For the first time in a long time, the annual rivalry game between Tennessee and Alabama has realistic national title implications for both sides.
Typically, it’s been the Tide viewing the Vols as a speed bump along their quest for more trophies and UT trying to play spoiler.
But not only do the Vols have a strong chance to snap their 15-game losing streak to Alabama this season, they have a chance to join the shortlist of contenders for the College Football Playoff.
“No team in the country has a better opportunity to impress the selection committee than Tennessee, and that is because they have an opportunity against Alabama and Georgia,” says ESPN senior college football writer Heather Dinich. “As we talk about the College Football Playoff, the reality is the SEC getting teams in has always focused on Alabama and Georgia and rightfully so.
“But with the improvement the Vols have had to this point, it is at least worth exploring the possibility that they work their way into the conversation.”
The eyes of the college football world will be fixated on Neyland Stadium Saturday as No. 6 Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) hosts No. 3 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) at 2:30 p.m. CDT (CBS).
It’s the first time the programs are meeting as top 10 teams since the 2016 season, and the first time since 1989 that both teams enter the game undefeated.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be airing live from Knoxville for the second straight UT home game after not making a Rocky Top appearance for six years.
The SEC Network’s SEC Nation will be joining the ESPN crew on campus, for only the fourth time during regular season schedules that both shows have emanated from the same location.
The game itself has been sold out for weeks, and tickets on the secondary market were going for as high as $3,000 by Monday afternoon.
The swirl of attention brings extra energy to the weekend, even in the eyes of the man who has to make sure the situation doesn’t become a distraction.
“Really excited about that,” UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “Our players have earned the right to be able to get to this point, to play a game like this. Preparation is going to be critical in this one.”
The orange-clad home fans are hoping to witness a rivalry streak-busting win similar to Tennessee’s win against Florida last month. The Vols haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006 when they edged the Tide 17-13 in Knoxville. They’ve gone winless against the Tide since Nick Saban became the Alabama head coach.
Injuries will play a role
Although Alabama is still stocked with talent, the Tide appear more vulnerable this season and are contending with a significant injury question that could play a huge role in the outcome.
Reigning Heisman winning quarterback Bryce Young sat out Alabama’s close win against Texas A&M Saturday with shoulder soreness. Redshirt freshman Jalen Milroe got the start and produced mixed results, throwing three touchdowns and committing three turnovers.
Many assumed Alabama wanted to play it safe to give Young more time to heal before the bigger matchup with the Vols.
“Hopefully, we’re going to try to get him ready to play this week,” Saban said Monday. “But this is something nobody can predict, how quickly he’ll get an opportunity to do what he needs to do.”
The Vols are preparing for all options from the Tide behind center but realize how much Young’s presence can impact a game.
“Bryce is super-duper talented. You know, with his game you can’t take anything for granted,” UT sophomore defensive back Christian Charles says. “He’s a great passer, he’s an outstanding runner. You have to be prepared in all facets of the game, whether that’s tight coverage or constricting running lanes to scrambling or things like that. You have to focus on all facets of your game, nothing can be lacking when playing a quarterback like Bryce.”
Tennessee is dealing with its own injury to a dynamic offensive weapon. Wide receiver Cedric Tillman has missed the last two games for the Vols after suffering a high ankle sprain against Akron on Sept. 17 and undergoing surgery. Heupel indicated Tillman could return to the field this week.
“Cedric’s doing good,” Heupel said Monday. “This is part of the reason why he had the surgery, is to try to be back for this one. He’s continuing to progress over the weekend, so we’ll monitor him.”
The Vols have been successful at blocking out all the “outside noise” and focusing on small measuring sticks each week this season. But the hype machine keeps growing as the spotlight shines brighter with each win.
After blitzing then-No. 25 LSU 40-13 in Baton Rouge Saturday, Tennessee began generating even more buzz on the national scene, the Vols have jumped to their highest regular-season ranking since 2005, despite starting the season outside the Top 25.
The Vols are the only FBS program this season with three or more wins over AP Top 25 teams entering the weekend, and remain the national leader in total offense (547.8 yards per game) for the third straight week.
Although redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker hasn’t deleted any social media apps because of NIL business opportunities, the early Heisman contender seems to be avoiding the distractions that come with having an elevated national status.
It’s been a missing component of the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry for decades, but one that everyone in the UT program has hungered to achieve again.
“We really just take it as a grain of salt, not getting too high, not getting too low,” Hooker says. “Just staying even-keeled and making sure we’re doing our job every day.”
Let the ‘what ifs?’ begin
Dinich said he expected Tennessee to make more progress in the second season under Heupel and with a veteran signal caller like Hooker leading the squad. But ESPN’s CFP expert didn’t have Tennessee on the radar as a national playoff contender.
Providing they don’t slip up in any other games, the showdowns against Alabama and Georgia will largely determine the likelihood of the Vols making the final four. Tennessee plays defending national champion Georgia Nov. 5 in Athens.
Going 2-0 would be ideal, but going 1-1 could still give the Vols a chance.
If the Vols beat Alabama and lose to SEC East rival Georgia, the Tide could help their cause by winning the SEC West and beating Georgia in the SEC Championship game.
“Tennessee is sitting there with a win against the SEC champs but not playing for the title, so what the selection committee could do is put them both in,” Dinich says. “And flip it and say Tennessee loses to Alabama but beats Georgia, then they have an opportunity to play Alabama again in the SEC Championship and win that game.”