice Couch (ineligible)

Questionable: WR Jacob Carter, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Brendan Downs, LG Alex Bullard

Probable: WR Josh Smith, QB Justin Worley*

*Worley has been practicing with gloves on this week after hitting his hand on a helmet against South Carolina. He doesn’t appear to be in danger of missing time, but his hand is worth keeping an eye on.

Prediction

Alabama 31, Tennessee 10

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga

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